There’s a musical phenomenon taking Portugal by storm. Gonçalo Frota meets the quartet that thinks fado should stop taking valium – Deolinda. Photograph by Isabel Pinto
Ana Bacalhau is the singer for Deolinda, the Portuguese group named after the fictitious character of a suburban 40-something who shares her bed with a couple of cats, and would probably be best friends with that aunt you meet twice a decade. Bacalhau – Ana’s surname – literally means ‘codfish.’ And codfish, although not found in Portuguese waters, is the basis for several of the most typical national dishes. Deolinda also pick up influences from Mexican rancheras, Brazilian bossa nova, Cape Verdean mornas and Neapolitan ballads, but still manage to sound 100% Portuguese. Not only because of Ana’s voice, often evocative of fado, but also because Deolinda’s lyrics reach deep into the country’s soul.
So what does that actually mean? Well, rather than limiting themselves to the several variations of the concept of saudade – the melancholy sentiment that is almost mandatory in fado – the band sing about macho Latinos who shrink to the size of a mouse when in the presence of their loved one; girls who try every possible way to seduce boys at a local ball; a Brazilian waitress who thinks fado ought to be a bit more uplifting, or even a female teenager who falls hard for an unlikely tuba player from a philharmonic band (while her desperate parents try to manipulate her into loving Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ by Glenn Gould instead).
One of Deolinda’s songs, ‘Movimento Perpétuo Associativo,’ is a sharp and intelligent tune that perfectly sums up one of the most rooted Portuguese characteristics: the will to change something and criticise the state of things, as long as it doesn’t require you to leave the coffee table and take any action – planned revolutions that are just fuel for conversations over a cold beer. The great humour applied to the lyrics guarantees their concerts often become a celebration, far from a small parade of disappointments and stories of love-gone-wrong. The mirror effect of ‘Movimento Perpétuo Associativo’ on audiences at home was so acute that it even sparked an online petition, claiming the song should be promoted as the new Portuguese national anthem.
Since they first got together in 2006, Deolinda continue to rehearse in a restaurant on the outskirts of Lisbon. When lunches are no longer being served and dinner is still a few hours away, they sit at the table, dust off their instruments and put together a remarkable batch of songs. “It’s one of the advantages of playing acoustic instruments,” says Luís Martins. “We can play pretty much anywhere.” It feels as familiar as their kinship: Luís and Pedro, the two guitarists, are brothers; Ana, the singer, is their cousin and married to Zé Pedro Leitão, who plays double bass.
The restaurant is owned by Mr Martins, Luís’ and Pedro’s father. He accidentally went on to become Deolinda’s first critic, and Pedro, the main composer, says he always knows a song is going to work when his father is caught off-guard singing or whistling its melody behind the counter. Canção ao Lado, the band’s debut album, has been at the top of the Portuguese album charts for 70 weeks, much to everyone’s surprise, especially with the band. When they started touring with the new record, they packed for a few months but ended up playing about 120 shows in a little more than a year. That not only meant unexpected success, but it also forced them (although “quite gladly,” stresses Zé Pedro) to drop their day jobs and take a chance at going professional. Ana, for instance, waved goodbye to her colleagues in the archives of the ministry of finance, where she used to take a break from work, escaping to the bathroom so she could sing a little bit.
Deolinda have grown so big in Portugal that the singer feels she’s had a small taste of what the Beatles experienced when they played live in front of adoring fans: “Every time we play in Portugal now,” Ana confides, “there’s always this group of people in the front row who scream the lyrics at me. I think it’s great, but in slower songs, like ‘Clandestino,’ I can’t really hear my own voice.”
“The concerts we’ve been doing abroad are getting a very similar reaction to those we did in Lisbon in the beginning,” Pedro observes. “At first, the audience are still trying to figure out what’s going on on-stage, but they finally give in and get on our side.” Funnily enough, that feeling of not being certain of what’s happening is one of the creative reassurances Deolinda like to have; that’s how they remember their initial rehearsals. “We would ask ourselves, ‘What is this? What the hell are we doing here?’ It took us a while to overcome that feeling, but now it’s our way of knowing that a song really suits us.”
The dedicated following they’ve gathered all over Europe is possibly based on two things. The first, the band put into words: “We provide a postcard from Portugal, but a rather different one, far from the dark fado image. And while the global village makes it possible for us to eat in the same restaurants next door to home or in Cochinchina, it also creates this need in people to access things that can only come from a specific place.” So, despite globalisation, people prefer to feel rooted to something. The second is due to the fact that in spite of having no formal acting experience, Ana takes to the stage as if she’d spent her entire life there entertaining crowds. She could be reading from a phonebook and be just as charming. It’s the special ingredient that makes their shows memorable. Besides having a great singing voice, she works her way around the songs like an actress, presenting them to the audience with introductions in near-perfect English, allowing non-Portuguese speakers to pick up the indispensable trail that enables them to understand the stories.
Sometimes, it’s not easy for people to separate the real Ana from the made-up Deolinda. Because the group are named after a woman, Ana says that whenever they’re playing beyond Portuguese borders they feel the need to explain: “Deolinda is a fictitious character who’s about to share some stories with the public – stories that are part of the Portuguese popular background, but that everyone, everywhere can relate to.” Still, not long ago, a promoter booked five hotel rooms for the musicians. When he saw the four of them, he asked the band: “Didn’t Deolinda come with you?” “Of course she did,” they might have answered. “But she’s getting so big now, not even the bridal suite would do the trick…”