World Music: Deolinda put a light-hearted ‘f’ on Fado

Sebastiao Martins 19 March 2011

Last week, Deolinda – the fastest rising band that Portugal has seen in recent years gave a live concert in London. It wasn’t exactly your Royal Albert Hall concert, to be sure, but it was close; about three miles north to be precise, in Camden Town’s London Jazz Cafe.

By the time the band made its way onto the stage, the place was packed with some 400 people, most of them Portuguese, clapping-along to the folksy beat of ‘Nao tenho mais razoes’ (I Have No More Reasons), which sparked the bar into life.

Head up, and with a defiant fist pressed against her waist, vocalist Ana Bacalhau led this upbeat tune about how Portuguese people have an undying need to complain about something all the time.

A couple of songs into the show, she turned to the public to introduce the band – although she was pretty much preaching to the choir in this respect – and said that although Deolinda did not play Fado per se, they were nonetheless ‘deeply inspired by Fado’.

Fado is a music genre that dates back to the nineteenth century and its lyrics have been known to be deeply connected with the Portuguese word saudade (feeling of irreparable loss). This saudade characterizes its mournful songs, accompanied by Portuguese guitars and usually about lost love and poverty. And while this genre remains one of the spring wells for Deolinda, it is very hard to simply label them as a Fado group, since they also evoke at times the music style of Zeca Afonso and the light-heartedness of Antonio Variacoes.

Flanked by two guitarists and one bass player, the engine that drives the band is really – in true Fado style – the energetic vocalist Bacalhau, whose voice is definitely one of a fadista. The only difference is that she smiles, dances and laughs, unlike the traditionally anguished Fado diva.

But their true success lies in the power of their lyrics, the themes of which are always contemporary, ranging from love and caricatures of cultural traditions, to songs of protest about social unrest, always drawing out a nostalgic smile in the spectator, and sometimes even an outburst of laughter.

The name Deolinda itself roots back to a fictional character, a 40-year old spinster who peeps out from her bedroom window into the neighbourhood life, in the true Portuguese style of the beata (the village woman who knows every dirty little secret of every single person in her village and then tells it to everybody else).

The great sense of humour of their lyrics is one of the key points where Deolinda break from Fado and from its fatalistic overtones. It is interesting to find, however, how they are never critical of Portugal in a condescending sort of way. Rather, their songs, or rather their caricatures involve the audience in a shared heritage which, despite its flaws, is something worth cherishing.

Suddenly it’s alright to be Portuguese – and A-class statistics that label them as one of the laziest or least productive people in Europe hardly seem to matter anymore. Like Ana Bacalhau said while introducing the song ‘Lisboa Nao E A Cidade Perfeita’ (Lisbon’s Not The Perfect City), ‘Lisbon’s not the best city in the world, but it’s the best we Portuguese can do.’ Another breakpoint lies in the playfulness of the leading guitar, which pulls the songs away from the lamenting, almost moaning cries most people have become used to when it comes to Fado.

Towards the end of the concert, they began to play ‘Que Parva Que Eu Sou’ (What A Fool I Am), their most famous song at the moment, heard for the first time two months ago during the tour of their second album, which hit number one in the Portuguese the national charts.

The song is about a girl in her 30’s who has taken higher education, but unfortunately still lives in her parents’ house because she is at odds to find any job except unpaid internships. ‘What a crazy world where to be a slave you need a degree’, the chorus goes.

Protesting against global academic inflation, which today has produced a mass of graduates who cannot be absorbed by an overflowed working sector; this song has become a hymn for an entire generation with no money nor prospects of a well-paid job. Its impact has become so great, in fact, that since it was played for the first time and subsequently hosted on YouTube, it served as the catalyst for a national protest in Portugal last Saturday, where over 300,000 people took to the streets to demand a better future for themselves.

Sebastiao Martins