In the Alfama district, in the “costa do Castelo” or further down, almost hidden in the small passage going down the stairs from largo das portas do sol, you are captivated by Ruca’s voice and his fado.
Originally from Leiria, Ruca Fernandes discovers fado around the age of 20 by pure chance. During a wedding banquet, he attends a fado show, and it is immediately love.
From that moment he begins to listen to his father’s fado records, to learn the words and start singing. The first few times he does it in public will be in Karaoke evenings, when he discovers that fado is also available among the music for karaoke and he begins to sing.
Fifteen years ago he discovers fado vadio (“vagabond” fado, the one traditionally sung in taverns), and decides to try. He learns a fado, “A moda das tranças pretas” and shows up one evening in the Tasca dos chicos and asks to sing. A few minutes to agree on the tonality with the guitarists and his voice expands throughout the club.
Ruca begins to sing fado more frequently and begins to have contacts with other fadistas and this is how in 2007 he performs in the “Grande noite de Lisboa”, a special show dedicated to Fado. He also participates in two singing competitions, “Concurso de fado de Odemira” and “Costa da Caparica” and wins them both.
Ruca also begins to participate in guided tours dedicated to fado, where the emotion of his voice joins the story of the guides.
I remember the first time I heard him sing: it was in a fado restaurant, where Ruca sang accompanying himself on the guitar as he still does today. I remember the emotion of that voice, and how his skill struck the tourists I accompanied that evening. When I met him again and got to know him better, I discovered that behind his being an artist there is an extremely shy person.
And then I ask him how he does it, how he manages to dominate his shyness and sing in front of so many people. And Ruca confesses to me that Fado is almost a therapy.
The moment he takes his guitar and begins to sing, he enters another dimension, transports himself to a different plane, where there is no shyness, where there are no people watching him, where there is only him and his music. And it is no coincidence, he explains to me, that the types of fado he most loves to sing are the most melancholy and sad. After all, in that way he manages to express what he feels, channeling his soul into that music. Because singing fado means exposing yourself to the emotion, your own and those who listen to you, without filters. After all, in fado, even before the technique, the soul is important, and the ability to convey one’s emotion.
When I explain fado to someone who has never listened to it, I always say that understanding the words is not important, and neither is the fact that the singer has perfect vocal technique. What really matters is that whoever is singing is able to do it without barriers, without filters, so that those who listen to him can feel his soul.
Ruca agrees that fado is a universal music, which everyone can understand without grasping the words and their meaning, because it is pure emotion.
And personally I know this feeling well because I myself have been moved many times, often to tears, listening to fado, even at first without speaking Portuguese. And with Ruca it happened to me more than once. Because when he sings, he feels that he does it with his heart. For him, music is everything.
When I ask him what you feel when he manages to move people like this, he tells me that he feels he has done a good job, because it means that his music has reached the hearts of people, to their most intimate part.
As we speak, he occasionally interrupts himself, grabs his guitar and begins to sing. As if his soul was “possessed” by fado and he couldn’t stop to sing it. Our conversation is pleasantly interrupted several times by these moments, in which, in order to explain himself better, Ruca has to do it through music.
And then he starts playing, closes his eyes, and his voice begins to echo in the streets of Alfama, singing a fado, “Com que voz”, poem by the great poet Luis Vaz de Camões, sung by the famous Amalia Rodrigues.
And people stop, one person after another, fascinated by that music and above all by Ruca’s voice.
It’s been a few days since Ruca started singing on the street. There is less work in fado restaurants during this period. But Ruca does it above all to be in contact with people, basically fado is also that, to transmit emotion by singing among the people, in an absolutely intimate atmosphere.
Ruca confesses to me that his greatest dream would be to be invited to sing fado abroad, to be an ambassador of this music. And we wish him that. After all, many things have changed since his beginnings: now we can often hear his voice on Radio Amalia (radio dedicated to fado, n.d.r.) and has already released two CDs, in 2008 and 2018.
But there are always new challenges awaiting him. Ruca tells me that every day for him is a personal challenge, with himself, to improve himself, to be able to reach more and more technique, sing increasingly complicated fado, transmit more and more emotion.
Ruca tells me that at the beginning of him he had gone to a fado house to ask for information on where to study him and the porter of that house had asked him what he could help him with. Ruca had told him that he was looking for a school to learn fado. And then that gentleman had told him that “fado cannot be learned, you have to be born fadista”.
