Whoever came up with the expression “one does not listen to Fado, one feels Fado” must have spent a great deal of his/her life in Coimbra, as in my opinion Coimbra Fado is the only Fado in Portugal which truly deserves and embodies this expression.
This may seem like a bold statement, especially to those who associate Fado with Lisbon, but it is exactly here where I like to draw a clear line in the sand. Coimbra Fado has nothing to do with other Fados. Firstly because of its exclusivity to the city of Coimbra and its set of embedded rules, which are not present in other Portuguese cities. For me, someone who was born, raised and lived the Coimbra Academic life to its full extent, jolly songs about feeding bacalhau to aliens seem a bit shallow on the emotional side, regardless if they have been written and sang by two of Portugal’s most iconic Fado names: Carlos Paião and Diva Amalia Rodrigues.
And then there is the exclusivity of the ones who can, and are actually allowed to sing Coimbra Fado. The Coimbra Fado community is very strict about only showcasing real performers, and the ones who can’t sing or play the guitar, are just not let anywhere close to a stage and a microphone. The exact opposite occurs in Lisbon, Porto or Madeira. Especially in Lisbon, men, and women, young and old, with or without Fado voice, no matter if the guitar is tuned or the guitarist even hits all the right accords, sing Fado. This democratization of the ability to perform is deeply linked to the origins of Fado and its birthplace in the Alfama quarter. It is here that the touristic fado restaurants serve below average overpriced food to impressionable American tourists, who find comfort in this typical “dinner and a show” Portuguese postcard.
Not for me thank you very much!
It is this jovial and somewhat popular approach to the greatest expression of audible Portuguese Culture, which drew my initial critique and ultimately led me to become a lover and die hard fan of Coimbra Fado.
What I admire more about Coimbra Fado is the respect that everyone : singers, guitarists, fado clubs, sound technicians, students , Coimbra residents, the Coimbra Mayor and the Center of Portugal tourism board have for the institution that is Coimbra Fado. No self-respected fado singer will sing to a bellow par guitarist artist and vice versa. Even if the concerto is for a group of friends, it has to be fine tuned. It’s a matter of principle, not of practicality.
What I also love about Coimbra Fado is that it is only sung and played by a man (normally a student or former student of Coimbra) who undergoes a rigorous and intense training. This, as for mastering the Coimbra guitar, takes decades. The body and the mind need to be mature enough to understand life, love, friendship, affection, and Saudade for one to be able to sing or play Coimbra Fado . That is right Fado de Coimbra, not a sad Fado, as some portrait by mistake. It is heartfelt. Different. All the items I spoke about in the above list are approached in a special manner, like in the way a man writes a letter to his lover, a friend confesses his admiration for friendship or the way a student from Coimbra longs for this mystical city.
The fact of the matter is that not everyone understands Coimbra Fado. I am not speaking about the Norwegian tourist who can’t understand the lyrics. Those who do understand, be they Portuguese or foreign, are in touch with themselves and their feeling on a mature and advanced level. they understand and truly enjoy the melody of the Coimbra guitar (different than the Portuguese guitar) and the deep male voice of the fado singer.
If you listen to music from the greatest Coimbra guitarist of all time, Carlos Paredes, you will notice that he incorporates his breathing rhythm into the accords he is playing. Some are even sighs. It is as if he deliberately wants the listener to know how much it means to him. As if his guitar was an amplifier to his state of mind, to what his soul is all about.
This is only an example to show that only when one understands this idea and this reality, can one truly understand what Fado de Coimbra is all about.
República da Saudade Video at Loggia, Coimbra 2016
I had the opportunity to film a performance of the Coimbra Fado group República da Saudade during my time in Coimbra in September 2016. Pedro Lopes (classic guitar), António Moreira (Coimbra guitar) and Nuno Silva (vocals) embody the ideas which I laid above and where the ultima trigger which set in motion the writing of this post and the video of their performance.
Where to enjoy Fado de Coimbra in Coimbra
Rua Corpo de Deus
Largo da Vitória Capela Nossa Srª da Victória, 3000-122 Coimbra
Phone: + 351 239 833 985
Fado ao Centro
Rua do Quebra Costas nº 7 – 3000-340 Coimbra
Phone: (+351) 239 837 060 | (+351) 239 405 105
Rua Joaquim António de Aguiar 110 | Sé Velha, Coimbra 3000-230
Phone: +351 911 505 770
Video Credits to Nelson Carvalheiro, with images of Daniel Louro and Paulo Fajardo. Music : Fado dos Olhos claros by República da Saudade. Bookings : firstname.lastname@example.org