Thursday, March 28, 2013

Fado and Falling for Coimbra

To me, there's no better souvenir from a foreign country than a CD. I like to pop into a record store, grab some music off the shelves, plant myself at a listening station, and go for the ride. Usually, I feel like I gain insight into a culture by listening to its traditional and popular music, even if I can't understand the lyrics.

Portugal is famous for fado, a musical genre that typically features mournful lyrics and an emotional, expressive singing style. I tend to find beauty in all things melancholy and was therefore eager to learn more about fado. On a hop-on-hop-off bus tour of Lisbon, I discovered Portuguese fado singer Cristina Branco, whose songs played between historical anecdotes on my headset. I learned the singer's name from the bus driver and now own one of her albums. It turns out that Cristina Branco is one of the most popular current-day interpreters of the fado style. Below is a taste.

The Cristina Branco CD wasn't enough. I had heard about impromptu fado performances at bars and restaurants in the old Alfama district and had my heart set on the live experience. Although I was bummed that we never made it to a fado performance in the capital city, it worked out for the best in the end. In Coimbra, we were in for a treat.

When we arrived at our Coimbra hotel, we quickly enquired about fado performances. The receptionist recommended àCapella, made a call, and reserved our seats. "Would you like to eat there?" she asked while still on the phone. If we wanted to have dinner during the show, we would have to decide in advance. While we carefully weighed our options, the receptionist stared at us, eyebrows arched. We opted for àCapella's mystery menu in the end. After all, as long as there's bread and wine, all is right in the world.

We were the first to arrive at àCapella, a beautiful little 14th-century chapel. The intimate, candlelit space was set up with a few dinner tables and a small stage. As soon as we were seated at the table closest to the stage, Ali discovered a rectangular piece of plexiglas below her chair. Beneath that? Bones. Pretty standard. Ali, not too thrilled about the bones, gladly changed seats with me. Apparently, graves don't impede on my enjoyment of wine and live music.

The lone waiter promptly served us our tapas, at which point we celebrated our wise decision to dine at àCapella. The cheese and ham platter, the olives, the chorizo (especially the chorizo) -- all delicious. But where was everyone else? It was a weekday during the off season and very cold out. We were beginning to worry that we'd be an audience of three, which ... awkward. We breathed a sigh of relief when a young couple arrived and sat behind us. The five of us settled in for a cozy evening of wine, chorizo, and fado.

The fado musicians begin their intimate performance
Between performances, the singer would join our table, eager to chat. Even though he spoke only Portuguese, my friends and I were easily able to carry a conversation with him thanks to our Spanish (I propose that Spantuguese be afforded real-language status). During our insightful conversations with Mr. Fado, we learned the following:
  • Lisbon and Coimbra are the two Portuguese cities most famous for fado, and each has its distinctive style. Because Coimbra is home to a prestigious university, one of the oldest in the world, the lyrical content of Coimbra fado is more cerebral and philosophical. 
  • The pear-shaped Portuguese guitar is a staple of the fado style. Unsurprisingly, the Coimbra model differs from the Lisbon model.
Coimbra model of the Portuguese guitar
  • A group of younger musicians, the Quinteto de Coimbra Fado House, usually plays on busier nights. Since our reservations were unexpected, àCapella called on substitute performers. They were happy to oblige and seemed to relish the opportunity to perform, which helped make it a special night for us.
In the video below, the fado performers end the show with a "balada de despedida" (a goodbye ballad), which students sing in their black capes when they graduate from the University of Coimbra:

The most important thing that I learned at àCapella wasn't fact-based. I came away with the impression that those who call Coimbra home cherish their city -- its celebrated history and its youthful spirit. When the performance was over, the Portuguese guitar player invited us up to the roof of the chapel, where we enjoyed a beautiful view of the city as he pointed out particular neighborhoods and spoke fondly of Coimbra. It was cold out, but we barely noticed.

For more pictures of my trip to Coimbra, visit my photo gallery.

For more of my travel videos, visit my YouTube page.

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