COIMBRA, PORTUGAL — You’re not supposed to clap for the fadistas in Coimbra.
“The men used to play (music) for the women in the balconies and if you clapped it would alert her parents,” the woman sitting next to me says, sipping at what I can only assume is port wine.
After noticing my University of Coimbra notebook, we started chatting and she began to explain all the traditions I could expect as a new student.
“You may not love Fado now, but trust me, you’ll experience the intensity of the Serenata and fall in love,” she says with conviction.
Fado is the traditional music of Portugal with distinct styles coming from Lisbon and Coimbra.
People are filing into Café Santa Cruz, rushing to find tables closest to the stage. Noticing my confusion at the sudden rush of patrons, she sets down her glass and winks, “the concert is starting soon.”
In the heart of Coimbra, you’ll find Café Santa Cruz, a room that was built in a church nearly half a millennium old. The church itself was built in 1530 and became a café in 1923. As you take a seat at one of the marble tables you’re greeted by stained-glass windows and high ceilings decorated with ribbed stone arches.
It’s used for lectures, poetry readings and art displays. During the summer the terrace is turned into a market for local artisans.
It’s main attraction, though, is the music.
Above: Fado musicians and singers appear on street corners and dazzle passersby with their tunes.
The barista places a crúzio, an almond pastry that you can only find at Santa Cruz, and a galão, the Portuguese equivalent of a café au lait on my table. I’d learned quickly how to order coffee in Portugal. While you may, in your best Portuguese accent, ask for um café, don’t be surprised when an espresso cup appears at your table. Before I have the chance to thank him he rushes to the entrance and starts taking orders from the ever-growing number of new customers.
“They play Fado here a few times a day,” she says, gesturing to everyone. “The tourists will be coming from the university any second now.”
I can’t help but laugh and she continues her lesson on Coimbra. I’d been attending classes at the University of Coimbra and spent most afternoons complaining about the number of tourists.
In Coimbra, vocalists are male and accompanied by one or two guitarras. Although they often play in large groups with multiple vocalists and musicians.
It’s a melancholic style of music heavily associated with the Portuguese word saudade: a deep sense of longing and yearning. It’s a word that can’t be fully translated to English.
The guitarists pluck at their instruments and the vocalist, wrapped in his black cape, begins.
Vocalists don’t simply sing Fado. They’re emotive and use their facial expressions and bodily gestures to invoke saudade in their performances. A deep sense of emotion and longing comes through in their singing whether it’s performed at a local Fado house or in the street.
Fadistas don’t just sing about Coimbra. They sing about the mysticism and longing for the city.
Above: Fado cafes, usually located down small alleys, are everywhere in Portugal.
It’s nearly impossible to walk through the streets of Coimbra and not hear music. The sound of guitars flows into the streets from local Fado Houses and bounces off the walls as fadistas in all black sing songs like Minha Mãe and Cantar de Emigração.
The café can be found at the end of the Baixa (or downtown). It’s a long, cobblestone path, lined with local shops and cafés. Street vendors sell roasted chestnuts in paper cones and students from the local university can be found singing Fado in their traditional, black capes.
The Baixa ends at Praça 8 de Maio, the home of Café Santa Cruz.
The singer exits the stage and the guitar players continue the concert, filling the space left by the vocalist. I can tell the woman next to me wants to continue speaking but the café has gone silent as the songs change.
“You know Amalia?” she asks, leaning towards me in a hushed tone.
I nodded. Of course I knew Amalia Rodrigues. She’s the Rainha do Fado (Queen of Fado) and the inspiration for numerous murals across the country and the world.
Above: Coimbra is a charming city filled with many landmarks, like this footbridge, opened to traffic in 1970.
In Lisbon, her face is proudly displayed in cobblestone and in Porto de Mós she’s depicted holding her guitar. In Coimbra, she’s remembered in song.
The vocalist returns and two guitarists begin playing again. After just a few notes there’s an immediate change in atmosphere. As he sings the first lyrics of Coimbra é uma lição de sonho e tradição, you can see the locals turn to each other and smile.
“This is her song,” she says. “The Fado of Coimbra is only sung by men but Amalia’s song is more famous.”
As the final song comes to an end the audience begins to clap and fadistas say their thank yous before exiting the stage.
“You can clap,'' she says, noticing my hesitation. “Just don’t clap after the Serenata.”