Writer, researcher, translator, critic

Exist Yesterday.

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1929: Maria Alice


This week I'm thinking about the 1929 recording of "Fado Menor" by early Portuguese radio star Maria Alice.

The late 1920s was a kind of crisis in the history of Portuguese fado. It had long been recognized as the characteristic musical tradition of Romantic Lisbon, an underworld music that achieved a sort of widespread glamour through the artifices of ninteenth-century poets and dramatists, who wrote tragedies about fado singers in the same vein as their French contemporaries wrote tragedies about bohemians and prostitutes. But while traditional fado singers were accepted as a kind of melancholy entertainment in Lisbon taverns, fit for drunks and tourists, Portugal in the early twentieth century, and particularly under the right-wing Salazar dictatorship, was working very hard to be a modern, efficient, and Christian imperial power, and the mournful saudade and unsavory connotations of Lisbon fado did not fit into its program.

But it was those same modern efficiencies that brought fado out of the taverns and into the homes of every middle-class Portuguese family in the late '20s: the twin commercial forces of the gramophone and the radio uncovered a vast public appetite for fado recordings and broadcasts which, do what it might, the government could not entirely suppress. It did plenty: songs like this one caused immense scandal among the conservative Catholic seats of power and were ruthlessly censored, this song in particular being banned from the airwaves until 1974, while the more academic and often singer-less Coimbra fado was promoted instead. But the music's popularity would not be denied, and the detente which would be reached in the person of Amália Rodrigues starting in the 1940s, whereby fado was allowed to be a national treasure so long as it remained personal and elegiac rather than overtly political or sexual, would last until Salazar's death and the Carnation Revolution which broke up the empire and restored democracy.

The lyrics to Maria Alice's recording are attributed to Fernando Telles, a poet and writer (or compiler from traditional sources) of fado songs, and they're worth paying some attention to, so I've transcribed and translated them below. Note that she repeats every couplet twice; fado is often as repetitive, to the same mesmerizing effect, as the blues.

Por eu vender o meu corpo
Olham para mim com desdém
As ricas também se vendem
E tudo lhes fica bem

Ninguém censure a mulher
Que p’ra dar aos filhos pão
Depois de tudo sofrer
Ponha o seu corpo em leilão

Não há ninguém que suponha
Qual a cruz do meu penar
É ser mãe e ter vergonha
Dos meus filhitos beijar

Because I sell my body
They look at me with disdain
Rich women also sell themselves
And all is well with them

Nobody blame the woman
Who, to give her children bread
After suffering everything,
Puts her body up for auction

There is no one who can imagine
What cross is mine to bear
To be a mother and ashamed
To kiss my little children