There is a song of the people
I can't even say if it is a Fado
But it is so comforting
This vague and sad song
That my soul no longer cries
Here's Mariza singing the whole song.
Mariza "Há uma musica do Povo"
1. Mariza "Há uma musica do Povo" (There is a song of the people)
Music: Mário Pacheco
Portuguese guitar: Luís Guerreiro
Inevitably Fadistas would like this one. But a whole host of Pessoa's other poems have been set to music, many of them as Fado, but in other styles too. In this post there's a selection.
Here are the words of the poem Mariza is singing in Portuguese, with my English free translation below each verse.
Há uma musica do Povo,
Nem sei dizer se é um fado -
Que ouvindo-a há um chiste novo
No ser que tenho guardado
There is a song of the people,
I can't even say if it's a Fado.
When I hear it it is like a new joke
Played on the me I've been guarding.
Ouvindo-a sou quem seria
Se desejar fosse ser
É uma simples melodia
Das que se aprendem a viver
Listening to it I am who I'd be
If only wishing was enough.
It's a simple melody
Of those who learn to live.
Mas é tão consoladora
A vaga e triste canção
Que a minha alma já não chora
Nem eu tenho coração
But it is so comforting,
This vague and sad song
That my soul no longer cries
Even if I don't have a heart.
Sou uma emoção estrangeira,
Um erro de sonho ido…
Canto de qualquer maneira
E acabo com um sentido.
I am in a strange emotion
A fading wandering dream
I sing in this way
And end up with a feeling.
Source of original text: Archivo Pessoa
The original poem had five verses. Mariza cuts the third altogether, so I don't show it here. She then sings the last two verses again, after the guitar interlude. This is fairly normal when adapting a poem into a Fado song. You end up with a shorter text but more repetition, which may be better suited for listening.
Mariza also changes one word in the poem. Ritmo novo (new rhythm) which she sings in the first verse was originally chiste novo (new joke) in the poem, which is what I have translated.
This gives the original wording more of a condescending feel, which was probably intentional. Pessoa may have been an elitist himself. The class of people he was writing for, in the climate of the time, almost certainly were.
But this adds to the significance of the poem. He's saying in effect, Look, this may be a simple thing of the people, a Fado even. But I found real value in it.
He comes across as envying what he found there - the ability to feel. The implication, which is not stated, is be careful before casting such songs aside.
The wider context
At the time Pessoa was writing Fado was under strong political attack from Right, Liberal, and Catholic quarters. All saw it as a source of moral corruption and weakness, culminating in the imposition of regulation and censorship under the military dictatorship from 1926. This system of control lasted in Portugal, with some relaxation for Fado after the Second World War, right up until 1974. See Why do some Portuguese despise Fado?.
Pessoa was cautious politically, but still managed to get his thoughts across, probably because he located them on the purely personal level.
Ana Moura and Patxi Andión "Vaga no Azul"
2. Ana Moura and Patxi Andión "Vaga no Azul" (In the empty blue sky)
Music: Patxi Andión
From Ana Moura's 2007 album Para além da saudade (To the other side of sadness, beyond longing, beyond missing you. Poetic Portuguese is hard to pin down!). Patxi Andión, a Basque singer/songwriter, is singing his part in Spanish, as is clear from the words on screen. He died at the end of 2019.
3. Madredeus "Canção: Silfos ou gnomos tocam?" (Song: Do Sylphs or Gnomes play?)
Music: António Variações
This isn't Fado. Instead Pessoa's poem was put to music by the eclectic and creative singer/songwriter António Variações. Variações, who died in 1984 at the age of 39, has proved an inspiration to other Portuguese artists.
At a time in the 1970s and early 1980s when Portugal was being overwhelmed by western popular music as the walls of censorship came down, Variações was trying to make something more directly relevant to the world he knew. He was taking the first steps towards developing a new Portuguese music, using some of what came from outside, but without turning his back on Portugal's past.
Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. He is a acquired taste. But many of Portugal's other musical pioneers rate him highly. Madredeus joined others in putting together an album of Variações covers in 1993.
