If there is one form of music that is intrinsically linked with Lisbon it is fado. Fado is often compared to the blues due to the themes of loss and suffering, but that is where the similarity ends. Fado is uniquely Portuguese. The physical performance by the singer as he or she sings of saudade (yearning, longing and a feeling of nostalgia) is central to fado. A visit to a fado house has become one of the ‘must-do’ experiences when in Lisbon. But has it now become so touristy that it is impossible to experience genuine fado?
We had researched fado houses before we went to Lisbon and they all seemed to offer a similar experience, so in the end we decided to go to the Sala Bocage in the basement of Café Nicola in Rossio square, right in the heart of the Baixa, simply because it was near to our hotel. We paid a €30 deposit to book our table and when booking we were told that we had to spend a minimum of €60 on the night. This was not hard to do as the dishes were around double the price of what we had paid in other restaurants in Lisbon: a flambéed Iberian sausage starter was €13.50, a main course of cod was €26, a dessert was €7.40 and a bottle of house wine was €18. The final bill came to a jaw-dropping €112, but don’t forget that this included an evening of wonderful fado performances by three excellent singers and the two accompanying guitarists.
My research had told me that fado shows are intended for tourists, but some fado houses are run by the fado singers (fadistas / fadistos) themselves, which give a truer experience. I have not had any other experience of a fado house to compare the fado night in the Sala Bocage with, but the music and the performances seemed genuine to me. A fado night will usually include a three-course meal and in between each course the lights are dimmed and the musicians perform a number of songs. The music is treated with reverence and during this time full attention should be paid to the singer. A couple of tourists on the table next to us did not understand this and continued a loud conversation while one of the fadistas was performing. She expertly got them to stop talking by singing directly to them and by giving them a no-nonsense look of disapproval. It was wonderful audience management. The show opened with the powerful vocals of Carina Mateus Saionte, followed by a dramatic performance by Carla Linhares, who seemed to live the lyrics she was singing. The first section finished with the laid-back style of the more experienced resident singer, João Maia. They were accompanied throughout by the wonderful playing of Paulo Silva on the guitarra (a mandolin-style instrument) and Augusto Soares on the viola (a Spanish-style guitar). Soares surprised us by singing a couple of songs himself at the end of the evening. The Sala Bocage (named after a late-eighteenth/early-nineteenth-century poet who frequented Café Nicola) was a perfect venue, being small and intimate with little tables dotted around the stage area – I am choosing to ignore the fact that there was a long table at the back which had a large group who left after the main course. The room was tastefully decorated with an art deco panel behind the guitarists and fado shawls and guitarras decorating the walls. The space was small enough that you could almost touch the musicians.
Was this a ‘genuine’ fado experience? Everyone in the club seemed to be a tourist and, as I have mentioned, the price of the meal was very high, plus there was an awkward moment in one of the breaks when the two young fadistas went round the tables selling their CDs. Some of the tourists in the room seemed surprised that the meal and music lasted throughout the evening and were eager to leave after the main course and maybe that is why aficionados of fado are dismissive of the touristy fado houses. I admit I was a bit embarrassed by my fellow tourists. We were seated at our table at 8.30pm and the music finished at 11.30pm; by that time most of the tourists had left, leaving only a few of us to appreciate the music. It was a lovely evening; the food was good, the waiters were friendly and professional and the music was wonderful and as we don’t know a true Lisbonite who could take us to their local fado house I feel that this was pretty close to a ‘genuine’ fado experience.
Fado nights are held on Fridays and Saturdays starting at 8.30pm at Sala Bocage in Café Nicola, Praça Dom Pedro IV (Rossio square), Lisbon.
Booking is essential. You will be asked to pay a deposit of €30 and to spend a minimum of €60. Expect to pay double what you would pay in any other restaurant (this includes the price of the fado show).