João Caçador and Lila Fadista met in Lisbon through their mutual love of fado. Initially, the rigid conventions of the traditional music genre didn’t seem to match their queer identities, but, together, they found a way to make it theirs. Now, they discuss defying conservatism, representing a silent legacy and fighting back the resurgence of the extreme-right in a country on the eve of a presidential election.
Written by: Beatriz Negreiros
February 2019. There was a tension in the Lisbon air that winter. The stress was, to be precise, of a social and political nature, and had to do with what has since become one of the most pressing taboos of Portuguese society – racism. Four years prior, seventeen policemen had been accused of torturing six young black men in the Alfragide police station, in what many saw as an episode of racially motivated police brutality. The case, now in trial, was all over the news. Mamadou Ba, the leader of the anti-racism organization SOS Racismo, expressed his concerns about the lack of conversations the country (whose colonial rule lasted until the seventies) was willing to have about race. He was met with criticism and even threats. To make matters worse, at the beginning of the year, television presenter Manuel Luís Goucha invited the leader of the neo-fascist movement Nova Ordem Social, Mário Machado, to Você Na TV, one of the most watched day-time talk-shows in Portugal. Mário Machado’s criminal record is extensive, and perhaps more notably, includes four years spent in prison due to his involvement in the murder of Alcindo Monteiro, a 27-year-old black man, in 1995. Just short of 25 years later, many felt Monteiro’s legacy had already been erased from the public conscience, as one of his killers comfortably sat in front of an audience of millions talking about his “controversial ideals.”
“All of this left us very disturbed,” recalls Lila Fadista’s voice on the phone from the capital. Fadista makes up one half of the duo Fado Bicha, singing and writing the band’s lyrics; João Caçador accompaignes her on guitar. Together, as the first part of their band name showcases, they play fado – one of Portugal’s most recognizable music traditions, in which a wailing singer is joined by a melancholic guitarist on songs about fate and longing. However, as the second part of their name clarifies, they do so while expressing their queer identities and experiences to the fullest (in Portuguese, ‘bicha’ is a homophobic slur, which, just like the word ‘queer’, has since been reclaimed by the LGBTQ community). It’s something quite unheard of in a country whose 46-year-old democracy still feels the effects of the conservative, authoritarian regime that was in place for a large part of the twentieth century – and of which fado was very much a part.
In February 2019, Fado Bicha, who call themselves both activists and musicians, decided to air their frustrations with a nation of people who seemingly refused to discuss racial injustice. Fadista and Caçador took ‘Lisboa, Não Sejas Francesa’ (‘Lisbon, Don’t Be French’) by Amália Rodrigues – arguably the most famous fado singer in the world – and turned her critique of Lisbon’s submittal to the foreign to a commentary on its refusal to address its racist past and present. “I’ve always wanted to do something with that song”, Fadista remembers. “It had this potential of serving both as a fado and a protest song, by saying ‘Lisbon, Don’t Be…’ There are so many things Lisbon shouldn’t be. Racist being one of them.”
In the video, Caçador aggressively straddles the electric guitar while Fadista sings in an emotional fashion, her voice wavering as is custom in the fado tradition, as she delves into everything from the racist threats addressed to Mamadou Ba to Mário Machado’s television appearance. ‘Lisboa, Não Sejas Racista’ has since amassed nearly a hundred thousand views, and the multinational comment section foreshadows the success Fado Bicha have gotten to experience both in Portugal and abroad since. Besides having performed all around the country, they’ve also been touring all around the world – Spain, France, Brazil and Iceland, just to name a few. But how did two queer musicians manage to break into the seeminglyold-fashioned, conservative world of fado? And, perhaps more importantly, why?
“I knew I had to create my own space within the fado universe”Lila Fadista
Despite its common association with conversative values and the right-wing dictatorship, which made it one of its cultural emblems (along with football and religion), fado was first the language of the marginalized – something that Fado Bicha are trying to recover by placing their queer identities and experiences at the center of their art. In its earliest documented form, fado can be traced back to 19th century Lisbon neighborhoods such as Alfama and Mouraria, where it was sung and played by social outcasts such as prostitutes, sailors, and dock workers. The dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar, however, took the music from its humble origins and placed it in the forefront of the regime’s identity; Amália Rodrigues became a national symbol, as Portuguese as the flag.
Although fado’s exact origins are still widely disputed, scholars of the genre such as Rui Vieira Nery agree it’s very likely to have originated from the cultural and ethnic melting pot brewing in the Lisbon docks. The dictatorship made it uniquely Portuguese; a source of the same ultra-nationalistic pride which led Mário Machado and others to kill Alcindo Monteiro in the very same place fado was born.
“When we were growing up, in the late nineties, early 2000s, fado wasn’t very popular among the younger generations”, recalls Caçador. “I first got introduced to it in my university’s tuna (a music group made up of university students, ed.), in which the repertoire was mostly Amália songs. That’s when her poetry – not just what she sang, but how she sang it – started resonating with me.” A few years later, a fado singer friend began taking Caçador to fado houses around the capital, where the young musician was stunned by the proximity between the performers and the public. “In a fado house, sometimes you’ll have someone who has never sung in their life, but really enjoys a fado and knows it by heart, stand up and join the singer. You would never have that in another concert setting. Imagine watching Radiohead and someone suddenly jumping on stage to sing ‘Creep’. That would never happen” he cackles.
Caçadors fascination gave way to disappointment when he first clashed with the genre’s strict conventions: “I couldn’t sing certain fados, because they were meant for women, I had to play guitar under a very rigid set of rules… I couldn’t do anything of my own.” It was upon discovering Lila Fadista, another queer artist trying to find her place in fado, through a Facebook video, that he felt motivated to continue doing so himself. They began playing together, and have been ever since.
For Fadista, her relationship with the genre hit similar strides, from her discovery of fado singers as a teenager to her full-fledged transformation into one as an adult. “My relationship with fado is very different from João’s, as I’m not a musician, neither have I ever felt a very strong connection to the fado houses and the fado world in general. It felt like an inaccessible universe to me…” she says. Like Caçador, her introduction was made through Amália Rodrigues’ siren voice. “I started connecting to what she sang, and relating it to my own lived experiences”. Naturally, Fadista felt a strong desire to sing these songs herself – however, upon attempting to enter that world through formal means (fado school, fado houses) she discovered that she didn’t feel welcome in it. “I knew I had to create my space within the fado universe”, she recalls, defiant. And so she did. And, soon enough, Caçador joined her, and Fado Bicha was born.
“We’re just telling our stories”João Caçador
According to Fadista and Caçador, the act of singing and playing fado as a queer person is deeper than just being subversive. They take turns speaking on the complicated politics of not just creating art as queer people, but creating art as queer people within a historically conservative, hetero-exclusive musical lore. They pick their words carefully, and speak with the precision and the clarity of two academics.
“We’re not necessarily subversive by nature”, begins Fadista. “What we do isn’t necessarily subversive either. It becomes subversive in the moment it clashes with a larger societal structure which rejects us upfront.” It is important to note that, up until 1982, homosexuality was illegal in Portugal. Throughout the country’s history, gay and lesbian mainstream icons are few and far between; transgender and non-binary are practically non-existent. “We become subversive because, after all this, we’ve managed to gather the strength and the resources to exist freely”.
According to the singer, there is much confusion between tradition and normativity; it is not because of the tradition of fado that queer people are usually not seen as obvious participants in it. It is rather due to the colossal way society’s – and, especially, Portuguese society’s – heteronormativity pulverized queer people’s existence in popular culture, save for a few select examples. “These identities and experiences have existed since the dawn of time”, she explains. “Surely, there have been LGBTQ people involved in creating, composing and performing fado from the very start. But they weren’t able to tell their stories. Maybe there was a queer person who once sang a fado about being a queer person in Mouraria in 1845. But we’ll never know.”
For Caçador, the political dimension exists, but in hundreds of years of forbidding queer stories to exist within the canon, rather than in him and Fadista claiming this patrimony as a vehicle of artistic expression. “We’re just telling our stories,” he says. “If we were telling someone else’s stories, then it would be political”. “This is where we believe Fado Bicha comes into play”, concludes Fadista. “Not only to reflect this lack of representation of queer stories in the history of fado, but to be able to sing ‘Lila Fadista, your beautiful story our memory will keep’ (on the song ‘Lila Fadista’, ed.). To sing this is to build an optimistic history. We’re not there yet. But we will make sure that we will. We will include ourselves in this tradition, which has always been ours as well”.
“With everything going on around us, it would feel strange to sing love songs”Lila Fadista
If in February 2019 the Portuguese extreme-right was a quiet but growing stream bubbling beneath the surface of the country’s political conversation, it has now taken over the mainstream like a tidal wave. Last year, a new party entered the government – Chega. The party’s populist rhetoric filled programme was as gruesome to some as it was appealing to others; among other things, it proposed a revision of the constitution currently in place, making it so that pedophiles would be sentenced to chemical castration and making same-sex marriage, which was made legal in Portugal in 2010, illegal once again. More recently, a motion was presented in one of their most recent congresses calling for the removal of the ovaries of women who chose to abort. The party’s ferocious leader, André Ventura, has managed to make headlines every time he’s spoken in parliament since his election in mid-2019 – from when he told black deputy Joacine Katar Moreira to “go back to her country”, to when he proposed a confinement plan specific to the Roma community at the head of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, he plans to take the presidential seat (or at least, try to) in the upcoming presidential election, which is set to take place in early 2021.
And if in February 2019 racial tension was palpable in the Lisbon air, in 2020 it is insufferable and to some, deadly, as Bruno Marques Candé’s murder this summer proves. The 39-year-old black actor was fatally shot after being told by his killer to “go back to his country”. It reminded people once again of Alcindo Monteiro’s death, and his murderer’s utterances bore a chilling resemblance to the words Ventura told Katar Moreira earlier this year.
Music has always played an important role in political activism in Portugal – it was a song, Paulo de Carvalho’s ‘E Depois Do Adeus’, that cued the military coup which restored democracy in the country, in 1974. The revolution was sung by voices like those of Zeca Afonso, Sérgio Godinho and Zé Mário Branco, which have since become an integral part of the liberation movement in the public consciousness. But whose revolution was it? Its ambassadors, at least on the musical side of things, were predominantly, if not exclusively, straight white men. At the time, colonel Galvão de Melo infamously declared that “the revolution was not made for prostitutes and homosexuals”. Now, Fado Bicha have replied in their ‘Marcha do Orgulho’ lyric video – ‘honey, we are the revolution’. Forty-six years later, Fadista and Caçador are reclaiming the Portuguese tradition of protesting through song and branching out its subject matter – tackling topics related not only to the LGBTQ strife, but also xenophobia, gender equality, animal rights and, of course, racism.
When asked whether they feel their artistic peers should feel obligated to tackle similar issues in their work, given the current political and social climate, the reply seems to be a resounding “no” – “no one should be obliged to sing about anything” – with some “buts” in between. “I would really like to see artists, especially in the mainstream, creating politically engaged art. I think it’s a sign of democratic maturity”, says Fadista. Caçador adds: “Music, much like humour, isn’t created in a vacuum. There is an expectation to engage with the real world.” Fadista: “I feel that with everything going on around us, it would feel strange to sing love songs. Don’t get me wrong – I adore love songs! But it’s not what I want to do.”
Over the phone, she, like Caçador, sounds deeply concerned with the state of things. But she also sounds strong; there is a streak of insubordination cracking under the pristine, well-spoken surface. Much like the way Amália sounded. Maybe this is what fado was all about, all along.