Archive for August, 2014

The royalty at the front

31 August 2014


It’s always useful to be reminded of the essential stuffiness of the British establishment, as I was this week watching a documentary about the late Dusty Springfield. Dusty was, for my money, and by some distance, the greatest English “pop” voice of the post-war era. The documentary followed her complete career, from the successes of the sixties to the period in the seventies when her career went astray, but in the process (because of her sexuality, and because, unusually for the time, she’d talked about it in public), she became something of a gay icon.

Anyway, in 1979 she was appearing at the Royal Albert Hall, in front of Princess Margaret, and noticed the gay fans thronging the front of the stage, and said – a prepared remark, apparently:

It seems the royalty is not confined to the Royal Box.

Simon Bell, her backing singer, re-told the story. Princess Margaret didn’t like this, or possibly a humourless Palace protocol flunky was offended on her behalf. Either way, a letter duly came from the Palace instructing Dusty that she had to apologise, and sadly the singer complied. The offending moment was edited out of the DVD of the concert.

It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come in 30 years, but the story has some echoes of John Lennon at the Royal Variety Show in 1963, which Princess Margaret was also at:

Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery.


Lennon’s remarks were clearly prepared as well – he has a look on his face that says, “Did you just spot me pulling the tail of the bourgeosie?” just as The Beatles kick into Twist and Shout – and he was careful not to mention the Royals by name, though nobody watching would have missed the point. While Lennon’s intro is still to be found online, Dusty’s remark has been edited out of the concert DVD. But then, talking about sexuality – or joking about it – always used to get you into more trouble than talking about class. How things have changed.

The picture at the top of the post is courtesy of Wikimedia, and is used with thanks.



Fado: singing the blues

30 August 2014


Portuguese fado (tr: “fate”) is one of those distinctive forms of music that is easy to recognise but hard to understand unless you know the language, which I don’t.

But on a visit to the Museu do Fado in Lisbon recently, I learnt enough to make some sense of it. The Portuguese word that’s associated with fado is saudade, one of those more-or-less untranslatable words that means – inexactly – something like “longing,” one of those emotions that resonates through cultures where people have migrated through choice or through necessity.

As the Dutch anthropologist Mattijs van der Port writes in his fascinating essay (on JSTOR, if you have access) on fado‘s greatest star, Amália:

[T]he fadistas favor themes such as the unpredictable whims of fate, the transience of youth, the deceitfulness of love and the disenchantment that comes with the loss of illusions. They mourn the lost glories of the Portuguese empire, yearn for the good old days in the poverty stricken neighborhoods of Lisbon, and try to reconcile themselves with the ‘realization that any mortal desire or plan is at risk of destruction by powers beyond individual control.’

In terms of the music’s early history, it seems to be most similar to the blues. It was brought to Portugal from Brazil in the early 19th century, when Brazil was still a colony and important enough to host the Portuguese royal family’s exile during Napoleon’s Iberian campaigns.

The Salazar years

During the course of the 19th century, it became associated with Portugal’s developing working class, especially in Lisbon, Much performance was informal, and a lot was improvised, The words, according to the museum, were often “transgressive” (although it didn’t provide examples). Even the lyric form seems to have a bit of a resemblance to the blues, at least from some of the the sub-titled songs I watched: two lines repeated at the start of the verse, for example:

When I can’t see you, it makes me cry (x2)

When I see you again, I still cry (x2).

Then, of course, came the dictatorship of Salazar, the longest in 20th century Europe. Rather than try to stamp out fado he chose to co-opt it. Under the decrees of 1927, performers and venues had to be licensed, and lyrics cleared in advance by the censor. No more improvisation. In one particular way, public recognition helped. Amália, the most influential of fado singers, popularise the music globally, touring widely to places as far afield as the USSR, Japan, Israel, and South Africa, as well as the United States.

The result was that fado became identified with Salazar’s Portugal and Salazar’s regime – so much so that it was banned for two years after the “Carnation” revolution in 1974. Although it survived this, there followed a period when fado went into cultural decline, perhaps because it was associated with older people, an older inward-looking Portugal, and perhaps also the old regime. It took the emergence of Mariza, fado‘s second global star, to refresh the music, modernising it and taking it to new younger audiences.

Two guitars

But at its core, fado – at least the Lisbon version – remains simple to perform: a singer, male or female, backed by two guitarists, one playing a European acoustic guitar (apparently brought to Portugal by English expats in 19th century Lisbon and  Porto) and one playing a lute-like instrument derived from the Moors, who have a history in Portugal. This is the version you’ll hear in the clubs and restaurants which play the music in Lisbon.

