Resistência: 3 Fados


Elaine Avila is just finishing her three years as a PTC Associate with a July workshop of her play Fado. This essay, which we consider a stellar example of the kind of dramaturgy playwrights engage in, was originally published as part of a blog salon called “Stages of Resistance”, curated by Caridad Svich for The Lark Theatre. The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression.


Donald Trump says he does not shed a tear. When asked by a reporter at People Now, he said, “I haven’t cried since I was a baby.” He has continued to emphasize this claim, and it has circulated throughout the international press. Who else makes this claim? Adolf Hitler, in his biography, where he describes being beaten as a child: ” I made up my mind not to let out any sound next time I was beaten. Father hit me thirty-two times…and I did not cry.” Who else? Antonio Salazar, Portugal’s dictator from 1932-1968, was noted for his stoicism. But, Salazar allowed himself “one tear” when he heard Amalia Rodrigues sing “O Grito”—a fado song, the title of which might be translated as “shout,” “call,” or “cry.”  Fado music is noted for its ability to evoke tears and a feeling called “Saudade,” emblematic for Portuguese people throughout our diaspora. This beautiful music is the inspiration for my new play, Fado. I recently had the opportunity to delve into fado deeply and I have come to see fado’s ability to evoke feeling as a form of resistance.

During my recent artist residency at Quest University Canada, I decided to follow the promptings of my dramaturg, Kathleen Flaherty at the Playwrights Theatre Centre (PTC) in Vancouver. She noted I had referenced dozens of fado songs in an early, exploratory draft of the play. This led me to want to focus on fewer songs. Kathleen also suggested it would be good to sing the songs, like my main character, as part of my writing process. I wholeheartedly agreed. I learned to sing three fado songs: “Numa Casa Portuguesa,” “O Barco Negro,” and “Solidão.” Kathleen and I were also electrified by discussing the scholarship of Dr. Brian Herrera, in particular, his fabulous book, Latin Numbers: Playing Latino in Twentieth-Century U.S. Popular Performance. Dr. Herrera examines moments in entertainment or “Latin Numbers,” when the public “rediscovers, consumes, and then disregards” Latinx peoples, including Brazilian Portuguese. He argues the “Latin number” and “playing Latino” rehearse audiences to think of Cubans, Mexicans, Brazilians, and Puerto Ricans as one, monolithic, non-white group known as “Latino” or “Hispanic.” I found immediate relevance with the way the Azorean Portuguese and the Portuguese in general are perceived in the U.S. and Canada. For example, in the 1950s, Fado star Amalia Rodrigues was enthusiastically received on the Eddie Fisher TV Show, the cover of Life magazine, and more, particularly when she sang the fado “Numa Casa Portuguesa” and “Coimbra” or “April in Portugal,” which was also popularized by Louis Armstrong.  These fado “Latin Numbers” were of great importance to my immigrant grandparents. Focusing on three fado songs allowed me to uncover many things, including something I did not expect: resistance.

Numa Casa Portuguesa

The first fado song I learned to sing, “Numa Casa Portuguesa,” tends to be a favorite of immigrants. It is seemingly an upbeat song about the elements of a Portuguese home: there are arms waiting to embrace you, bread, wine, kale soup, rosemary and roses in the garden, a Saint Joseph statue made of blue and white tile. In our family, it happened to be a Saint Francis statue, brown and made of wood, but otherwise, you did indeed, know it was a Portuguese home because of everything mentioned in “Numa Casa Portuguesa.” My Portuguese family and friends, from British Columbia to New Jersey, have expressed a fondness for this song. It is resistance to being completely assimilated. It is resistance to having one’s culture wiped out in a new land.

Imagine my surprise when I was interviewing a Canadian fado guitarra player in Lisbon and he said, “Don’t ever sing Numa Casa Portuguesa! It’s a fascist song!”

