We have quickly learned how to spot the areas of the city that are the most "touristic," as our French apartment-mates would say. Most of the restaurants by the river are over priced (by Porto's standards) with low quality food and high quality views. There are retail shops on many corners that contain stacks of Chinese-made plastic embossed with Portuguese flags, cheap "PORTO" T-shirts, and straw hats.
The similarities between these shops and restaurants and those at the oceanfront in Virginia Beach are striking. When I lived in Virginia Beach, I often wondered who the people were who would fall for the gimmicks of the sweatshop-produced beacons of consumption for the sake of consumption, the bad Jimmy Buffett cover bands, the all-you-can-eat crablegs and waffles - junk for the body, mind, and soul.
Apparently, there is a worldwide market for these goods. Here, instead of bleached blond men in Hawaiian shirts drinking LandShark beer and singing about cheeseburgers, there are restaurant workers hawking their Fado music. On our first night, we sat near one of these alleged Fado musicians who played simple guitar songs through a small amp with an occasional drum track. It was tinny and soulless.
I had heard about Fado from one of my coworkers who visited Portugal a few years ago. ("You can't escape it. It started to drive me nuts after a while," were her approximate words on the subject.) My impression after the first night here was that it was something that was probably once a beautiful part of local culture that had been caricaturized into tourist consumables, and was not worth more than a passing exploration.
I was right, and I was wrong. Ricardo, our AirBnB host, told us about a place called Boteko that had authentic Fado music. Ricardo is a singer and sound engineer, so we trusted him as an authority on good music, regardless of genre. He advised us to arrive at the venue early, as it is small and can fill up quickly.
The late afternoon sun was brutal on the hilly walk from the apartment up to the restaurant. When I entered the front of the restaurant, I brought down the median age of the patrons by about a decade. There was not a single tourist, nor was there anyone else under the age of 55. The waiter showed me a seat at the very front of the place, and Shane joined me a few minutes later. We ordered a round of beer, and listened to the sounds of the conversations around us.
The host stood at the front of the packed room, and gave a long monologue about the music. Shane and I were both frustrated by our inability to comprehend any words he said other than "Fado." There were two men playing classical guitars, and one man playing a Portuguese guitar. They started to play, and then a man at least 75 years old stood up at the back of the room, and came to the front, situating himself just on the other side of our table. We were sitting so close to him and the guitarists that we had no choice but to give our fullest attention.
The singer had bulldog jowls and a buttoned tweed jacket, despite the fact that it was over 80 degrees inside the tiny, crowded restaurant. His face had aged into a contortion of permanent mournfulness. His operatic songs required little translation - sadness, despair, a hard life, loss - all were apparent from the sounds of his voice and the grief in his eyes.
One by one, seven different men, all between the ages of 55 and 85, stood up to lend a voice to immeasurable sorrows. They were all adorned with deep creases in sad lines across their faces; none even had eyes that smiled. "Morte," the Portuguese word for death, was one of the only ones I understood, and it was repeated in the chorus of many of their songs.
The rapt audience was commanded to remain in total silence, and the host gave lengthy histories and explanations before each performance. Enthusiastic applause, nods, and smiles were the performers' only rewards.
According to Ricardo, there are very few young people who are interested in honing the Fado folk craft. There is some worry that the authentic Fado is a dying art, and that all that will survive the passing of the older generation is the version that is peddled to the tourists.
At the end of the session, Shane went to the counter to pay our bill, and discovered that one of the singers had bought us a round of beers. Several of the patrons and musicians were gathered outside, where they greeted us with warm hospitality and asked us to come back again next week. I think we might.
words + pictures by Kara