November 17th, 2010

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A letter from the Club Desportivo de Mouraria,

The roasted chestnuts on St. Martin’s day were so hot I had to toss them back and forth in my hands to keep from burning my skin. Risking a burnt tongue for the meaty and complex flavor of the chestnuts, I could always cool my mouth with a plastic cup full of agua-pe. Agua-pe is a light wine made from adding water to the husks of pressed grapes. The drink is illegal in Lisbon, but the big boss of the Club Desportivo de Mouraria toasted me with cup after cup of his home made brew.

They weren’t supposed to sing Fado for us that day. My gracious guides, Jose and Teresa, had brought me to this collective with the slight hope that I could record some a capella songs and stories. Ethan, Carlos, and Jose had come as emissaries the week before, and Ethan, who is a large and imposing guy himself, was intimidated by all of the rough “gangsters” who seemed intensely suspicious of outsiders.

As we talked to the seventy-year-old godmother of the collective, the risible Dona America, we were being watched. I don’t blame them for being suspicious, I must have seemed so odd to them with my Antagonist clothes, American sneakers, and my recording equipment. Jose noticed through a door, opened ajar, a council of men in track suits debating whether or not they could trust us. I was oblivious.

They must have sensed my earnestness because, after forty-five minutes, they sent for musicians. The room was rearranged, the lights dimmed, and Jose came running over to me, saying, “They are going to do the Fado for us!” And so, the Fado began. That hour was one of those crystalline times when one feels the power of life to strip us of our immurement in safe and deadening routine. And for one pure moment we sit in naked, sensate vulnerability brought back to life once more by music and laughter and fellowship.

As we were leaving the club, Jose remarked that they had paid the musicians to play for us. This made me uncomfortable. It was clear to me that the building that housed the club needed repairs, and that the club’s scarce resources could have been put to better use. Sensing my concern, Jose reassured me, “All of these traditional collectives are dying in Lisbon. They are being ignored. For you to come and show genuine interest in the Fado makes them feel pride, and this pride is what keeps them alive.”

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