A picture may be worth a thousand words, but nothing expresses the soul of a people quite like their music. Perhaps nowhere does this resonate so clearly as with the Portuguese fado and the Spanish flamenco. Those seeking to familiarize themselves with the unique character and personality of Spain v. Portugal need only wrap themselves in these two existential music genres.
Even if you don’t know a word of either language and haven’t studied its culture, you can still experience it profoundly as you listen – no, engage – with the primal emotions aroused by the music.
Spain is quixotic, teasing and tempestuous, outgoing and flirtatious. Portugal, on the other hand, is sadly melancholic, holding tenuously onto a yearning sense of nostalgia.
Fado is traditional folk music, a form of Portuguese singing that is often associated with pubs, cafés, and restaurants. This music originated in Portugal around the 1820s, although it is thought to have much earlier roots. Fado is known for its profound expressiveness and melancholy. A musician – often a woman — will sing about the hard realities of daily life, balancing resignation and hopefulness that a resolution to its torments can still occur.
Best described with the Portuguese word saudade, an impenetrable word which encompasses more than “longing” and stands for a feeling of loss, fado was brought to mainstream music by Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999), known as the Rainha do Fado (Queen of Fado). Acknowledged throughout the world, Amalia’s charisma, extraordinary timbre of voice, and beauty made her an acclaimed artist. She became one of the most important personalities for the genre and the main inspiration for contemporary and modern fado.
I first heard Amália Rodrigues in my elementary Portuguese classroom, singing one of her best-known fados through a downloaded file on a decrepit laptop computer. Nonetheless, I was enthralled. Much as I’ve come to enjoy other fado singers and songs, nothing will ever compare for me to “Uma Casa Portuguesa” as she delivered it:
The only non-Portuguese singer I am aware of whose music – especially her song La Llorona — comes close to the Portuguese saudade inherent to fado is Chavela Vargas, a Costa Rica-born Mexican singer known especially for her rendition of Mexican rancheras, although she is also recognized for her contribution to other genres of popular Latin American music. Hailed for her haunting performances, she was a muse to such figures as Pedro Almodóvar and called la voz áspera de la ternura, “the rough voice of tenderness.”
Here is Chavela singing La Llorona (The Weeping Woman):
If the Portuguese fado is evocative, Spain’s flamenco is provocative.
Sultry and seductive, flamenco brings together distinctive chirping, cooing, “come hither” voices with dance and instrumentals (mostly guitar) responsive to the speakeasy Spanish spirit. Flamenco features the call and response known as jaleo, a form of bravado involving hand clapping, foot stomping, and audiences’ encouraging shouts. clapping, finger snapping, and foot stomping.
Though somewhat mysterious, the roots of flamenco seem to lie in the Roma (gypsy) migration from Rajasthan in northwest India to Spain, between the 9th and 14th centuries. These migrants brought with them musical instruments – tambourines, bells, and wooden castanets – as well as an extensive repertoire of songs and dances to Spain, where they encountered the rich cultures of Sephardic Jews and the Moors. Their centuries-long cultural intermingling produced the unique art form known as flamenco.
In the U.S. and elsewhere, flamenco is a pervasive Spanish national identity marker. For proof of its pop culture currency, look no further than Toy Story 3: Buzz Lightyear is mistakenly reset in “Spanish mode,” and becomes a passionate Spanish flamenco dancer.
Indeed, the world outside Spain often stereotypes the country as inhabited by flamenco dancers, singers, and guitar players so “passionate” that they have little time to engage in the day-to-day world of the mediocre and mundane.
Much like our soap operas (telenovelas in Spanish).
Flamenco performance was once ostracized, considered a vulgar and pornographic spectacle. Over the years, many Spaniards considered flamenco a scourge of their nation, deploring it as an entertainment that lulled the masses into disorientation, hampering Spain’s progress toward modernity. Flamenco’s shifting fortunes show how Spain’s complex national identity continues to evolve to this day, where it is widely enjoyed as performance art.
This brief clip hardly does justice to the flamenco genre, where a single song can go on – with audience participation – for hours:
Spain and Portugal.
Flamenco and Fado.
Spirit and Soul.
Yin and Yang.
Salido and Saudade.
Shared here are personal observations, experiences, and happenstance that actually occurred to us as we moved from the USA to begin a new life in Portugal and Spain. Collected and compiled in EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good, the book is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook editions from Amazon and most online booksellers.