Imagine dining at a restaurant where your waiter breaks out into a Grammy-worthy singing performance. That’s Fado.
And that’s exactly what we experienced with our first Fado performance in Lisbon. Our Couchsurfing host, Miguel recommended we experience this beautiful Portuguese tradition. But not just anywhere. We needed to make a reservation at A Baiuca, a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the heart of the Alfama.
Fado is Portugal’s most famous music genre – sad, soulful and achingly beautiful. Miguel explained that Lisbon has many Fado restaurants catering to tourists that feature professional singers. But the most authentic Fado is actually sung for, and by, ordinary people. In fact, the tradition of Fado began long ago with the wives of fishermen. While waiting for their husbands to come back from long trading or fishing trips out at sea, they sang.
Fado allowed them to express deep emotion and find comfort in their solitude.
Listening to Fado is like going on a journey. The lyrics speak to the struggles and joys of life. In that sense, you don’t have to know Portuguese to understand what they’re trying to convey. A Baiuca gave us a glimpse into this intimate world. While dining on a feast of prawns, veal kidneys, Portuguese seafood rice and Bolo Rei (“King Cake”), everyone from our waiter to the dishwasher, took turns belting out a soulful tune. Nearly all kept their eyes closed. Their facial expressions added to the raw, expressive nature of singing. Their dramatic gestures emphasized the emotion of the phrases.
Incredibly, these performances are only for the restaurant’s small audience. About thirty guests can fit among a few family-style tables. As the only Americans in our group, we were grateful that everyone at our table spoke English. We exchanged stories between songs. Food kept coming and wine kept flowing. Upon hearing we’d just begun our European sabbatical, two couples from Belgium insisted we visit them in Antwerp. At the time, it seemed implausible that it would pan out. But several months later, we did meet up with them and are still in touch to this day.
As the clock ticked closer to midnight, the Fado performers came out for one last performance.
After that, champagne glasses were filled. Everyone exited the restaurant, including the staff, to view the celebratory fireworks that had just begun. People of all ages from the neighborhood joined us in the narrow, cobblestone streets. Excitement filled the brisk Mediterranean air.
The countdown to the new year had officially begun. I looked around at the people we’d just spent the last four hours with. Fado had brought a group strangers together as new friends. Suddenly, home didn’t feel so far away. And I couldn’t think of a more fitting way to usher in a new year filled with unexpected adventures ahead.