She is sobbing. Her face contorts every which way, and for a second, I think she might throw herself on the ground. She begins with a low rumble, a wounded cry of sorts, but just when I think her voice will break under the weight of emotion, it rises, and the energy shifts as she wrenches a melody from somewhere deeper than her heart. Her chin lifts. Her eyes are ablaze. The entire room stands at attention.
We have come tonight to hear Fado, but I am quickly beginning to understand that it’s not something you hear as much as something you feel. Tasca do Chico, the traditional home-style Portuguese restaurant hidden within the winding streets of Bairro Alto, is full tonight. Bodies stand together, shoulder to shoulder, woven tightly into the dimly lit crevices. Tables creak under the weight of silent onlookers, and the barmen surrender the clinking of glasses to this woman and her song. In the background, the plucking of strings complements her every word, anticipating each high and low as only a faithful confidant can. At times, the music is barely a whisper, a soft caress. But, as soon as the singer’s chin lifts and her voice threatens to bring the back-alley bar down to its very foundations, the guitar takes up again, a flurry of notes escaping the hollow of its body with the force of a lightning strike.
This is the voice of Lisbon, the melody that lingers in its streets and hides beneath intricate azulejos. Zak, a charismatic Moroccan who we have known for a mere 24 hours and has quickly become our tour guide, tells us that Fado was born on the shores of the capital city. As the sails of the conquistadores receded into the horizon in search of the Americas, the families they left behind mourned their departure. But when the crashing waves did nothing but swallow their cries, they transformed their anguish into the melancholy tunes of Fado, the mouthpiece of Portugal’s soul.
I picture this scene as I look around at the faces gathered here tonight. Some, like me, are finding it hard to peel their eyes from the force of nature unfolding on stage. Others dare not look, their gazes fixed on the ground in silent contemplation. One man, in particular, stands out. He sits alone, shoulders hunched over a sturdy frame. His graying hair glints under the soft lights, and his hands are gnarled and spotted like my grandfather’s — the relic of a man who is no stranger to the strain of manual labor. But, unlike those of the rest of the spectators, these hands do not drum the table lightly to the beat of the music, nor do they sit crossed over each other in respectful admiration. Instead, they hold his head and, every few words, that head gives a slow, painful shake. Zak catches me staring.
“He’s here every night.”
He knows this song. More importantly, it knows him.
Around us, picture frames and portraits line the walls so that not an inch of plaster is left to peek through. They hold the smiles of people from all walks of life, those who have come and gone but who remain immortalized within these four walls by the songs sung and the memories of those who listen.
In Portuguese, there is a word for the angst that shapes the melody of Fado. Saudade encompasses an intense longing for a collection of feelings, experiences, and memories that are gone forever — in other words, “the love that remains.”
I don’t know when it happens, but suddenly my eyes are closed and my chest is being pulled in by words I don’t understand. As I sit tucked into the corner of the minuscule tasca, enveloped in a soft yellow glow and holding my breath, I realize I don’t need to know the words to the melody.
I know this song, too. And it knows me.