Time Travel: Lisbon, February 2014 – To Fado and Living in the Moment

Tasca do Chico, a well-known fado bar in Lisbon (Rua do Diário de Notícias) is a small place crammed with wooden tables, benches and, on fado nights, people. Fado, a type of Portuguese folk music that traditionally features mournful singing by a single vocalist with various guitar accompaniment, is still popular today in concert venues and some bars. At Tasca do Chico, there are photos of fado stars all over the walls and colorful banners hanging from the ceiling; a small bar at the back sells cheap beer. The performers stand on the bar floor just inches from patrons while the apparent owner, a gentleman in a suit with a trim white mustache, closes and blocks the front door during each set. The performers don’t use microphones and the warm, dimly lit room hushes as they prepare to sing. It’s a powerfully intimate atmosphere… but only if the audience cooperates.

The night I went to Tasca do Chico, I sat shoulder to shoulder with other tourists near the door– the locals had known enough to reserve spots or arrive early to spread out in the cozy corner next to the bar. They chatted with employees and performers between songs and acted like they were in their own living rooms.

Three men between the ages of about 50 and 75 performed, each with his own individual style. Standing in the middle of the floor they addressed the audience simply, their posture straight and proud as they turned to face different areas of the room. Their rich, beautiful voices lilted through the room like smoke.

Unfortunately, the voices had some competition: Beep beep – click. Beep beep. Click.

Tourists’ phones and cameras made little noises and blinked green and red while their owners squirmed and fidgeted to get a good shot. Bright flashes shocked the quiet cave of the bar. Someone ducked in the door to snap a picture while shouting back to their family. Although the performers were clearly used to it, they also happened to be human, and you could see the distraction flicker across their faces. A magical, once-in-a-lifetime moment, though still amazing, was altered by everyone trying to capture its authenticity with their gadgets.

I love that with a flutter of my fingers I can pull up any song I can think of on my computer or phone screen and that I can carry hundreds of albums around with me in my pocket. This solitary, easy-access listening mode helps relieve me of the monotony of commuting and lesson-planning.

But I’m a strong believer that pockets are exactly where devices should stay during live performances. Live music is a visceral experience– you can literally feel the music vibrating inside your chest like a second heartbeat. You can make eye contact with the musicians and absorb and contribute to the energy of the crowd around you. It is an essentially immediate and ephemeral event. Screens enable us to create longer-lasting images, but they are barriers between us and the immediate.

If you visit Lisbon, you should experience fado. But please, for everyone’s sake, leave your phone in your pocket. You can have a record and you can have a moment, but you can’t always  have both.

(image from Unesco)

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