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Last October, as Portugal’s President Anibal Cavaco Silva addressed his recession-battered compatriots on their country’s republic day, he was interrupted by a beautiful song. It floated across the 18th-century courtyard in which the event was being held, sending the President’s bodyguards into a state of confusion. They decided to shuffle Cavaco Silva off to safety. It was the start of Ana Maria Pinto’s career as Portugal’s most melodious public protester.

With the TV cameras and press photographers swarming around her, the 32-year-old opera singer, wearing a black top and a red backpack, defiantly belted out an aria. In a nation lacerated by cuts to social-security schemes, Pinto’s ballad struck a chord. It seemed to articulate the belief of millions of Portuguese citizens that the austerity programme designed to revive their economy was actually making life more difficult, especially for the aged and the poor.

Since the much-hated troika—the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund—forced Portugal’s government to tighten its belt in May 2011, prices and taxes have soared. So has the unemployment rate, which stands at almost 17%. Wages, though, have fallen, so low in some sectors that call-centre jobs from India are being relocated to Portugal. “We feel betrayed," Pinto said. “The government made false promises. There are no conditions in Portugal now to support a life. If you lose a job, you have to migrate. Everything is being privatized and these enterprises don’t follow moral principles—their point is only to make money for themselves."

It isn’t common for classical musicians to insert themselves into the heart of political movements, but Pinto came to her new role after a great deal of reading and reflection. When the Portuguese economic crisis erupted in 2010, two years after the implosion of leading US financial institutions, Pinto was making a comfortable living in Berlin, a city with a vibrant opera scene. After months of tracking the troubles from afar, the soprano decided to return home. “I felt I needed to do something," she explained. “I also wanted to be connected to my people: that’s what feeds your soul."

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Maria Pinto (left), Portugal’s most melodious protestor against the Portuguese government

Emboldened, Pinto decided to express her dissatisfaction with the austerity programme at the President’s republic day address. Though entry was restricted, the guards briefly opened the wrought iron gates and Pinto rushed in, along with other demonstrators. Even as the president was escorted away, other dignitaries formed a circle around the musician and, when she finished her tune, they applauded warmly.

In January, Pinto formed a group called the Coro de Intervenção do Porto or the Intervention Choir of Porto, in her hometown north of Lisbon. Their repertoire includes Grândola, Vila Morena, the tune that was played on the radio one April night in 1974 to signal the start of the Carnation Revolution, which overturned the seemingly unassailable dictatorship. When the choir’s 25 or so members sing at rallies, led by Pinto with her trademark bull horn, scores of bystanders join in. “When you sing, it changes everything," Pinto said. “People sing along, there’s a sense of cooperation and participation."

As she sipped lemonade in the cafeteria of a Lisbon railway terminus, waiting for her train to take her to a choir practice in Porto, the musician said she had a realistic sense about what she could achieve. “Singing doesn’t have an immediate effect," she said. “It isn’t like throwing a stone and drawing blood. It’s a long-term effort." Besides, she didn’t seem to think that her musical protests were especially unusual. They are, she suggested, merely an expression of the national character. Said Pinto, “It’s the Portuguese nature to sing."

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Fado musicians on a street

The songs, as it turns out, were the main reason I was in Portugal. The country has left a significant impression on the tunes the Goan side of my family belts out at birthdays and festivals, the legacy of 451 years of colonialism that ended only in 1961. Some Portuguese tunes have made their way into our repertoire intact, but the impressions of Iberia are often more subtle: they have imperceptibly worked their way into the harmonies and rhythms of such Luso-Indian styles as the mando and the dulpod. I was hoping to learn a little more about these sonic connections between Europe and India. But mainly, I wanted to listen to lots of fado, the achingly beautiful form that has been described as the voice of the Portuguese soul.

The word fado means fate, and fado songs are suffused with saudade, an ambiguous word that describes a nostalgia or longing for places or people who are far away, or who perhaps have not yet even been encountered. Saudade is said to be an essential part of the Portuguese character, though this melancholia struck me as being antithetical to the quality that is stereotypically believed to define Goans—the contended, carefree spirit of sussegado. Fado songs are about love and loss, life and death, joy and sorrow—the themes of which all art is made.

