Yesterday I took some Brazilian friends to a restaurant where the “fado”, the traditional Portuguese song, is sung.
“Fado” literally means “destiny” in Portuguese, in a sort of fatalistic way – the sort of destiny we cannot escape. It is the very essence of our Portuguese soul, nostalgic and sentimental – and no one sang it quite like Amália, the greatest fado singer of all time. Its lyrics may be joyful or sad, light or dark, tell us a joke or a sad story, but the sound of it is unmistakable. As we hear the sound of the Portuguese guitar (unique in the world), wherever we are we feel a sort of shiver, something deep within, and then we know, without a doubt, that we are Portuguese to the bone.
My Brazilian friends, a lady about my age who is a brilliant lawyer and a Law Professor at University, and a young postgraduate management student were thrilled as it was their first time – coincidentally, for both.
After sitting down at our table they started asking questions about Portuguese History. They were particularly interested – as I suppose all Brazilians are – in the maritime discoveries, as it was a Portuguese navigator, Pedro Álvares Cabral, who first discovered what would become their homeland, Brazil, in 1500.
I really love History, so I was soon telling them about “Infante D. Henrique” (“Infante” being the title of princes who were the sons of kings), a prince of Portugal, and son to D. João I, whose reign was in the late 14th – early 15th century. This king came to the throne after a revolution (against the Castilians, who wanted to take over our country) and thus married late, in his thirties (by Middle Age standards it was very late, as people married in their teens and most only lived to their thirties!) to an English lady, daughter to the Duke of Lancaster and granddaughter of the King of England. She was Philippa of Lancaster and her influence in Portugal would be significant: she had 8 children who were very well educated and who all went on to lead prominent lives and leave their mark in history. So it was no wonder that her son Henrique dedicated his life to creating a navigation school in Sagres, on the Algarve (south of Portugal), where he assembled some of the most brilliant minds of the time in science, mathematics, astronomy, navigation, etc: Jews and Arabs.
And it was this unique combination of advanced knowledge and a nation’s indomitable spirit that led Portuguese sailors to face the terrifying oceans – where monsters were thought to live – and give “new worlds to the world”, as they said back then.
As I was finishing my tale, the lights went out and a “fado” singer (“fadista”), a very well known one belonging to a traditional family of “fado” singers, arrived with the guitar players and started singing. After him, a woman came who also sang a few songs. And as they sang about Lisbon and its streets, about the river Tagus, about legendary “fado” singers of old and horses and bullfights, about broken hearts and feelings of loneliness, again – and it happens every time I hear the fado – I felt transported by the music and I felt proud, so proud to be Portuguese.
We may not be a big country, but we have been great. We may not be rich, we may not even be considered very relevant in European politics and even less worldwide…but we have a past to be proud of, we have an incredible History filled not only with indomitable characters – beginning with our first king, D. Afonso Henriques, who declared our independence from Castile and went into battle with his own mother in the process – but with romantic stories as well, like that of D. Pedro and Inês de Castro, a heart rendering romance between a prince of Portugal, heir to the throne, and the beautiful lady in waiting to his wife, a story that ended tragically when he, already a king, had her taken from her grave and crowned years after she was murdered by his father’s men and allegedly at his orders; a country with varied delicious gastronomy and lively cities and beautiful landscapes.
As we left the restaurant, my Brazilian friends were ecstatic, having intensely enjoyed the experience. I too was contented. As I drove home I was again thinking of this strange phenomena that occurs every time I hear the “fado”: it stirs a deep emotion within me – it probably has to do with the unseen, but very strong, bonds that tie me to this sunny, sad at times but joyful at many others, inspiring, sentimental, nostalgic but still happy, magic country that is my homeland – my beloved Portugal.
Because, even if I was born in Mozambique, one must never forget that, back then, it was a corner of Portugal, in far away, distant Africa. The same Africa where our brave navigators arrived, five centuries ago. Facing the most incredible dangers, among them the fearsome “giant Adamastor” who was said to keep vigil at the “Cape of Storms’’, later called the Cape of Good Hope. Where the captains of our ships would shiver while facing him, but still kept a strong hand on the wheel, bound to it but the sheer will of “his Majesty the King of Portugal” –as our great poet Fernando Pessoa sings in his famous epic poem.
Our warrior first king and how he turned Portugal from a county to an independent country; the tragic love story of D. Pedro and Inês de Castro; how the sailors faced and overcame their fears of monsters and conquered the vast oceans – so many stories from our History, all of them fascinating.
Stories that I will keep on telling, again and again.