Certainly, as Ruca says, you need to know how to perfect and take care of your technique too, but I agree with that gentleman “You have to born Fadista”.
There is an emotion in singing fado that you either have or don’t have. And you can’t learn that. And Ruca has it.
Just look at the atmosphere that has created around us in the meantime. The sun has set, it is becoming night in the streets of Alfama.
In the small passage between two streets where we stopped to talk to Ruca, a dim light comes on. Ruca is singing “Gente da minha terra”, one of my favorite fado. On the stairs leading down to Alfama people begin to stop. A small crowd has formed, but all is silent. Nobody dares to interrupt the magic that Ruca has managed to create. As if at that moment everyone was holding their breath, struck by that emotion that Ruca’s voice transmits. He continues to sing, with his eyes closed. He doesn’t know how many people stopped, he doesn’t see them. At that moment there is no room for anything or anyone: there is only him and his voice, his music, his fado.
It is a rainy day in Lisbon today, a bit gray like usually in autumn. But our day, mine and Alex’s, will be brightened by a happy meeting.
Christian, Alex’s old friend, comes to meet us with his lively dog Chopin. And yes, Chopin, like the famous composer. Of course, a music lover like him could not have chosen a better name.
Christian, Christian Lújan, is in fact a baritone with a beautiful voice. But he is also a multi-faceted artist. Ready to discover more together?
Christian, Colombian by origin, arrives in Lisbon by accident.
It happened 15 years ago, when at the age of 21 he follows his mother, who, after the divorce, decides to come to Lisbon. Their arrival will not be the easiest because, as Christian tells us, they arrive without a visa and will spend 6 days at the airport in Lisbon waiting to know if they can enter the country or not.
Four months later Christian enters the National Conservatory where he begins to study opera singing. He also begins to attend the Faculty of Musicology in the FSCH, but without completing the course.
Music was now his way and Christian will never stop following it.
“But how did it start?”, I ask him. Again by accident.
Christian is originally from Medellín, central Colombia, not exactly a country where the culture of opera can be considered particularly rooted. He grows up with two different educations: his mother is an Adventist (Seventh-day Adventist Christian church, ed), but Christian attends the Salesian school in his city, is a vegetarian at home, eats meat at school, at home Saturday is respected as a day of rest, but at the same time begins to be part of the Salesian choir.
In the meantime, he begins also to play. It was customary to introduce children to music with small courses and Christian discovers the double bass which will be his first instrument.
And so begins his connection with music: between his double bass and the psalms sung with the choir during Mass. Until one day someone hears him sing. Antonio, professor at the faculty of medicine, but passionate about music and choir director. He hears something different, special in Christian’s voice and suggests that he start healing this gift from him. And so he begins studying at the Medellín Institute of Fine Arts and opens up to the world of opera.
When his mother decides to leave for Lisbon, for Christian it is an opportunity to arrive in Europe, in the continent where the opera and the culture of opera singing have been rooted for centuries.
And that’s how it started, and it was in Lisbon and its conservatory that he dedicated himself to this new world.
Christian still remembers his first work and his first role, that of Pinnellino, the cobbler of Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, at the San Carlo in Lisbon. He was 23 years old. I ask him how excited he was. Christian replies: “Excited? No. Terrified ”. This is his memory of the first two performances. But deep down, he tells me, it’s always like that. The first performances are those of tremor, anxiety, then you enter the scene, one evening after another, and little by little you begin to enjoy the show and the excitement of music and opera.
Lisbon will not be his only destination. He will move to Belgium for three and a half years where he will perfect himself at the Flanders Opera Studio.
And it is in Belgium that the great turning point in his life will come. He will return to meet a colleague, Mariana, from Lisbon, an opera singer too, whose path he had already crossed but without the spark being struck. Two different characters at the time, she lively, he in a phase that he defines as “bohemian”, had not met. But fate gave him a new chance, in Belgium, where they ended up sharing an apartment and fell in love. Their love story has lasted for ten years now and a few months ago was crowned by the birth of the very tender Camila.
Christian has played so many roles, but when I ask him which are the ones he most identified with or loved the most, he has no doubts: Scarpia (the “villain” of Tosca) or Marcello (the painter of La Bohème), and the tragic roles of the romantic opera, especially that of Giacomo Puccini.
