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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Finding #Fado in #Funchal by John von Daler

                We walked into a cavernous dining room with about fifty tables. The white-jacketed waiter had the same look on his face that I had once seen at five in the morning at Logan Airport when I roused a lady behind a counter to buy coffee and a doughnut. As I handed her the money, she contorted her face into a forced smile while she mumbled those ever-present words, Have a nice day. This waiter's face, too, fell in contours and folds that were not indigenous, a kind of welcoming pride that neither was very hospitable nor very dignified.

                What have we got ourselves into? asked my wife with good reason. One other table was occupied, but after our waiter deposited us, he went to give the people their change and they scurried for the door like children abandoning a grammar quiz for a fire drill.
                We had been seated at the front where we could see the show - and indeed we had come at a little before eight in order to hear som #Fado. This was Madeira, but we were hoping that the Fado would be just as good here as on mainland Portugal. We were no experts, just curious tourists. Now we sat with our menus in front of our faces and read the rather boring list of dishes that one could purchase. I studied the wine list to try to find a way to liven up this sad start and discovered that the house wine was "Lacryma Christi".
                We ordered some starters, two main courses, and the wine and leaned back to await the show.
                Sure enough, moments later two musicians in shoddy black suits ambled in. One sat down at a keyboard full of wiring that disappeared across the floor. He commenced to push buttons. The other man sat down at a set of drums and pulled out a little case that contained his sticks and mallets. He selected two sticks and holding them in one hand, folded his arms and began to stare into space while his companion fiddled.
                Sounds began to come out of two loudspeakers on some metal stands at either side of the "dance floor". There is nothing lonelier than a quivering electric sound in a large, empty room.
                The pianist, now confident that he could be heard, glanced at his companion and began to play. The music I guess must have been chosen as an up-tempo invitation to a sparkling evening in Funchal, but I myself have been more aroused by muzac in a supermarket. As the two musicians with a total lack of facial expression found their way into a kind of plastic, gypsy world, the swinging doors through which our waiter had disappeared opened slightly. A cook stood there momentarily. Evidently, the melody was his cue, because he then proceeded to come through those doors and, depositing his apron on a chair at the table next to ours, went up to a microphone, turned it on and started to sing.
                All right. Fado fascinates me. It's gypsy-like, full of pain, longing, and anger.
                But this guy? I remember Judy Holiday had a stock boredom face she could turn off and on. He looked a little like a puffy Judy, but the look was permanently turned on. His eyes wandered around the ceiling and the tops of the doors as he tossed out the lyrics of his song. His intonation hit the ceiling, too. And the "band" looked like they were stoned but not high.
                The cook singer was followed by the cashier lady and our waiter. Each had a solo number. Happily, this short set was followed by a break so that the band could catch its breath. Actually, we were the ones out of breath, because we downed two courses while they were singing.
                As I paid the bill, I could not resist saying to the waiter that this could not possibly have been Funchal's best Fado. He looked me straight in the eye while he handed me back my change (no tip included). Get your things and follow me, he said, looking furtively around him at the empty tables.
                We gathered purses and glasses and wallets and followed him out the door and down a side street and into a low building which was dark inside and packed full of people. One table was empty and the waiter pointed us into that and waved goodbye.
                The place was full of happy people speaking an enthusiastic kind of Portuguese, full of expectation. Next to us though was one table of Germans who were drunk and obnoxious in their own language.
                A woman walked on to a stage at the other end of the audience. She was followed by, you'll never guess, "our" orchestra from the last place. I got up and was halfway to the door, while still holding my wife's hand as she sat for some reason still anchored to our table. The audience got quiet and the lady began to sing. I sat down. Everyone got quiet except for the Germans. Within seconds two waiters arrived at their table and they escorted the lively group out of the door.
                And then the place was really quiet. This woman had something on her mind. And the orchestra looked like they had traded their souls in for a more powerful model. Whatever she was singing, she meant it! I started getting chills.
                Slowly during her songs the audience started to participate; evidently, the repertoire is so well known that when she sang, My lover doesn't love me!, everybody knew to answer, He's trouble, that guy! or some such response. It was beautiful and moving and tender and harsh and, well, alive, this Funchal Fado.
                To this day I still do not understand the orchestra, how they could play with so little heart one place and so much soul another. If I had ever touched my violin in those two totally different ways, it would have bitten me in the chin.


                My book, Pieces: A Life in Eight Movements and a Prelude (WiDo Publishing) is now available. Order through, the publisher or your local bookstore. Click to buy Pieces at the top of the blog. Please feel free to write a short review of the book in your own language at or GoodReads. Thanks for your support!


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