Before I set out, I tracked down Rão Kyao’s website and sent him an interview request. Rão Kyao is the stage name of John Maria Centeno Gorjão Jorge Ramos, a saxophonist who visited Mumbai frequently in the 1980s and early 1990s to study Hindustani music with the flute maestro Raghunath Seth. He’d performed occasional concerts in Mumbai and was the first Portuguese musician I’d heard. But I never received a reply. Perhaps he was travelling, or just too busy.

That wasn’t a problem. There were lots of other people to meet. I started my conversations in a cavernous building that once contained an enormous cistern from which Portuguese ships sailing out to explore the world would take on water. Since 1998, it has operated as the Fado Museum, displaying an intriguing array of artefacts and recordings related to the musical form that took birth in the mid-19th century. Rita Oliveira, a spokesperson for the museum, led me around the collections. She patiently explained the kinds of instruments used in performances (mainly the tear-shaped Portuguese guitar and the conventional Spanish guitar) and sketched out a short history of the form, which is intricately linked with Lisbon—especially the more tawdry parts of town. In its early days, Oliveira said, “fado was connected with marginality and transgression, sung by prostitutes and petty thieves". Much has changed, Today, she noted, “fado is performed in the great halls of the world".

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At Alfama, Lisbon, fado musicians perform at taverns. Photo: Isabella Vayrons/Sygma/Corbis

In an email message, Elliott listed several reasons for this efflorescence. Until the 1980s, the genre had been associated with the autocrat Antonio Salazar, who had attempted to construct legitimacy for his regime by appropriating three cultural pillars of Portuguese life: fado, football and Fatima, the Catholic shrine north of Lisbon marking the site at which Mary is said to have appeared in 1917. But four decades after the Carnation Revolution, there was “a thawing of the polarized political and cultural positions" of an older generation, Elliott noted, and the wariness about fado evaporated.

At the same time, Portugal entered Europe more decisively, joining the Schengen visa area in 1995 and the euro zone four years later. As anxiety grew about losing a sense of national identity, fado became a symbol of belonging in the “search for something identifiably Portuguese", Elliott said. This renaissance at home coincided with the rise of World Music as a marketing genre, which helped local musical genres such as fado win fans around the globe.

Fado’s new-found popularity, Portugal hopes, will do more than just burnish the country’s image abroad—it wants to use the music to shrink the hole in its budget. Tourism accounted for approximately 16% of the country’s GDP in 2012 and the Lisbon municipality is employing fado to attract even more travellers to the city. The Fado Museum, which it funds, received 70,000 visitors last year. “There seems to have been a collective realization by various interested parties that fado is worth celebrating as cultural capital but can also be a useful generator of actual capital," Elliott noted.

As part of its fado tourism activities, the municipality organizes free walks through the cobblestoned alleyways of Alfama and Mouraria, in which fado first found its voice. These tours are an excellent way for visitors to discover just how eloquently fado tells Lisbon’s stories. That was obvious from our jaunt through Mouraria, which in the 11th century was the quarter beyond the city walls to which Moors were confined. Even though it is among the city’s poorest districts, Mouraria remains the first port of call for many immigrants: approximately 30% of its residents are from India, Pakistan, China and West Africa.

Singer Mariza has given fado contemporary appeal and creativity
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Singer Mariza has given fado contemporary appeal and creativity

Lisbon, like Mumbai, has no compunctions about hanging its washing out to dry. In between the fado songs, our guide, a knowledgeable young man named José Miranda, pointed out that it was possible to construct a demographic portrait of Lisbon merely by inspecting its clotheslines. Like so many other Western nations, Portugal’s population is ageing and in decline, a trend that has intensified as the recession has forced young people to migrate to other countries to find work. In addition to seeking employment in other parts of Europe, Portugal’s youth are moving out to Brazil and, in a reversal of fortunes, the mineral-rich former Portuguese colony of Angola.

In Mouraria, this meant that many of clotheslines were festooned with the garments of only one person—often an older woman who, true to stereotype, seemed to only wear dowdy black dresses. A few apartments were occupied by younger couples, which was obvious from the racy underclothing they’d hung out to dry. But the thongs rarely had baby clothes next to them. Only immigrants seemed to be having children: the lines with infant apparel on them were also hung with the salwar-kameezes of Gujarati migrants from Mozambique or the colourful panos of women from Angola. Many apartments, however, had no clothes outside them at all, indicating that the residents had moved out. The exodus makes the yearning that underpins fado seem especially relevant. Suddenly, everybody seems to have saudade for someone compelled to go away.

