Catarina Rosa's dark tresses frame a face in torment, eyes closed, mouth a scarlet lipstick slash. Her black dress is relieved only by a plunging neckline. Her voice rises and falls against the haunting twang of guitars. I've no idea what her Portuguese lyrics mean, but she isn't happy. I have the impression that this stoic woman in black has either been wronged or widowed. The music sobs and soars. The restaurant audience has ceased its chatter and cutlery-clicking to sit transfixed in the semi-darkness.
This is fado, Portugal's signature sound. These songs are the Portuguese version of American blues or Irish laments. They're about husbands lost at sea, abandoned lovers, immigrant separation, the bittersweet vagaries of fate. In fact, fado means fate. Fado is about something lost for which you yearn, an emotion the Portuguese call suadade. It's a wailing complaint of sorts, and always a fatalistic one.
It's the sixth day of my Insight Vacations journey through Spain and Portugal, and we're in Lisbon on an evening's outing to Cafe Luso, which has been a fado house since 1927. It's first artistic director was fabled fado composer and guitarist Armandinho. In the 1950s Amalia Rodrigues sang here. The "Queen of Fado" became an international star and inspired a whole new generation of fado followers. More recently, fado has become trendy again. Fadistas sing with rock groups and make appearances on talk shows.
Cafe Luso is old school. It inhabits the former wine cellar and stables of a mansion that predates the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. The ceiling is arched brick, the walls a metre thick. No need for microphones, because the fadistas are surrounded by our tables. We're all crammed in so tightly I can hardly lift my elbow to fork up my fish. When singers erupt into this intimate atmosphere, they can't be ignored.
You don't have to be the best singer to be a fadista. But you must have soul. The lyrics are poetic, the delivery heartfelt and personal. We're so close we can hear the singers draw in their breath and see them frown. Even those who don't understand Portuguese recognise the emotion. As their words fade into a sob, the audience is silenced for a trembling moment before clapping erupts.
Fado emerged in the 1820s, with earlier influences perhaps from medieval troubadours, Moorish music and flamenco dancers. It's accompanied by the viola and Portuguese guitar, which is mandolin-shaped and has 12 strings. In Cafe Lusso, a double-bass adds oomph and jazz-like undertones.
The music originated in hardscrabble, port-side neighbourhoods, and addresses the difficult lives of the poor and marginalised. It also talks a lot about love, its lack and its loss. A triple-time waltz tempo makes some songs seem jaunty, but they're always full of tales of sad resignation. Lyrics are sometimes improvised. Fado uses a lot of rubato, the speeding up and slowing down of tempo, coupled with pauses, for dramatic effect.
We hear five singers this evening, all dressed in black, all with differing singing voices and styles. Elsa Laboreiro appears in a shimmering black gown and long earrings like a tragic heroine from an opera. Felipe Acacio is like a figure from The Godfather. He has a mane of white hair, wears a dapper black suit and effortlessly commands the room. He's an old hand at this, but still makes his songs feel raw and real.
This is the haunting sound of Portugal that gets under your skin and makes your eyes prickle. You go off into the night pleased, knowing you've had a glimpse into the country's weary soul.
Brian Johnston was a guest of Insight Vacations.
Insight Vacations has several tour options that visit Lisbon. Its 15-day Best of Spain and Portugal itinerary between Madrid and Barcelona (or reverse) runs weekly from April to October and includes Salamanca, Porto, Lisbon, Seville, Gibraltar and Granada. Prices from $4199 a person twin share including some meals and tours. Lisbon's fado evening is $US66. See insightvacations.com/au