Twelve-year-old Samhaira Furtado’s powerful rich voice intoned the lyrics of a classic Portuguese fado, Cancao do Mar or song of the sea, as she rehearsed before the elimination round of a fado competition in November. Furtado’s grandparents spoke fluent Portuguese, her parents very little, and she none at all.
Furtado’s violin and keyboard playing attested to her musical skills, which she had first displayed by the age of three, when she had won her first singing contest. Two days before appearing at the fado contest in central Panjim, Furtado had won the Goa Nightingale title for singing an original Konkani song.
Furtado’s turn at the riverfront office of the Institute Camoes, a Portuguese language training centre, was followed by Grisha Costa, a former Miss India finalist and an ex-airline employee. Fado has become a passion for Costa. She enrolled to learn Portuguese, took fado classes and downloads all the fado music she can find online.
“It was my tryst with destiny,” she said. “I chanced on an introductory session on fado in my city. Hearing Sonia [Shirsat, Goa’s leading fadista] sing gave me goosebumps. It was mesmerising. I had never heard anything like it before.”
A 19th century genre of melancholic, contemplative song with a distinctive style and cadence, fado was once prevalent among the Portuguese language speakers in Goa. But with the liberation from the Portuguese in 1961, the language underwent a slow decline, and fado got stuck with a ubiquitous descriptor – a dying tradition in Goa.
Thanks to private efforts, though, it is undergoing is a kind of revival, drawing new audiences and a younger demographic of singers. Among the fado contestants this year were 14-year-old Chinmai Parab, who also sings Hindustani classical music, and 10-year-old Saaachi Tamba.
A 65-year-old retired banker, Avita Costa is enrolled at the Goa University’s MA programme in Portuguese language and had driven 35 km for her fado practice. “My professor asked me to give it a try, so I thought why not?” she said. The verses sung in fado – listed as an intangible world heritage by UNESCO – are composed by poets about the themes of love, the sea, longing and nostalgia.
“You cannot formally learn fado singing,” Shirsat said of the genre. “You imbibe it, by training with other fado singers.”
Musician Carlos Meneses anchored the practice sessions and elimination rounds across three towns for the Semana da Cultura Indo-Portuguesa’s fado competition. Meneses plays the viola de fado (classical guitar) for virtually every fado singer in Goa, including the globally acclaimed Shirsat. A violinist with the Goa Symphony Orchestra, Meneses picked up classical guitar by ear and trained with the acclaimed Portuguese guitar instrumentalist, Antonio Chainho, during a two-week course in 2003.
“We grew up listening to fado in our homes, mainly spools of Amalia Rodrigues,” Meneses said. “My mother who was a pathologist sang fado on family occasions. In Goa, it was a folk tradition that was almost dying. I go the extra mile, so it can be kept alive.”
History of revival
It has taken over two and a half decades for fado to come this far in Goa.
Vem Cantar, or come and sing, a Portuguese-language singing competition initiated in 1998 by the heritage cell of a local college, heralded the revival. In 2001, the Macao-headquartered Portuguese cultural foundation Fundação Oriente opened an office in Panjim in 1995 and threw its weight behind the contest.
“Vem Cantar undoubtedly is our flagship project,” said Ines Figueira, the foundation’s Goa delegate. “It has provided a platform for the growing community of Portuguese language speakers and students to learn the language through song.” From 31 solo contestants, the platform has seen horizontal and vertical growth, garnering singers and musicians across age categories, group and solo singers through multiple events and rounds. Now in its twentieth year, the contest saw some 82 soloists and 26 groups of secondary and higher secondary students besides families and seniors participate.
Over the years, the foundation has brought several fado exponents to Goa, besides offering annual study grants for various academic and artistic pursuits to Indians. In 2003, it flew down Antonio Chainho. It was Chainho who encouraged Vem Cantar winner Sonia Shirsat, then a law student, to train in fado performance.
Already a proficient singer, Shirsat, who was raised in the temple town of Ponda by a Roman Catholic mother and Hindu physician father, trained in Portugal, imbibed the traditions and experience of the fado bars of Lisbon and Coimbra (the two distinctive fado styles, though the latter is almost exclusively a male preserve) and by 2008, held her first solo fado concert in Lisbon.
“Shirsat is not just a Goan or an Indian fadista, but an international fadista,” said Delfim Correia da Silva, head of the Institute Camoes and visiting faculty at Goa University.
In 2010, Chainho released his album Lis-goa (referencing Lisboa, or Lisbon), combining fado with Konkani folk, Indian classical, Hindi Bollywood and influences from his time in India. Shirsat, meanwhile, revived the fado in Goa as no one could. Her concerts are a huge draw, both in Goa and other parts of India. Her commercial success has encouraged younger singers like Nadia Rebelo, Chantale Cotta and 17-year-old Sherwyn Correia. The three have performed at the Noite de Fado, the monthly fado night at the five-star hotel Cidade de Goa, the only regular commercial fado event that has been running for several years. Rebelo and Shirsat, who have turned professional, have cut fado discs.
“I could see that the audience for fado tended to be in the same age demographic,” said Shirsat. “We needed to create new audiences, to take fado out of its existing circles into the public. So I conceived of Fado in the City in 2016, where I held talks and sang on different aspects of fado at several venues in several towns across Goa, to educate and engage with audiences that had never heard the genre before. It was a runaway success. I was shocked at the response.”
Portuguese-language speakers among Goa’s Catholic community have tended to be the ones keeping the tradition alive, but Fado in the City drew the interest of many non-Portuguese speakers and new settlers in the state. Ravi Nischal, the general manager of the Taj Fort Aguada, was at one session, and soon proposed to work with Meneses and Shirsat on the Fado de Goa project as the Taj Group’s Corporate Social Responsibility, to revive a dying tradition.
Fado de Goa
Anchored by Shirsat, Fado de Goa takes introductory sessions to newer towns, followed by intense fado classes for participants who train to perform fados at a valedictory certificate concert and a final, third level of one-to-one training with the fadista for a select few. “At the end of four batches in the first year, we have 150 singers who can sing the fado,” said Shirsat. “It has surpassed my expectations.”
Spic Macay, the cultural organisation which is on board with Fado de Goa, plans to take the programme to other Indian cities, said Meneses. It is keen to mesh the commercial, touristic and economic spinoffs from the revival, as more fadistas emerge from the project. It also plans to train more musicians to play the 12-string Portuguese guitar.
“We deliberately called it the Fado de Goa project,” said De Silva. “Who knows, someday it may be possible to develop a new Goa style of fado, with verses composed around Goa, and using the intonations and Goan manner of speaking Portuguese.”