Expecting the Unexpected in Portugal

10:12 AM


On one of my nights in Lisbon, my friend asked me if I wanted to come along with her to a Fado House. I obliged, even though I didn't know much about Fado music outside of what I read on a few web pages before the trip. My only frame of reference was that Fado was and still is, a popular genre of music in Portugal dating back to the early 19th century.

We met up later that evening at A Tasca do Chico, a very unassuming and dimly lit bar, measuring no larger than twenty metres squared. It was teeming with people and the last of the wooden benches were being filled at an alarming rate. We ordered a pitcher of sangria to share, and miraculously found the last seats in the house. We were next to a few American guys in their twenty-somethings. In a few minutes, we got acquainted going back and forth explaining what brought us to Lisbon, and how we managed to find this little place.

Suddenly, a hush fell over the crowd, breaking up our little conversation. Cue the guitar. Everyone shuffled in their seats to find the source of the sweet melody filling every inch of the room. The sound came from the two young men playing the coimbra guitar. After a moment or two, a Fado singer would sort of emerge from amongst the crowd. At first glance, you would assume that they were a customer enjoying their drink, and then they would get up from their bench and proceed to the center stage. 

One of the singers was an older gentleman that I had noticed earlier in the evening sitting by himself, opposite of the bar. He got up slowly from one of the tables, taking centre stage. And then he sang. He sang a slow, heartbreakingly melancholic refrain that was brimming with emotion. He sang carefully, and with a resonance that could only originate from the depths of your soul. I haven't the slightest idea of what tales he might have been singing about in Portuguese. But from my knowledge of Spanish - and his reference to the Serra da Estrela mountain in northern Portugal - I presumed that his songs were about the wearisome days of the past, and the beautiful landscape of his country.

A quick glance around the room reassured me that I wasn't the only one in the crowd that was moved. The listeners were gently swaying along to the melody; some with their heads down and arms crossed, gazing off at nothing, and others thinking, reflecting, possibly dreaming...

I realize that Fado music is something that can't be explained, but only felt. Hearing the singers at the Fado house was such a pleasure. I arrived with the intention of checking off another 'cultural experience' on my list of Lisbon activities, but I left with so much more. A newfound appreciation for a century-old music genre, and the rare feeling that I experienced something larger than myself.

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