Today Christian lives on music, but he didn’t forget the times when he devoted himself to many different jobs and in the meantime, he moved from one audition to another. Certainly a tiring situation at first, but that never made Christian give up. Today he has been able to make his name and his special voice known in the world of opera and finally can live off what he has always dreamed of.
But Christian’s range of artistic nuances doesn’t stop with music and opera singing, and while he tells us he started studying to learn Chinese massage techniques, he also talks about a photography project. He says that he is not a professional, but his photos really leave you speechless. (Search Instagram @quotidianoss, and judge for yourself).
The project is extremely interesting: spending a morning with a stranger and photographing him in his everyday life, natural, naked. These are not models but ordinary people.
Christian has always been passionate about photography, even as a boy, and tells of when at the age of 15 his camera was stolen with the film still inside and some photographs including two first photos of nudes. Since then this project has been suspended until today.
Christian tells us that he had to fight against a series of preconceptions and that he needed time to confess, even to his own family, that the nude was the subject he chose for his photographs. A project that has now been going on for about 5 years and that gives us images of a natural everyday life, without filters, without constructions.
A world to be discovered, in short, that of Christian.
In the meantime, the rain has given us a moment of respite and Chopin doesn’t stop jumping on Christian’s legs: it’s time for a walk.
So we accompany them and take the opportunity to chat more about life, the many changes experienced, the projects of the future and, above all, about the new wonderful adventure of his recent paternity.
Here we are, it’s time to let them go, but first I still have a curiosity: “And the double bass?”
He hung on the wall of a farm in Colombia. Maybe one day Christian will go to retrieve him, maybe he will stay there as a sign of where it all began.
Before saying goodbye, Christian tells us that in his future there are still journeys, still places to discover and in which to test oneself. After all, art is a continuous evolution. But in the meantime we can still enjoy his voice in the Lisbon theaters, an experience not to be missed, that of letting ourselves be carried away by the magical atmosphere of the opera and the melodious voice of our Christian.
When I arrived in Lisbon, one of the first places I visited was a historic shop right in Rossio square. This is the Madeira Shop.
I remember that when I entered in this shop there was an elderly couple who welcomed me with extreme kindness. They were the owners of this place which, for generations, has been in the hands of the Abreu family.
And so, to tell you our next story, we decided to go right there.
On one side of the Rossio square, to the right of Pedro IV, which dominates the square from the top of a column, among modern shops and international brands, stands the Madeira shop, opened in 1959.
And to welcome us this time is Ana, daughter of that couple who welcomed me years ago during my first visit.
Ana begins to talk to us about how this place was born, but above all about her family because, we will soon discover, the two stories are closely linked.
Ana begins to tell and we discover that it all begins with her grandfather, Antonio Abreu, a native of Madeira island who moves to the “continent” with five of his seven children (other two are born in Estoril) Ana tells us she never met her grandfather, because she was born when her parents were already 41 and 39 years old, and her grandfather had already disappeared at the time. But the memory of those times and how it all began, Ana received as an inheritance from her parents and today she helps us to reconstruct their history.
When her family moves to the “continent”, she arrives in Estoril. Probably to stay close to the sea. After all, you know, when you grow up on an island, surrounded by the sea, it is impossible to stay too far from it.
The great change came in 1916 with a person who was responsible for an important change in Portuguese tourism: Fausto Figuereido, who, in addition to launching the construction of the casino of Estoril, also gave rise to the railway line that, over time, will connect Estoril to Lisbon. The consequence of this important change will be an important tourist increase that will bring new international customers to the shop opened in this coastal area.
The Abreu family begins to open more shops, in Estoril, Lisbon, in Sintra and finally two more in Lisbon.
It is the latter that will be managed by Ana’s parents. A commercial activity but above all a family inheritance. Starting with her grandfather, then Ana’s father and now with her and her husband João.
Ana tells us that their business has had to go through various crises, starting with the one that followed the carnation revolution of 1974 which ended the dictatorship, passing through the stock market crisis in the United States, the economic crisis of 2008 and, finally, the pandemic of the last period. There are so many trials and moments of crisis to overcome, but each time they have managed to move forward, above all out of pride, in order not to lose this tradition that is so important to their family.
Ana clearly tells us that the main reason they continue with the tradition of their shop is not the financial gain, but above all the desire to not interrupt a family tradition that has lasted for many years.