I had to know why. The song is arguably just a song, an upbeat little melody, which is open to interpretation. On the other hand, it has lines like these, which tend to be badly translated, “E se à porta humildemente bate alguém/ senta-se à mesa com a gente/Fica bem esta franqueza, fica bem/E o povo nunca desmente/A alegria da pobreza está/nesta grande riqueza de dar e ficar contente.” The lyrics are about someone knocking humbly at the door. This someone sits at the table with “the people.” The “franqueza” or shame is good, it’s literally “the joy of poverty”—which is “our great richness”—to give and be content. This poverty is something the people should never renounce (“nunca a desmente”).

While learning to sing the song, as one of my characters in my play does, I asked “who is the character singing this song?” For me, it is Antonio Salazar himself, telling the people of Portugal what is important about being Portuguese. I drew the conclusion the song was the voice of Salazar because many continue to find him fatherly and benevolent. His dictatorship is referred to as “soft.” In 2007, Salazar was voted the greatest Portuguese of all time on a Portuguese Television Show, “Os Grandes Portugueses.” Conservatives on the right continue to view Salazar as competent and devoted to public service. And indeed, this song composed by Artur Vaz Da Fonseca, Reinaldo Ferreira, and Vasco Sequeira became “huge,” when Salazar began promoting fado in the early 1950s. I do not agree with the idea of a “soft” dictatorship. At the new Museu do Aljube-Resistência e Liberdade (Museum of Resistance and Freedom) in Lisbon, I have seen the small boxes where people were imprisoned and the poems some wrote from there, the deportations, the images of the prisons.

I’ve been studying resistance in oppressive regimes (Germany, China, Chile, Portugal) for years now. This study was prompted, in part, by seeing the threads that led to the election of Trump in American culture. There are many work and family environments where the straight white male can do no wrong, and women, LGBQT, POC can do no right. Many say nothing, and systemic racism and sexism thrive. The U.S. and Canada consider themselves exceptions to forces that lead to dictatorship, and this is a problem, as the history of indigenous peoples and slavery/violence against POC are ignored. All of this helped me recognize the seemingly benevolent voice of Salazar and his regime in “Numa Casa Portuguesa.”

It amazes me this song means one thing to the Portuguese immigrant (resistance to assimilation, nostalgia) and something else entirely in mainland Portugal (complicity with the dictatorship, embracing a right-wing ideology). One of my friends, an Azorean immigrant to Canada, was so shocked by my research that she asked me, “is all fado fascist?” Her question remained strongly in my mind as I learned to sing the next two songs.

O Barco Negro

“O Barco Negro” is the story of a woman who loses her lover at sea. When the women on the beach tell her that her lover is dead, the singer passionately sings, “São loucas! São loucas!” (“They’re crazy”). If there is a character singing the song, it’s a woman working her way through profound grief. She refuses to believe her lover is dead, remembering the first night they made love on the beach: she was trembling, afraid because she believed she was ugly, until her lover’s eyes told her “não” (No in English). Some fado singers, notably Mariza, interpret the song as if the woman slowly comes to accept the death, through each repetition of the chorus, “but everything around me tells me you will always be with me.”

“O Barco Negro” is a song that always makes me cry.  It’s a good sort of cry—one that makes me feel connected to my female ancestors, especially my grandmother. She lost her father at sea, when she was young.  She, her mother, and her sisters had to leave the sophisticated city of Horta, on the island of Fayal in the Azores Islands in the mid-Atlantic, moving to Ribeiras, a more rugged outback town of fishermen and whalers on the island of Pico. This loss may have propelled her decision to marry young and move to America.

As I researched the song, I found out the original lyrics were censored by the dictatorship. The lyrics to “O Barco Negro” are written over the original melody, and the song has come to be known as “uma melodia, duas tristezas” (“one melody, two sadnesses”).

