Fado Resounding: Affective Politics and Urban Life by Lila Ellen Gray (review)
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Reviewed by
Lila Ellen Gray, Fado Resounding: Affective Politics and Urban Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013. 328 pp.

inline graphic When reading Lila Ellen Gray’s Fado Resounding one can almost feel the silence settling in the dark, before being softly disrupted by a guitar’s first chords. The descriptions are so detailed and emotionally rich that it is hard to avoid feeling goosebumps when imagining Osório’s voice in À Meia Laranja. This is a beautifully written book, ethnographically rich and detailed, yet hard to classify: it is ethnomusicology, anthropology, linguistics, identity and gender politics. It is also poetry and music.

Based on ethnographic work conducted in Lisbon between 1999 and 2010, but focused on the period between 2001 and 2003, Fado Resounding explores the traditional Portuguese musical genre fado, not just as an ethnographic object per se, but as an agentive aesthetic that generates and crafts around itself a range of phenomena: foundational discourses, identities, bodily performance, ways of being, divas, and, of course, feelings. For Gray, the discourses on fado—not just about its origins, but also about what it is—inform the ways in which postcolonial Portugal reframes its history on the lost empire, and shapes its place in the margins of Europe. Constituting an important element of national identity, fado expresses several narratives of the history of the country, placing Portugal in a modernity rooted in a colonial past.

Fado emerges here as an ontology, not just in the sense that, as for many fadistas, fado is fate (fado in Portuguese literally means “fate”), but also because, for the Portuguese, fado as a particular epistemology shapes one’s conception of the body, time, and space. Fado’s epistemology includes the academic discourses on fado (both on its technical and historical constitutions), political and ideological discourses on identity (in [End Page 219] their various relations with fado from the Portuguese dictatorship, from 1933 to 1974 until the beginning of the 20th century), and the knowledge that circulates through fado (in its performativity and reflexivity).

Taking very seriously the concept of “participant” in participant-observation, Gray sings the fado herself. In the first chapter of her book, Gray describes this learning process which, in itself, contradicts the ethos of fado. Indeed, Gray is told, fado is not learned: one is born with that feeling, with the fate of dedicating one’s life to fado. As an American, therefore, Gray lacks the true soul of a fadista. Not only does she not sound like a fadista due to her accented pronunciation—she cannot “say the words well”—but also because her “Americanness” reinforces her alterity towards Portugal (and Europe) (56). Authenticity is thus not just a category at play in the evaluation and qualification of fadistas and their performances, but also a category that can either include or exclude a person from a collective feeling, from a way of being. Authenticity is also at play in the opposition between amateur and professional contexts. Professional performances are often considered “soulless” or too modern (31). In the amateur venues Gray observes, and in which she participates as a singer, the feedback other singers and audiences provide forms a major part of what is an unmarked teaching/learning process. This process also entails an unacknowledged set of rules about the role of generation, gender, status, and social networks in shaping definitions of authenticity. Other rules and preferences about performance are tacitly followed and help to shape “structures of listening”: the importance of silences, which create a “collective intimacy”; the importance of tears, which can be both symbolic (through the sound of the guitar) and literal; and the importance of constructing repertoires—a body of fado—that give fado an ontology, and fadistas a particular biography inflected through the lens of fado (41). These rules and preferences, in effect, form a pedagogical guide for how to listen, sing, feel, and talk about fado: after all, despite the fact that one is born with the feeling of fado, “one is not born knowing how to sing fado” (69).

In her second chapter, Gray delves into issues of Portuguese colonialism and national identity. The supposed exceptionalism of Portuguese colonialism is enshrined in...