My father never got used to the taste of mint toothpaste. His appetite was robust and his stomach enviably strong, but there were three things that I knew always made him want to wretch: the smell or taste of roast lamb, the smell or taste of cheese, and toothpaste. I never thought to ask him what he had used to clean his teeth as a kid (did they even have toothbrushes back then? if he couldn’t afford shoes, could he have afforded colgate? what about that sorriso pepsodent?), and became accustomed to hearing him gag and curse as he brushed before bed each night.
His voice was, and still is, a warm, low rumble. A perfect tenor. And my mom’s a perfect fadista. I remember making pause tapes and recording random sounds around the house, even at a young age, but I wish I had thought to record my mom singing, at least once. She sang usually when she thought she was alone — working, sewing, cleaning — in time to a machine’s loud rumble or the vacuum’s whir. Her voice traveled throughout the house, filled up the basement, wound up the stairs, under my door, and through my headphones. The high notes were loveliest, and even now the memory of the sound pinches my throat. I used to creep closer to her, duck down on the stairs or behind a wall, just to hear her better. She reads my blog, so I guess now she knows.
It was years before I realized that many of those songs were made famous by Amalia Rodrigues. I had a conversation about Amalia the other day. She brought an oppressive sadness to Fado that it had never had before, said the other. She was a disturbed individual. Depressed and agitated and complex, and her love songs were almost always sad songs, but I don’t care. There’s something so beautiful about her kind of rawness. Yes, she fused Fado with an almost unshakable legacy of misery and saudade, one that has permeated and stretched across all sorts of Portuguese cliches, but every time this woman’s voice brings me to tears — and she does bring me to tears — it’s delicious. The older her voice, the more tortured, the more desperate, the more complex… She didn’t even have to try. She didn’t have to sing. It just happened.
I’ve been investigating past, present, patria, beloved dictators, graceful revolutions, the psychology of my peoples, citizenship and belonging, all as part of some neverending, almost irritating fascination with identity. Pot’s on the boil, I’ll be back to regular programming soon. For now: cheekiness and cheekbones, subtle melodies, and heartache: