The lilt and lure of fado's mournful tune

We enjoy indigenous popular music as a door to local cultures when we travel. So when we were in Lisbon, we wanted to experience fado, the melancholic and nostalgic folk music of Portugal.

Our first attempt to hear live fado music, though, was stymied by a taxi driver who was sure he knew what was best for us.

Declining to take us to an address in the old Arab quarter of the Alfama - "too dangerous," he intoned - he deposited us at an entertainment-district fado "nightclub" where the audience consisted of two busloads of Asian tourists who spoke even less Portuguese than we did.

The stagy singing and "folkloric" dances provided a surreal metacultural experience, but it wasn't fado.

The mournful roots music of Portugal was born on the narrow streets of Lisbon's working-class quarters in the mid-19th century and has been nurtured in neighborhood tabernas ever since.

Like American blues and country music (and like its distant Spanish cousin, flamenco), fado laments lost love and dashed expectations, sometimes with the sting of social critique. Even the name fado (literally "fate") speaks to its melancholy nature.

Backed by a Spanish guitar and the tinkling runs of a Portuguese guitarra, fado singers tremble with intensity. Their voices swoop up and down minor-key octaves, holding notes with anguished tremolos.

It's not necessary to speak Portuguese to get caught up in the passion. "The songs usually involve a letter explaining why two people can never be together," a fado fan (fadista) explained to us one night - once we figured out how to find the real thing.

Echoes in the Alfama

No matter where we went to hear fado, local fans welcomed our interest, once we demonstrated that we understood the etiquette of absolute silence during performances. They recommended songs and singers, and debated which albums by fado diva Amália Rodrigues were the greatest.

But the Casa do Fado (House of Fado) put the music and its history into perspective. This small museum, at the edge of the Alfama on the Largo do Chafariz de Dentro, opened in 1998, signaling a resurgence of interest in a form of popular music nearly eclipsed by imported rock.

The Casa do Fado traces the evolution of fado from bawdy dockside ballads through the 20th-century body of popular song created by a handful of composers, lyricists, and performers.

Detailed wall texts in Portuguese and English accompany historic photographs and carefully staged dioramas that show fado in all its historic settings.

The music speaks for itself, via wall-mounted headphones attached to CD changers every few feet. The museum also has an intimate concert hall, and its gift shop boasts the city's most complete collection of fado recordings.

Across the street from the museum, the wide plaza of Largo do Chafariz de Dentro often serves as a venue for outdoor fado concerts. It is also the gateway to the spider web of narrow streets that make up the medieval, formerly Arab, quarter of the Alfama. Abandoned by the Lisbon nobility after an earthquake in 1755, the Alfama had, by the mid-19th century, become a run-down district where sailors and laborers lived.

Just steps off the plaza on Beco do Espirito Santo, fado recording artist Argentina Santos operates the intimate Parreirinha de Alfama. Her halcyon days of performing are behind her now, and she spends half the evening in the kitchen preparing her celebrated rice and shellfish platters.

The rest of the night, she oversees the parade of singers performing for a primarily Lisboan audience.

The night we were there, Santos was finally coaxed out to sing. Her clarion contralto bounced off the tiled walls with such purity and fervor that the rattle of plates and silverware came to a respectful halt. We felt spectacularly vindicated, for Parreirinha was where we were bound when our taxi driver led us astray. Indeed, it turned out to be one of the best nights of fado we experienced in Lisbon.

Largo do Chafariz de Dentro and the stone paths (they are hardly streets) leading off the plaza are a hotbed of fado.

Getting directions is virtually impossible, and mapmakers don't even try to address the tangled passages of the Alfama. If you feel comfortable walking these ill-lit streets, just follow your ears uphill from Parreirinha.

Intimate fado amid slick nightclubs

The old neighborhood of Bairro Alto was another cradle of fado, but has become gentrified into the city's premier night-life district.

Sorting out authentic fado from the other entertainment here can be challenging, but we had already learned the hard way to look for an establishment too small to have a stage. Traditionally, fado is performed in a small space where tables have been pushed back to make room for two straight-backed chairs for the musicians and a spot for the singer to stand.

That strategy led us to the family-run Adega do Ribatejo, where the meals are reasonably priced and everyone has a good time.

As two older gents pick out the tunes on the Portuguese guitarra and classical guitar, the waitress sings, the doorman sings, the "rounder" who drums up street business sings. Some of the diners get up and sing. Fadistas off the streets come in to belt out a tune and leave, a tradition called fado va deus.

At Ribatejo you'll hear almost every famous fado tune before the evening is done, and your neighbors at the communal tables will probably try to teach you the words.

We returned to the general vicinity by daylight to seek out the chic neighborhood of Chiado - favored by sophisticated Lisboans for its coffeehouses, bookstores, and specialty shops - at the foot of Bairro Alto.

Some of the oldest makers of Portugal's signature painted tiles have headquarters on Chiado side streets, but we were looking for one of Lisbon's premier luthiers, Violino. Many working musicians come to Violino to buy guitarras, the 12-stringed mandolin-shaped instruments that supply the characteristic dulcimerlike lilt of fado accompaniment.

A weekend special

You never know where you'll find a fadista. In the course of some casual shopping, we asked a store clerk about fado. He lit up and directed us to performances available only on Friday and Saturday nights. Even better, he said, the establishment was an excellent churrascaria with delicious food.

There was no mistaking Restaurante Os Ferreiras. Right inside the front door, cooks were muscling around big slabs of meat on smoky charcoal braziers.

The restaurant's weekend fado nights feature a cast of seven classically trained singers who perform individually and then cap off the evening with an operatic desgarrado, or "dueling voices." The two accompanists were among the best instrumentalists we heard, but only rarely did they take well-deserved solos, preferring not to upstage the singers.

But sometimes you don't have to seek out fado: It finds you. As we walked up Rua do Carmo into Chiado one night, we encountered a man playing a classical guitar held together with duct tape. Beside him stood a woman of uncertain age, raising her reedy voice and floating out melancholy melodies into the night.

Fado hot spots

Most clubs have a cover charge of $10 to $12 per person that can be applied to dinner. To get a seat anywhere near the performers, make a reservation to arrive a half hour before the performance begins.

Residents of Alfama will tell you that Bairro Alto is unsafe at night, and residents of Bairro Alto offer the same caution about Alfama. But both neighborhoods are lively places with many people on the street. If you are uncomfortable walking, ask the staff to call a taxi to take you home.

Here's where to find fado in Lisbon:

• Parreirinha de Alfama. Nightly fado. Beco do Espiritu Santo 1. Telephone: (3511) 886-8209.

• A Taverna do Julião. From Largo do Chafariz de Dentro, walk up Beco do Mexias about 40 yards to a small plaza. Cross the plaza, and jogging slightly to the right, continue up 50 yards to Largo de Peneireiro 5. Telephone: (3511) 887-2271.

• Adega do Ribatejo. Call for fado schedule. Rua Diário de Noticias 23. Telephone: (3511) 346-8343.

• Restaurante Os Ferreiras. Fado performed only Friday and Saturday. Rua de San Lázaro 150/152. Telephone: (3511) 885-0851.

• Casa do Fado e da Guitarra Portuguesa. Open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission: about $2. Largo de Chafariz de Dentro 1. Telephone: (3511) 882-3470; on the Web at www. ebahl.pt/casadofado.

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