Here is Madredeus's take on his "Canção", performed live that year. It has a playful instrumental introduction leading up to Teresa Salgueiro's ethereal voice, giving it a magical feel that well suits Pessoa's subject matter.
The poem is about hearing faint music in the pine forests once so characteristic of the mountains of Portugal. Many are now sadly burnt out, or replaced with plantations of even more flammable eucalyptus trees, native to Australia. But that came after Pessoa's time.
Here are the words of the poem Silfos ou gnomos tocam? in Portuguese, with the start of my free translation in English.
Silfos ou gnomos tocam?
Roçam nos pinheirais
Sombras e bafos leves
De ritmos musicais
Do sylphs or gnomes play?
They rustle the pine trees
Shadows and light breaths
In musical rhythms
Ondulam como em voltas
De estradas não sei onde,
Ou como alguém que entre árvores
Ora se mostra ou esconde
They come in waves
From what paths I don't know
Or like someone playing
Hide and seek among the trees
Forma longínqua e incerta
Do que eu nunca terei
Mal ouço e quase choro
Porque choro não sei
Distant and uncertain form
That I will never grasp
I can barely hear it and almost cry
Why I cry I do not know.
Tão ténue melodia
Que mal sei se ela existe
Ou se é só o crepúsculo,
Os pinhais e eu estar triste
Mas cessa, como uma brisa,
Esquece a forma aos seus ais,
E agora não há mais música
Do que a dos pinheirais
Source of original text: Arquivo Pessoa
The title is sometimes translated as "Do sylphs or gnomes touch?" But tocar is the verb also used for playing a musical instrument, and seems far closer to the meaning of the rest of the poem.
The first published version started with Silfos, sylphs. Later versions often use Elvos, elves, so you can also find the poem under the title "Elvos ou gnomos tocam?". In English Sylph doesn't have the same meaning as Elf, being a specifically feminine, airborne kind of spirit or fairy. It is a rare word though, in both languages, so some singers and editors may prefer the elf version in the interest of intelligibility.
However, "Silfos ou gnomos" may have been a deliberate contrast on the poet's part, so like Madredeus I'm going with it. Pessoa was extremely interested in esoteric and mystical things. He was a translator of theosophical works and a practiced and prolific astrologer. So the idea of spirits of the air (sylphs) and gnomes (traditionally supposed to live underground) coming together in the forests to play music may have appealed to him.
Mísia "Dança De Mágoas"
Mísia "Dança De Mágoas" (Dance of sorrows)
Music: Raul Ferrão (Fado Carriche)
Portuguese guitar: Custódio Castelo
from Mísia's 1998 album Garras dos Sentidos (Claws of the senses)
Back emphatically to Fado. Here Mísia has set Pessoa's words to an existing Fado tune, as is common in the genre. Indeed, this tradition continues. Carminho has recorded a more recent version of the same tune, known as Fado Carriche after one of its earliest incarnations, with newer words - Escrevi teu nome no vento (I wrote your name in the wind).
Here's Pessoa's poem.
Como inútil taça cheia
Que ninguém ergue da mesa
Transborda de dor alheia
Meu coração sem tristeza
Sonhos de mágoa figura
Só para ter que sentir
E assim não tem a amargura
Que se temeu a fingir
Ficção num palco sem tábuas
Vestida de papel seda
Mima uma dança de mágoas
Para que nada suceda.
Salvador Sobral "Presságio"Salvador Sobral "Presságio" (starts at 3:21 if this doesn't happen on your device automatically)
Salvador Sobral "Presságio" (Omen, foreboding)
See also on this site:
Mísia sings Fernando Pessoa's poem "Autopsicografia"
Rodrigo Costa Félix "Amigo Aprendiz" (Pessoa's poem Apprentice friend)
Further reading and listening
Ana Pereira's much longer list of Fernando Pessoa poems set to music, on Quora
This article is still being worked on, so it's a stub. It needs more of Pessoa's words and more translations into English. But I thought it worth including, incomplete as it is. It shows the respect for his work among musicians, and the success they have had in adapting some of his poems into song.
Pessoa died in 1935, so his work is out of copyright and can be quoted in full. This also helps today's artists recycle it and keep it alive. It's not locked up in a bank vault, like many other artistic works.
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