The original, censored lyrics were to a fado song called “Mãe Preta” or “Black Mother”, composed by Brazilians, Piratini and Caco Velho in 1954. “Mãe Preta” tells the story of a black mother, who nurses the white master’s son, while her own child is beaten. The song isn’t told from the mother’s perspective, but from the perspective of someone who empathizes with her. I believe what was being censored was empathy.

More than four million Africans were brought to Brazil during the Portuguese slave trade, more than anywhere else in the Americas. My research into “Mãe Preta” brought me directly to a new documentary, narrated by Alice Walker, directed by Donna Carole Roberts called Yemanja. The Head of the Artist in Residence Program at Quest University, Dr. Jeff R. Warren, was able to obtain a copy of the film, in order that I could host a screening for students and faculty.

The film details the resistance movement of Bahia, Brazil; how it kept African traditions alive; how it was led by many mothers of African descent. These “mães” are credited with helping many flee slavery in Brazil, and are considered important, heroic leaders. Yemanja is an African goddess of the sea. She is credited with helping slaves survive the brutality of the passage on the slave ships, and she is celebrated today in Brazil. Traditions around Yemanja honor water as sacred and include information about the healing nature of plants and foods. The mães, or women who worship Yemanja, are now concerned with the environmental devastation of Brazil. At Quest, I was able to speak with an African exchange student from Kenya, who explained that these traditions are almost wiped out in Africa due to colonialism. Resistance is remembering. Resistance is empathy.

After the fall of the dictatorship, “Mãe Preta” was sung again, notably by Dulce Pontes. Its African and Brazilian roots come out in the interpretations of the song, especially in the drums, even when “O Barco Negro” is sung. Mariza, again, is adept at this. Resistance is between the lines. Resistance is under the lines.

Resistance might be insisting that a song is just a love song, and that you don’t know what the lyrics contain, as Amalia Rodrigues often did during fascism. A perfect example is the next fado I learned, “Abandono” also known as “Fado de Peniche.” Peniche was one of the dictatorship’s political prisons, in a fortress located on a cliff face about 100 kilometers north of Lisbon. This fado is from the viewpoint of a woman whose lover was taken to Peniche. Amalia said it was a love song and she did not know what it was about. This strategy, as well as being internationally famous, made it possible for her to sing the song, composed by her dear friends Alain Oulman and David Mourão Ferreira in 1962. While eventually censored by the dictatorship, the song became a powerful symbol of resistance.

The lyrics are full of heart and never fail to move me. Here are a few:

Por teu livre pensamento/ Foram-te longe encerrar

For your free thought/ They took you… Encerrar can refer to the “you” in the song, the thoughts or both. Encerrar means to shut in, lock up, to contain.

Her lover is so far away her lament cannot reach him. They took him in the middle of the night, and “A treva tudo cobria,” darkness covered everything, in a night that never again would become day. (“E nunca mais se fez dia.”)  It was a night that persists in poisoning her, and now she only hears silence where he used to be. Her only comfort is that he can hear the wind and the sea. Amalia sang “Abandono” with full feeling, while she sang “Numa Casa Portuguesa” quickly, lightly, with great technique, but far less emotional investment.

To answer my friend’s question, not all fado are fascist. During the dictatorship, fado and the feelings it evokes provided respite from silence and stoicism, so necessary for survival. There are fado of resistance. Some were written by the resistance, including soldiers who eventually overthrew the dictatorship in the pacifist “Carnation Revolution” of 25 April 1974. Because of empathy, soldiers no longer believed it was right to fight in Portugal’s Wars in Africa, and this brought an end to Portugal’s Estado Novo, the longest dictatorship of modern times. It was a song playing on the radio, “Grândola, Vila Morena’ by Zeca Afonso, celebrating solidarity, that cued the people to rise up on that beautiful day in April, now celebrated by Portuguese people throughout the world.

Resistance is between the lines.
Resistance is under the lines.
Resistance is empathy.
Resistance is remembering.


– Elaine Avila