Fado, Fate

I was 11 or 12 years old in 1969, when I first heard the music I’d later learn was called ‘the blues.’ It was BB King singing ‘The Thrill is Gone.’ I still remember it because I’d had no forewarning of what to expect and no idea King’s voice and guitar would foster a lifelong love of the blues in me. What I did know at a dead certainty was that BB King was unlike any other musician I’d ever seen, his music unlike any other I’d ever heard. Watching him that day blew my young and impressionable mind.

What is it called when you’re introduced to something out of nowhere? And what do you call it when that something unexpected crawls deep inside and stays with you forever?

You might call it fate or, in Portuguese, fado.

Fado is a Portuguese style of music that goes back at least 200 years. And, like the American ‘blues,’ it often deals with the life of the poor, human emotion, heartbreak and loss. It’s raw. It’s real. It’s music of the people.

I first stumbled on it being sung by street-corner musicians on a stairway leading up from a well-traveled public square in Lisbon. I still remember being completely transfixed, almost physically unable to break myself away.

Here’s a short video that gives some sense of the experience. But be careful; fado may stay with you a very long time. You’ve been warned.

Places I Love: Lisbon

It was only a bit of professional happenstance that brought me to Lisbon; the city was never on my list of travel must-sees. Yet, when I arrived, I somehow felt at home from the very first. Lisbon is a city of unique homes clinging to several hilly neighborhoods. The climate was mild and foggy and the city smelled of the many Australian eucalyptus trees planted long ago by Portuguese sailors returning from the South Pacific, just like my San Francisco.

I loved the trams that run on Lisbon’s streets, then turn into funiculars to climb its many hills.

Like Paris, Lisbon has several fresh markets for flowers, produce, housewares and, most importantly for this city with an historic connection to seafood, fish. Here, the Mercado Da Ribeira.

Connecting two very hilly neighborhoods is the Santa Justa, a real machine-age elevator and bridge. Yeah, it is as vertigo-inducing as it looks. This will give you a feel for the ride.

I live in one of the world’s great food cities and I’m not easily impressed but Lisbon’s food blew me away. The fish was fresh, varied, plentiful and prepared simply. Pick your fish and it’s pulled live from a tank, killed, cleaned, salted and grilled. Small side dishes include fresh beans, green vegetables, cured meats. Cod is served in hundreds of ways. All the wines were amazing, not just the port.

Lisbon is a city with a deep, and sometimes deeply sad soul. There is a music here, brought initially from Africa, called Fado (“fate” in Portuguese). The lyrics are sad, brooding, as fatalistic as its name would suggest; listening to Fado can take your breath away. Artists play in clubs and bars, at festivals and on the streets everywhere. A modern example.

I don’t know when or if I’ll be back but I think of Lisbon fondly, and often.