Fado at A Severa

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Fado at A Severa. It’s all in the shoulders. Where operatic singers, clasp their hands together in prayer, the Fado singer, at least, at A Severa carries the shoulders slightly askew, one scarcely tilted downwards. It is as if all the pushing at empty air or the wagging of the outstretched forefinger in pop music was replaced by, not a shrug, but a series of movements, semiotics even, that emphasised, or adumbrated the words and the melody. It was graceful, never jerky, a subtle accounting of sadness or despair.

A Severa is in the Bairro Alto, one of the oldest parts of Lisbon, along a narrow-cobbled street with graffiti on the walls bordering the road. Once you are inside, it is all atmosphere to match the mood of fado, an indescribable music that is at once melancholic and expressive. I had rice and octopus and Jan had the obligatory cod. Then it was music for the rest of the evening.

Behind us a young couple, maybe not so young after all, displayed the kind of passion for one another that ought to be left in the bedroom- kissing, tongue and all, shocking! Next to us, another young couple, this time British were content to look at one another with endearment.

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The first singer, a mezzo-soprano sang fado, popularised by Mariza- the melody and tempo of songs such as Meu fado meu, full of what the Portuguese term saudade, the presence of absence or nostalgia in English. This longing and yearning for a feeling or a place or person, was deepened by the trilling of the Portuguese guitar. But her voice,  the insouciance of treacle and honey, the contagion of sadness and darkness.

Then a magnificent older woman, olive skinned with a pock-marked face, a head that was a sculpted trophy on a full, broad body. Now we had a voice and a face, a body too that had lived and endured sorrow and loss, maybe even whatever depths of desperation us humans can face. Her saudade was believable, it was not a pure voice, nor was it aiming for perfection. It was simply a soul that was reconciled to death and to the injustice of existence. Here was what Theodor Adorno called an ‘apparition’ something that stood up against the impassivity of the world, against the stony silence and grandeur of the natural material world but that was yet able to cry out melodiously, creating great beauty to offset the impossible ugliness of life.

Our third singer was a trained cultured voice, a soprano of extraordinary range, the voice lithe and sinuous, a brightness, a luminosity that breathed in her throat and bathed us. It was wonderful. Pure, unadulterated despair rendered bearable by beauty. She was small, and like the two other women, she too wore a shawl draped over one shoulder, and her hair that brown black honey of some Portuguese women was glossy in the light.

The finale was by a tenor, a controlled exposition of the undertow of Portuguese gravity, all darkness, all melancholy. The audience, the Portuguese women, were by now all in tears as they rocked back and forth and sung along or mimed, swaying, transfixed, transported. This is not what you expect to find in a restaurant, but that’s what we chanced upon. A magical evening, of the most intimate music, simply accompanied by an acoustic guitar and an acoustic Portuguese guitar, shaped like a mandolin. We could have listened for ever but in the end, we understood what saudade is, something beautiful and touching that we now remember in its absence. Saudade.

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Photos by Jan and Femi Oyebode

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