All of this could make it sound like Mouraria has been seized with a deep-seated pessimism, but it’s actually the site of an experiment in social entrepreneurship that the municipality hopes will turn Lisbon’s fortunes around. When the crisis broke, the dynamic mayor, a Socialist Party member of Goan origin named Antonio Costa, moved his office out of the opulent municipal building in the city centre and into a part of Mouraria frequented by drug pushers and prostitutes. In May, he allocated €543,000 (around 4.6 crore) for a community development project that involved partnering with 14 neighbourhood coalitions to run a community kitchen, train people to find new jobs, and revitalize public spaces. In a statement emailed to me by his office, Costa said that it was vital to restore the self-esteem of Mouraria, which he described as “a precious gem hidden here".

Not surprisingly, the Mouraria regeneration project involves promoting fado. The Lisbon municipality has paid for the home of fado pioneer Maria Severa to be restored as a restaurant that hosts musical performances. Mayor Costa has an intense appreciation of fado’s connection with his city, “a connection so deep and so unique", he has said, “that it turns into Lisbon’s alter ego".

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On my last night in Lisbon, after we cleaned up the apartment we’d inhabited for a week, I lugged three trash bags to the garbage-collection area at the end of the street. As I was segregating the glass and cardboard, I heard a flute emerging from the Mesa de Frades nearby. Housed in a blue-tiled room that once served as a chapel, the Mesa de Frades has the reputation for being the fadista’s fado house. It’s where performers gather after they’ve finished their sessions at other venues, and I’d already spent several evenings in its dark confines, soaking in the magic.

I hurried towards the music and, as I suspected, it was indeed Rão. It turned out that he performed at the Mesa de Frades every Monday night. For half an hour, he held the audience rapt as his bansuri infused the classics with forgotten meaning. Rão’s fados retraced the journeys of his seafaring forebears and recovered the memory of the melodies that had returned in their cargo holds to coalesce into fado: the slave rhythms of Brazil and Africa, the cry of the oud from the Arab peninsula, temple songs from Goa, monks’ chants from Macau. It was sublime—and quintessentially Portuguese.

When I introduced myself to him after the set, Rão was profusely apologetic. He didn’t actually know how to use his computer, he said, and he relied on his wife to check his email—a task she performed rather erratically. But he didn’t have anywhere to go, so we spoke for a long time. He told me about his journey to Mumbai for the Jazz Yatra festival in 1980, how he’d fallen in love with the sound of the bansuri and decided to use it to play fado. “I sing the melodies inside my head," he said, “and they come out through my breath."

When Rão began his lessons with Seth, similarities between Hindustani music and fado became apparent. For instance, he realized that the notes of many fados correspond to Raga Kirwani or Raga Bhilaval. The most profound area of congruence, however, isn’t in structure but in approach. “The essence of fado, like the raag, is emotion," Rão said. “You have to express the truth of emotion. The music is not about the instrument you play but how you play it."

Working our way through a carafe of crisp Vinho Verde, the conversation turned to Mumbai. Rão asked about his Indian musician-friends and told me stories he heard about the old Mumbai jazz scene. We spoke late into the night about the 1950s Indian trumpet player Chic Chocolate, Rão’s frequent visits to his guru’s home in Bandra, and the Bollywood recording session in which the Portuguese musician had once participated. “The music was composed by R.D. Burman," he recalled. “I don’t know the name of the film but I do remember that it starred Zeenat Aman. God! What a beautiful woman she was."

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On 29 September, the residents of 308 Portuguese municipalities went to the polls and expressed their opinion about the troika’s austerity plan in no uncertain terms: the Social Democratic Party, which holds power at the centre, was trounced. It got only 18.9% of the vote, and with its allies, managed to win only 92 town halls. The Socialist Party, to which Lisbon mayor Costa belongs, came in with 36% of the vote and captured 132 town halls. In Lisbon, Costa steered the Socialists to the biggest victory any party had obtained in municipal elections since the Carnation Revolution. Many believe that it is only a matter of time before he becomes Portugal’s prime minister.

Shortly after, I received a mail from Pinto. She had been cast in a film titled The Giacomo Variations that stars John Malkovich and hadn’t found much time to sing with the choir since then. But all the effort seemed to have paid off. She wrote, “We are now living a different moment."

Naresh Fernandes is the author of Taj Mahal Foxtrot and City Adrift.

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