Fulbright in Portugal

Steve Doig in Lisbon August-December 2010

Lisbon skyline

City of music

Lisbon continues to surprise and delight us. Yesterday was a lazy Saturday, with Ellyn and I sitting around the apartment reading and (in her case) watching a replay of her Boston Red Sox beating the hated New York Yankees. (For my futebol-obsessed readers, this is American baseball’s equivalent of the most heated World Cup rivalries.) At mid-afternoon, though, we started hearing bass drums booming from Praça da Figueira, the large plaza 250 meters (and about 400 stairsteps!) down the hill from our apartment. It sounded like a marching band’s drum line and we wondered what was going on, but just kept on with what we were doing.

After about an hour, though, the sound changed. Despite the distance, we could clearly hear the accordions, guitars and singing coming from the bowl of the central city below. I couldn’t understand the words, but the rhythm of the music and the high-pitched singer sounded to me very much like zydeco, the country music of Louisiana’s Cajuns. Roused from our laziness by curiousity, Ellyn and I trudged down the hill to see and hear what was going on.

We discovered it was a festival of Portuguese folkloric music and dance. On a raised stage at the north end of the plaza was a troupe of about 30 musicians and dancers, men, women and children dressed in the traditional clothes of Portuguese peasants of earlier centuries.

Folklore troupe

Spilling across the plaza was an audience of hundreds of local residents, many in traditional dress themselves, watching and clapping along with crowds of mesmerized tourists. The way the dancers circled and stepped reminded me of square dancers at an American hoe-down; the similarities of folk music and dancing everywhere are striking.

The music and singing we heard was much more upbeat and happy-sounding than the plaintive fado, the Portuguese national musical genre that is featured in all the tourist guides to Lisbon. But fado is a bit, well, morose for my taste. Consider these lyrics (in English) from the Turismo de Portugal site:

O Fado“, by Aníbal Nazaré

You asked me the other day if I know what is Fado
I said I did not know. You were surprised.
Without knowing what I was saying, I lied to you
And said I did not know, but now will tell you:
Cursed souls
Lost nights
Bizarre shadows
Love, jealousy
Ash and flames
Pain and sin
All this exists
All this is sad
All this is Fado.

I fear that a night on the town at one of the fado houses will make me head to the 25th of April Bridge to jump into the Tagus River!

Well, maybe not. Too much else is joyful in the music we hear across Lisbon. A couple of weeks ago we were wandering around the grounds of the Castelo São Jorge that overlooks the city. In a small patio area under the shade of a grove of oak trees we found several dozen people listening raptly to the voices of a soprano and baritone

Beautiful music in a beautiful setting

singing show tunes in Portuguese and English, accompanied by a pianist. It was an unexpected hour of lively music.

Another fun example. A few days ago we heard coming from down in the plaza below what sounded like a high school pep rally, with coordinated shouting and cheers from dozens — hundreds? — of voices. It went on for much of the day and we had no idea what it was all about. Another revolution underway?

The next day we were walking around down in the city when we heard more of the shouting coming from the Rossio plaza. We hurried over to see two groups of young men and women, many of them wearing the traditional formal black school uniforms. The two groups stood across from each other on both sides of the busy street. One group would loudly chant a derisive cheer and point in unison at the others, who would laugh and jeer back at them.

Students chanting cheers

And then the other group would respond in kind. Back and forth it went. It turns out that this was part of praxe, the Portuguese custom of initiation rituals for bringing freshmen into their new academic life. It reminded me of the days of required wearing of a freshman beanie at Dartmouth, or the hazing of fraternity pledges (though with less alcohol consumption.)

As I write this, the folk music and dancing festival continues for a second day in the plaza below. The church bells are ringing. And Ellyn is playing songs from “Les Miserables” on the stereo. If only Les Miz would come to Lisbon while we are here! A city of music, indeed.

2 Responses to “City of music”

  1. January 30th, 2011 at 9:09 pm

    miguel says:

    Hi there, nice comments! I was just wondering why you chose to use the Spanish term “plaza” instead of the more appropriate English term “square”. Is there any reason for this? (btw, as you may know it’s “Praça” in Portuguese)

  2. January 31st, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    Steve Doig says:

    Thanks, Miguel. I’m so language-disabled that it didn’t occur to me that “plaza” is Spanish; it’s used in English a lot to mean a large public square (like Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.) That’s the only reason.

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