Listening to Fado where it's Sung

As the fat lady sings for the Euro zone, the Portuguese are doing what they've done for more than a century when things turn south: seeking refuge in the melancholic strains of fado, Iberia's signature species of torch music.

It’s midnight at Clube de Fado, a hothouse for Lisbon’s inimitable musical form, and the original crowd of a couple hundred or so has receded to a few dozen hardcore enthusiasts. Guitarist and fado great Mario Pacheco is about to open the final set of a two-hour performance, and he begins by introducing a red-haired songstress in a black dress with lace at the shoulders and her hair tied back in a bun. She is Dutch, a native of Amsterdam, though she has adopted fado and all its Iberian angst. Maria Fernandez, as she is introduced, is clearly nervous – this is her debut performance at the club – though the audience is sympathetic and eager to be wooed.

Fado great Mario Pacheco

Fado great Mario Pacheco

Pacheco, tall and distinguished with a patrician brow and tightly clipped moustache, deploys some light banter to keep Fernandez’s stage freight at bay before they ease into the first number, a spirited ballad in three-quarter time. As the piece builds, he and his two bandmates – one on rhythm guitar, the other on bass fiddle – exchange wry glances as if sharing a private joke. Her inhibition vanquished, Fernandez warms to the beat and deftly nails the high notes. When the set ends twenty minutes later, she owns the room.

Romance and redemption is a staple offering in the fado bars of Lisbon, and no one serves it better than Pacheco, the 57-year-old fadista who is widely acknowledged as a master of the genre. He first picked up a guitar at 14, a relative latecomer, and within a few years was good enough to accompany his father, himself a classically trained musician. At 17 he attended a local conservatory, where he studied the guitar and the violin, and by his early thirties he was writing his own compositions. At 36, as one of Lisbon’s top classical guitarists, he switched to the Portuguese guitarra, a flat-backed, oval instrument that looks more like a mandolin than its conventional, hour-glass shaped counterpart. He’s been playing fado ever since.

“My father and my friends said they were losing a great classical guitarist and gaining a bad Portuguese guitarist,” Pacheco says with a grin. “That was my best motivation to learn fado.”

Often compared to the blues, fado – literally “fate” – identifies with the Portuguese concept of saudade, a yearning for what has been lost and what has never been attained. It evolved more than a century ago from the Alfama casbah and, like the blues, has remained true to is roots. “The tradition of fado runs deep,” Pacheco says between sets. “It is a timeless form of expression and its importance is increasing.”

Indeed, as Portugal packages itself into a high-end tourist draw, fado is evolving into a national brand. Young musicians throughout Europe are coming to Lisbon to learn the art, says Pacheco, and business at fado clubs has never been better. As if to reinforce the point, club impresario Louis Vaz de Camos, who keeps his eye on the crowd through a peephole in the wall that separates the bar from the stage, arrives to hustle Pacheco to start the next set.

Will success spoil fado? Unlikely, says Pacheco. Fans of the music are too devoted, too romantic, to over-commercialize such a national treasure. “Fado is not for the masses,” he says. “No matter how many people are in a room listening, they’re always seated. That’s how much respect they have for the music.”

Brothers Unburdened

As paranoics inside Washington’s Beltway agonize over the prospects of a strong showing by Islamists in Egypt’s upcoming elections, a very different reality is cohering on the streets of Cairo: the Muslim Brotherhood - historically the country’s most powerful and disciplined Islamist movement - appears to be breaking up.

The Brotherhood’s youth league has launched its own party with a progressive charter that is less about religious outreach and devotion than it is about social justice. A senior leader of the Ikhwan, as the Brotherhood is known in Arabic, who has long endorsed engagement with Egypt’s secular and non-Muslim constituencies, is running for president without the group’s official blessing. A debate within the Ikhwan about its core identity, muffled for survival’s sake under despots who suppressed free thinking of any kind, is ventilating subversively in the oxygen-rich air of the post-Mubarak era.

I was recently given an insightful tour through the Brotherhood’s molten political terrain by Mohammed Al Gebba, a young Ikhwanist who joined the group two decades ago as a high school student. A native of the coastal city of Damietta but for years an urbane Cairene, Al Gabba has evolved from ardent fundamentalist to Islamist humanist. It is a not uncommon journey in a political movement that, like its secular rivals, is scrambling to find its place in Egypt’s second republic.

“Politics and outreach are not reconcilable,” Al Gabba told me in Café Cilantro, a secularists enclave just off Tharir Square, the epicenter of the revolution that consumed the world for eighteen days ending February 11. “One compromises the other. What is needed is dialogue, and there is no dialogue in the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Mohammed Al Gabba

Mohammed Al Gabba

The Ikhwan is balkanized, according to Al Gabba, along ideological as well as demographic lines. Though he sympathizes with its youthful renegades, he chose to remain in the Brotherhood as a cadre to its relatively liberal wing despite the leadership’s rightward lurch in elections last year. It is the former, rather than the latter, he says, that is most faithful to the vision of Hasan Al Banna, the revivalist imam who founded the Ikhwan in 1926. “Our principals were his principals,” he said. “They are values of tolerance and dialogue.”

Al Gabba was deeply involved in the clashes between the confederation of secularists and Islamists, Christians and Muslims, and Communists and Capitalists against repeated onslaughts by regime loyalists to clear Tharir square. Having outlasted Mubarak and his hangers on, the revolution is now under threat by the proxies of foreign powers - not Israel and America, the usual suspects trotted out by demagogues of the ancién regime - but Iran and Saudi Arabia, tactical allies against the Arab world’s liberal awakening. “This is the one thing they can agree on,” says Al Gabba. “Their objective is to create chaos, to provoke the Egyptian army into oppression, to destroy the revolution.”

Conspiracy theories are as intrinsic to Egyptian politics as parsley is to Tabouleh, if for no other reason that so many of them have turned out to be more truth that fantasy. As proof of Saudi-Iranian perfidy, Al Gabba cites a seminar, to be held on July 1, on the salience and inevitability of sharia law in Egypt. A prominent Salafi sheik, he says, has declared the event to be the inspiration of Saudi Wahhabists working in tandem with remnants of Mubarak’s security apparatus.

If such intrigues do exist, according to Al Gabba, they will backfire. After nearly six decades of authoritarian rule, he told me, Egyptians will settle for nothing less than a secular republic. Candidates fielded by the Muslim Brotherhood in the coming election may do well, he allowed, but they are unlikely to capture more than a quarter of parliamentary seats. He predicts that in the next national ballot five years from now, Ikhwan members will campaign as independents whose loyalty to the state and devotion to faith are secularly distinct from each other.

Otherwise, he said, “the Brotherhood will bring itself down. It will ease to exist as we know it.”