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HomeOpinionGoans are mixing it all up–Fado music with sitar and ragas

Goans are mixing it all up–Fado music with sitar and ragas

For performers, Fado is more than a genre. It’s a deeply personal expression of Goan culture, steeped in their own experiences of growing up in the state’s music-filled households.

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A cool December breeze whispers through the doors of a stately Assagao villa and I find myself enveloped in darkness, all gooseflesh and eyes pricking with tears. The Goan winter, typically balmy, isn’t to blame – but I am in the grip of a sorrow that I cannot name or pin down.

In the dimmed room, time holds its breath as Nadia Rebelo’s haunting ‘Fado’ ballad pierces the air. Even though I cannot understand the Portuguese lyrics, the raw, undefinable emotion in her voice transcends language, holding me captive. I am surrounded by other Fado enthusiasts, but we all might as well have been alone, each of us floating solo in a river of unnamed longing.

A few weeks later, I find myself in a starkly different setting: a brightly lit lecture hall at Goa University, about 25 kilometres south of Assagao. The room buzzes with energy, filled with students ranging from 10 to 65 years of age. The hall is a far cry from the enchanted evening in Assagao, but the enthusiasm here is palpable, despite the drowsy post-lunch hour.

At the podium stands Goa’s award-winning fadista, the ever-smiling Sonia Shirsat. With infectious passion, she explains the nuanced differences between the Lisboa and Coimbra styles of the Portuguese guitar, an integral part of the Fado. The theory lessons are engaging enough, drawing questions from around the room, but they are merely a prelude. It’s when Shirsat invites the class to join in singing a Fado that the room truly comes alive, to the definitive thwack of notebooks slapping shut.

A coastal home for Fado

From dimly lit living rooms to bustling university halls, the sounds of Fado resound through Goa. This wistful art form has woven itself into the fabric of Goan culture, flourishing far from its Portuguese origins. In its purest form, Fado (loosely translated as “fate”) is performed by a solo singer, accompanied by the soft but insistent strains of the Portuguese guitar and classical guitar. A solitary fadista, often envisioned draped in a lacy black shawl, pours their heart out into verses that focus on sea-faring beloveds, tragic romances, and the vagaries of fate.

Emerging from the streets and smoky taverns of early 19th-century Lisbon, Fado found its primary Goan audience in the refined parlours of the Portuguese-speaking elite. As local radio stations began to broadcast these melancholic tunes, Fado’s reach expanded, captivating a broader swathe of listeners.

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More than just music

The defining characteristic of Fado is an undefinable sense of loss, or “saudade”. It’s an emotion that seems at odds with the sunny, carefree image associated with Goa. Yet, anyone who has experienced the state during its moody monsoons will intimately understand the essence of saudade. Shirsat likens it to a cathartic sigh. “Fado is a very soulful genre,” she told me during an interview. “It leaves you with a sense of heaviness, but also a kind of calm.”

This feeling of catharsis continues to surpass language barriers, transforming Fado from a colonial import into a living artefact of the state’s rich cultural history. That’s largely due to the efforts of artists like Shirsat and Rebelo, who is a part of the ensemble Entre Nos, along with musicians Omar De Loiola Pereira and Selwyn Menezes. Shirsat performs at various events around Goa, including Cidade De Goa’s extremely popular monthly Noite De Fado. Entre Nos, meanwhile, teamed up with Schubert Fernandes to produce Sounds From Goa, an intimate event that introduces audiences to Goan food and music, set in a heritage home.

For these performers, Fado is more than a genre. It’s a deeply personal expression of Goan culture, steeped in their own experiences of growing up in the state’s music-filled households. Rebelo’s father is a drummer, while her mother is a ballroom dancer; her sister trained her for music competitions growing up. Shirsat might have studied to be a lawyer, but she also grew up participating in competitions – “winning them was my only vice!” – and was introduced to Fado by her mother who would sing it while doing chores. Shirsat went on to win Vem Cantar, the very prestigious Portuguese singing contest in 2006, and travelled to Portugal on a scholarship to train further in the genre.

Pereira’s uncle handed him a guitar when he was seven, taught him his first two chords, and instructed him to play “Happy Birthday” for his father the following day. “I had no idea I was musically inclined until then, but the moment I held that guitar, it was as if I was possessed,” Pereira told me. He now also directs two local choirs.

These personal journeys are not unique in Goa, where music is as pervasive as the salt in the air, and permeates every aspect of Goan life. You’ll hear it in the strumming emanating from a local dive bar in the evening, in the brass bands that are fixtures at traditional Catholic weddings and Konkani musical shows, in the live singing accompanying Sunday brunches, in the competing Narkasurs around Diwali, and the foot-thumping Lorna performance that rounds off the Carnival in Samba Square. So central is music to Goan life that it prompted Pereira to say about the corporate career he gave up before becoming a full-time musician: “I was making a living, but I wasn’t really living”.

It is this musical landscape that has nurtured so many talents over the years, and offers a fertile ground for Fado to thrive, even as it evolves and adapts to the local context. Goan Fado artists are now infusing it with new life and meaning, finding innovative ways to ensure its continued relevance and reach.

Shirsat, for instance, has experimented with the sitar and infused a few performances with a Hindustani classical raga. Similarly, events by Sounds From Goa offer a unique blend of Goan musical traditions, starting with a lively Mando performance before transitioning into Fado’s solemn, dreamy world. This carefully curated journey highlights the interconnectedness of these different forms, and how the state’s history has shaped them.

Even as Fado evolves and adapts, its essence remains unchanged. As Pereira notes, the scarcity of Portuguese guitarists in Goa has led to a lot of Fado being sung in a “non-purist” style, with instruments like keyboards or mandolins standing in for the traditional Portuguese guitar. Yet, the emotion that the music evokes, continues to captivate audiences, speaking to connections that elude definition. As Shirsat so eloquently puts it, “You are born a fadista, you cannot be made one.”

Eventually, it doesn’t matter whether Fado is sung with a Portuguese guitar or a sitar, in a dark taverna or a bright classroom. What matters is the spirit that animates it, is alive and well. Fado will always have a home in Goa, where it can connect us to the past, our present, and maybe, even to each other.

This is the first article in the Goa Life series, which explores the new and the old of Goan culture.

Karanjeet Kaur is a journalist, former editor of Arré, and a partner at TWO Design. She tweets @Kaju_Katri. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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