Songs of lust and melancholy on Rádio Amália

The Portuguese blues has soul but isn't sad.

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A summer Saturday night in Lisbon, and in a square in the old Graça district the local community listens to an evening of live fado – the Portuguese blues. Through the days, along the city’s steep streets of distinctive small square limestone cobbles, you can often hear the sound of the Lisbon station Rádio Amália playing in houses and shops. Named after the Portuguese fadista Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999), the station transmits fado on a loop – songs sung traditionally in cafes and taverns, usually by an older woman, about longing for a lover, or the past, or men lost at sea. A typical lyric runs: “In the mouth of a seaman/ In the fragile sailing ship/ The hurtful song fades…”

My friend Maria, who lives in Graça, insists fado “has soul – but isn’t sad”. After weeks of addiction to the station, I agree. Fado has brouhaha, wit, lust. Some of the best new numbers are sung by the gorgeous young Gisela João, who always performs in her music videos with a melancholy breeze disarranging her hair and wearing a pair of trainers. She’s a favourite of the station.

Being associated with the era of Salazar’s fascist dictatorship, fado at one time looked as if it might fade, and yet enthusiasm remains solid in Lisbon – especially for any solo on the 12-stringed Portuguese guitarra, which sounds like a harpsichord crossed with a bouzouki. At the concert in Graça, the crowd glows under street-lamps, nodding and applauding the music. Family dogs lie on the cobbles. Couples occasionally get up to slow-dance, and a restaurant hurries out plates of fried baby hake.

When eventually I get back to my room, I switch on Amália and hear about a special event at the local fado museum. “We are waiting for you,” says the closing line of the ad, wistfully – very fado. So many of the best songs are simply about missing friends. As usual, I find it hard to switch the station off; each ballad is so perfectly contained. But soon I’m woken by the sound of a man singing fado live, and magnificently impromptu, from the ramparts above my open window, met by a smattering of drunken applause as the last of the concert-goers wend home, the dawn-saffron sky a blur of swooping swifts. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear