Portuguese Fado and a Few Dirty Tables The Portuguese folk music called fado is enjoying a surge in popularity, thanks to international stars like Mariza. But in the narrow alleys of Lisbon's Alfama district, locals like their fado stripped down to its soulful essentials.

Portuguese Fado and a Few Dirty Tables

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There's no music more melancholy than fado. This folk music from Portugal specializes in longing. As fado has become more popular, internationally, many singers have tinkered with the style. In Lisbon, though, you will still find traditional performers singing with guitarists in cramped bars. Jerome Socolovsky spent an evening in one and sent this report.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: It's a weekday night, and the Sao Miguel de Alfama is hopping.

(Soundbite of singing)

There are about half a dozen tables under the low brick arches. The club is on the ground floor of a 10th-century Moorish building in the Alfama, the old waterfront district where the fado was born. No one is sure how it started, but some believe the fado began when Portuguese sailors sang about their yearning for home using African slave melodies.

(Soundbite of singing)

While one of the bar's singers performs inside, the others stand out on the cobblestone alley, smoking and exchanging jokes.

(Soundbite of indistinct talking and laughing)

One laughs that they'll never be as successful as stars like Mariza, Camane and others who've made the fado popular overseas. These singers say they earn about $40 a night. At the Sao Miguel, they help wait and even bus the tables when it gets busy.

(Soundbite of applause)

Jose Matoso is the maitre d', the emcee, and one of the fadistas. He used to drive a taxi during the day and sing at night. A few years ago, his wife convinced him to dedicate himself, full-time, to the clubs in the Alfama and in Lisbon's other barrios.

Mr. JOSE MATOSO (Sao Miguel de Alfama): (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: There's a lobby that helps some people, like Mariza, Camane and others, he says. They consider traditional fadistas like us to be poorly educated and not refined enough to be presentable in other places.

Much of the global success of fado has been thanks to the introduction of other instruments, like the piano, and mixing it with other styles. Jose Matoso says most of what people hear abroad is not the real thing.

Mr. MATOSO: (Foreign language spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: The real fado is not rehearsed, he says. It's spontaneous, none of this business of, Let's practice in the afternoon for a performance in the evening.

There is a purity to the fado sung here at the Sao Miguel de Alfama. The performers wear dark, elegant suits or dresses. And when they sing, they stand perfectly still, with their chins held high and their hands in their pockets or by their sides.

(Soundbite of singing)

There are fancier fado restaurants than this one, with lines of tourists waiting to get in. But the crowd at the Sao Miguel is overwhelmingly Portuguese, especially around midnight, when a customer gets up and begins to sing.

(Soundbite of singing)

Over by the cash register stands a woman who looks like she's the boss here.

Ms. FATIMA MORE (Owner, Sao Miguel de Alfama): My name is Fatima More. I'm the owner of this restaurant Sao Miguel de Alfama, and I do this work with big pleasure because I like very much my country, my traditions and, of course, the fado.

SOCOLOVSKY: She shares the singers' disdain for the internationally marketed fado.

Ms. MORE: It's nice. The sound, it's not bad. The voice, it's not bad, too. But there is no soul.

SOCOLOVSKY: But the soul is very much in evidence here, as the sound of fado fills this small tavern into the early hours of a Lisbon morning.

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Lisbon.

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