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Notes 57.1 (2000) 160-161

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Book Review

A History of the Portuguese Fado

Twentieth Century

A History of the Portuguese Fado. By Paul Vernon. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 1998. [xxii, 114 p. + 1 compact disc. ISBN 1-85928-377-2. $67.95.]

Paul Vernon first encountered Portuguese fado music accidentally in 1987 in a secondhand shop in San Francisco, where he ran across "a clutch of gritty, unsleeved 78rpm records on an enticing array of labels and in a language I didn't immediately recognize" (p. xx). The music he heard so excited him that he embarked on a quest to "discover more about it"; the result of his ten-year project, A History of the Portuguese Fado, is by his own account "an interim report on a work in progress, and an introduction for readers to a world that I hope will fascinate them as much as it fascinates me" (ibid.).

With a dearth of material in English on Portuguese music in general and on the fado song tradition in particular, Vernon's book is a welcome contribution to the subject. It is, however, the work of an enthusiast rather than an academic and is strongest in those areas that particularly interest the author: the Lisbon-style fado (chap. 3) and the development of the recording industry (chap. 5). Most of the other chapters are short, choppy, and rather uneven in quality. The introduction and first two chapters ("The Beginnings" and "The Instruments"), for example, comprise just fourteen pages. Especially disappointing to this reviewer is chapter 4, which combines a cursory discussion of the distinctive Coimbra-style fado (associated with students and intellectuals of the medieval university town) with an even briefer mention of the Lisbon-style fado tradition of Oporto. [End Page 160]

Having pored over materials in the EMI archives at Hayes, Middlesex, Vernon has amassed an enormous quantity of information about the activities of the major record companies in Portugal (Gramophone, Odeon, Columbia, etc.) during the first half of the twentieth century. The data he has gathered, which includes contract negotiations with local representatives and artists, background information on recording sessions, sales figures, and so on, is sometimes dense, but nevertheless paints a fascinating picture of urban musical life in one of the least-studied capital cities of Europe. Although Vernon notes that the Lisbon fado was not solely the property of the working class but also appealed, on the one hand, to intellectuals and writers, and on the other, to professional entertainers and impresarios who catered to middle-class tastes, his focus is clearly on fado as a cathartic or entertaining expression of working-class saudade (yearning, longing). His sympathies are with the blind beggar-musicians and prostitutes who poured out their troubles in song in the early part of the century. The reader also learns much about the recording artists of the twenties through the forties, their milieu, and the fado houses in which they performed, but as the somewhat seedy underworld becomes less "exotic" and more tourist-oriented after World War II, Vernon seems to lose interest. The postwar years receive four pages devoted to the most famous fado singer of all time, Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999), and two that cover "1960 to the present" (pp. 36-38). Chapter 3 closes with a short ethnographic section describing Vernon's own visits to Lisbon fado houses in 1987. This is actually one of the most fascinating parts of the book, for it temporarily removes the reader from the sometimes overwhelming historical detail and proves that the tradition whose demise the author laments remains part of the Lisbon soundscape.

Although there are no music examples in the text and almost no discussion of the music itself, the accompanying compact disc provides a wonderful introduction to early fado recordings from Lisbon, Coimbra, Oporto, and even Rio de Janeiro. Despite little direct linkage between text and disc, many of the major recording artists of the late twenties and early thirties are represented, including Armandinho, Ercília de Costa, Maria Ferreira, and Alfredo Duarte from Lisbon and António Menano, Edmundo...


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