Digital StillCamera

We listened to some live fado in Maria da Fonte’s small fado restaurant off the Largo do Chafariz de Dentro, with three singers performing during the meal. There are miserable reviews on Tripadvisor, which I’m not going to link to here, since they seem to be written by Americans complaining that (although they were clearly in a fado restaurant in Lisbon’s fado district) they were expected to be quiet when the singers were performing. I’ll skip the obvious point about checking on the rules when you’re in someone else’s culture, but one of the things I hate most about Tripadvisor is that the niggly reviews always float to the top, no matter how unrepresentative they are of the experience. We had a decent meal at a reasonable price, and the music we heard was good. And fado is, at heart, an intimate experience and a live one.

National mourning

Amália, for her part, lived long enough for her cultural role to be remembered and honoured. When she died in 1999, there were three days of national mourning. Mattijs van der Port, quoted above, jumped on a plane to Lisbon the moment he heard the news of her death. He notes:

It is not without significance that in the course I took to master the Portuguese language, fado is somehow the final destination: after you have struggled your way through all the many tenses, the last exercise of the book is the translation of a fado, as if to show to yourself just how deeply you have penetrated the Portuguese sense of Being. At the time of her death, Amália was an icon of this Portugal. The queen of fado is hailed as ‘the link between the soul of Portugal and the hearts of all the Portuguese’ (a ligagao entre a alma de Portugal e o coragao de todos os Portugueses), ‘national unanimity’ (unanimidade national) or ‘the complete symbol of a country and a city’ (um simbolo máximo de umpais e de uma cidade).

At the same time, though, this also explains the ambivalence about the music among many younger Portuguese:

This equation of Amalia with fado, and fado with the alleged melancholy and fatalism of the Portuguese nation may help to explain the resentment the singer provokes among young aspiring cosmopolitans such as my friends in the Portuguese capital. … They prefer a more up-beat spirit to guide their actions – the spirit of the Portuguese discoverers, that was the main inspiration for the 1998 world exhibition, rather than Amália’s sighs – and feel hindered by the ‘master fiction’ that portrays the Portuguese as a sad and fatalist people. ‘The thing that shocked me most about the death of Amalia,’ said Paulo, ‘is the fact that so many people found the time to go to the funeral. Don’t they have to work or what?’

The images are Creative Commons images courtesy of Wikimedia.

“He maintains”

10 August 2014

Pereira Maintains was re-published by Canongate in English in 2010. An earlier version, from Harvill in 1995, was titled Pereira Declares. It’s an important difference, and I’ll try to explain why without too much in the way of spoilers.

The novel was written by Antonio Tabucchi, an Italian who spent half his life in Portugal. It comes with plaudits from the likes of Philip Pullman, Roddy Doyle, and Diana Athill, and a new introduction by Mohsin Hamid, the now celebrated author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

It is set in 1938, with Salazar’s dictatorship well-established and the Spanish Civil War raging on the other side of the border. It tells the story of the friendship between Pereira, the culture editor on a second rate Lisbon evening paper, the Lisboa, and Rossi, a Portugal-based Italian whom Pereira hires to write obituaries. As the story progresses, Pereira’s view of the world changes as he struggles with trying to do the right thing.

The style is deliberately flat, and the phrase “Pereira maintains” occurs repeatedly through the narrative. There is no first person, and no direct speech. You realise as a reader, slowly, that the sort of person who uses the phrase “Pereira maintains” may not be completely believing of Pereira’s account of events; indeed, that in 1938, all may not have turned out for the best for him.

As Andrew Blackman observed on his blog:

The two words from the title, “Pereira maintains”, occur regularly throughout the book to qualify what we’ve just been told. For example:

In Praça de Alegria there was no sense of being in a besieged city, Pereira maintains, because he saw no police at all…

The effect of these two words is incredibly interesting. Although the novel is narrated in the third person, these two oft-repeated words make it clear that this is Pereira’s own testimony – in that way it becomes similar to a first-person account, with all the issues of limited perspective and potential unreliability that go along with that. It also raises the question of who the narrator is – who did Pereira tell his story to, and who is now telling it to us, and why?

Mohsin Hamid says in his introduction that he read the book twice, once as “a reader” and once, after he had published his first novel, “as an apprentice”, trying to understand the technical structure of the novel. His reflections are worth sharing at a bit of length:

I began by trying to understand how it managed to achieve so much with so few words. But I was soon asking myself another question. How, with such serious and pressing concerns, did Pereira manage to be so difficult to put down? …

I found my answers in Pereira‘s form. Its brevity gave the novel a lightness that counterbalanced the weight of its subject matter. Moreover, because it was short it was able to move quickly, or at least was able to give the impression of moving quickly. But what seemed to me most striking about the form of Pereira was its use of the testimonial. …

The result is mysterious, menacing, enthralling and mind-bending – all at once. Through the testimonial form, Pereira makes detectives of its readers. We are unsettled and given more to do.