Making Friends Over Fado Music

We had spoken to Ricardo, the concierge at the hotel who booked our trip to Lagos, about the Fado music he played, and he wrote down the name of the restaurant he was playing at on Thursday night, the night of our return from Lagos to Lisbon. He played there every week, but he warned us that there was a chance he wouldn’t make it this time because his wife was nine months pregnant. Still, with no cell phones or way to contact him, we decided to take a cab to the restaurant to see what kind of adventure we’d have there.

As our cab pulled up to the restaurant, I heard Randi speaking to someone out the window. I stepped out and saw a woman with a full pregnant belly, who ran up to us, kissed us on both cheeks and said, “Ricardo, these are the girls you told me about? Oh I’m so glad you came!”

Ricardo and Elena led us into the restaurant, and Elena sat with us as Ricardo went to set up his guitar with the other musicians. It was a small restaurant, with only about 10 tables inside. Everyone in this restaurant clearly knew each other very well and looked at us quizzically, wondering why these foreign strangers had come to join in their weekly Fado tradition. Elena introduced us to our waitress, Matilda, and then suggested we order the cod. I was so sick of cod by this point in the trip, but I really wanted to take her up on this recommendation, so I agreed.

Elena told us about her upbringing in a small town outside of Naples, Italy, and how she met Ricardo while working in Ireland. He won her over by playing an acoustic version of “Hit Me Baby One More Time” on his guitar one night in their hostel. Elena was engaged to someone else back in Italy, but after meeting Ricardo, she decided to marry him instead. They had a traditional wedding near Elena’s family in Italy, but they now live in Lisbon, close to Ricardo’s family.

Before the music started, Elena prepared us for exactly what was about to happen, which we were so grateful for. The tradition of playing Fado music is very different than anything I’ve seen in America. The closest form of music I can compare it to is opera. After our meal was served, the lights in the restaurant were dimmed, everyone grew completely quiet and the four men softly began playing their Fado guitars – these beautiful, round bodied string instruments. A man from the audience stood up and began singing a slow, emotional tune, which I was fascinated by, but Elena whispered to us that he was one of the worst Fado singers in their group. Other singers from the audience took their turns, performing about three songs each. Then, to our surprise, our waitress, Matilda, took her turn. Once this petite woman began singing such an emotional, moving piece, Randi and I finally understood why Fado was such an incredible art form. She put her entire soul into this performance, conducting the entire thing with her eyes closed, and bringing the entire restaurant to tears. Elena told me that earlier this year, Matilda had lost her husband to cancer, and this was her way of expressing her grief. I couldn’t understand the words, but I could feel how much Matilda ached by listening to her song.

We eventually finished our meal and said goodbye to the group, and Ricardo and Elena drove us back to the hotel. We hugged them and thanked them profusely for giving us this amazing, truly unique and authentic Portugese experience on our last night in Lisbon.

We left for New York the next day, and our vacation was over, but Randi and I now have lifelong friends in Portugal.  Two weeks later, we got an email that baby Francesco was born, weighting 3.320 kg, and the family couldn’t be happier.

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