There are several products that we can find in the shop and from different regions of Portugal, but above all an excellent product which is what also gives the shop its name: Madeira embroidery.
The origin of Madeira’s embroidery (Bordado) dates back to antiquity and the need to decorate spaces. The art of embroidery was for a long time an activity to which women of the wealthier classes as well as religious were destined and the great impulse came in the 1950s.
Even this tradition do crafts participated in the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations in London in 1851, enjoying enormous success.
It is an embroidery on linen, which, due to its delicacy and tradition, was always a luxury product that was found in aristocratic homes. And today it is considered the best embroidery in the world.
Ana’s family always dedicated themselves to the “bordados da Madeira”, first selling it in their shop and then in the production in Madeira. Today no more, since following the production at a distance was becoming complicated.
Today these are still expensive products and objects of great value, which have mainly tourists as buyers, who have always been part of their regular customers, since the time of the first Estoril shop. But Ana says that many Portuguese families also buy embroidered linen to enrich the family kit or, for example, a tablecloth to use for special occasions. These are objects that are then handed down from mother to daughter and which often remain in the family for several generations, ending up becoming custodians of memories and memories, special moments to remember, family celebrations not to be forgotten.
And in an era where there is so much talk of sustainability, the artisanal products of this quality are certainly an important support.
And the memory handed down through the objects purchased means that Ana and her family somehow end up being part of this memory too.
Ana shows us a notebook where regular customers, foreigners and Portuguese, customers who have returned several times to the store, leave a memory, a story, a thank you for something that, purchased in the Madeira Shop, has then become part of the family history . Ana tells us that she has received calls and messages during this pandemic period from customers who are worried about her and her parents, sincere expressions of affection.
Ana started working with her family in 2003, but since 2008 she has been actively involved in the family shop and with her with the active help of her husband João.
Ana’s parents, Joaquim e Maria Antonia, are now 86 and 84, but it was not because of the age that they left the work, but because of the pandemic. Anyway Ana tells us that from time to time they can’t resist and go back to the shop, and when they can’t, they demand a full report of everything that happened during the work day from Ana at the end of the day.
Until 2019, their presence in the shop was never lacking, while Ana and João supported him in the shop and, at the same time, took care of traveling around the country in search of unique handicrafts.
A glance at the shop immediately makes us understand that it is not a common shop or even ordinary objects. Ana knows the history of each object, listening to her is like a journey through the history of Portuguese traditions, she knows how to show us each different school or artist behind each single object. Because she chose them one by one, she met the artisans, she saw them work.
And the more fragile objects, Ana and João carried them personally.
Because this work is also a way to preserve and pass on the family tradition and the love that her parents have always had for this work.
Ana guides us among the ceramic objects of Coimbra inspired by works of the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, the classic hand-painted Rooster of Barcelos, a symbol of faith and justice and lucky charm, and today also one of the symbols of the country, the “Figurados” represented by more modern and refined artists and other older ones who still hand down an ancient art of sacred representations and daily life in the field. The romantic tradition of lovers’ handkerchiefs is inevitable, which in ancient times women embroidered by hand for the beloved man and that the man had to use on Sunday at Mass to show that he reciprocated the feelings of the woman in question.
And there is no shortage of traditional azulejos, painted furniture from the Alentejo, and many other objects, extraordinary works of craftsmanship.
The embroideries of Madeira are joined by those of Viana do Castelo, equally beautiful but less expensive, to allow to reach other customers as well.
And there are also traditional clothes from Madeira and Viana, which are often bought by tourists but also by Portuguese emigrants to bring a piece of their country with them. For children they are also bought as carnival dresses, while northern families still use them in traditional festivals, such as the one dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows (August 20, editor’s note) or for some special events.
In short, a place where on each shelf, there is a new world to discover.
Ana’s shop, recognized by the city of Lisbon as a “loja com historia”, an historical shop, is actually not very protected by the city itself.
Times change, the city of Lisbon evolves, modernizes itself, and over the years international brands have increasingly replaced the old small local shops.
But basically it is these shops that contribute to making Lisbon a special city different from the others.
Together with the increase in tourism which, Ana tells us, is obviously welcome, it would be desirable to be able to protect in some way these ancient shops in the city to ensure that they do not disappear.
After all, it is no longer just a commercial place, but a space that day by day tries to preserve the memory of a past that at times it is difficult to recognize, the memory of a place and, in this case, of a really special family.