‘Warts and all’, or polished commodity? Understanding the commercialisation of folk music

The back streets of the poorer districts of Lisbon, Portugal, are often considered home to the urban folk music genre, fado. But fado is, in many ways, a cultural export of Portugal, earning a place on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, and becoming part of the tourist experience in Lisbon. One of the results of this is that the performance and nature of fado have changed over the years. While it is still possible to experience what many may call ‘authentic’ fado in some tavernas, the majority of fado performances that take place in Lisbon – at least those that can be easily found without insider knowledge – occur in a restaurant setting, where the instrumentalists wear suits, and the fadistas perform, perhaps not out of a sense of saudade, but out of a sense of showmanship, in order to entertain the tourists with songs that are stereotypical of the genre, the sort of songs that appear on virtually all recordings aimed at the foreign markets.

To many purists, this style of performance is a far cry from the lower classes of society singing about their lives, about their joys and woes, simply because it was how they chose to express themselves; rather the result is a professional show which, many might claim, often lacks emotion. One guitarrista actually draws attention to this lack of emotion as the downfall of ‘professional’ fado in Lisbon: ‘…even if we don’t have motivation we have to play because we are working’. The criticism of such performances is often that it presents a rose-tinted view of Portuguese peasant culture.

This purification is the result of the commercial side of the music industry; the record companies try and strike a balance between that which is acceptable in one culture with what is the practice in another, and in such a combination it may be inevitable that one will have a detrimental effect on the other and faithfulness to the original will invariably be the one to suffer. But what does it mean to be ‘faithful to the original’?

In the midst of this debate, there seems to be a move towards the ‘real’ and ‘authentic’, with a growing market for music of the cultural ‘other’ presented in a ‘warts and all’ fashion. People want to listen to the same sort of music that intrigued Bartók and Kodály all those years ago in Hungary, the typical music of a country, which more often than not means music of the people (usually of the peasant population), by the people, and performed by the people. This may mean a shift in preferences towards the more raw, unpolished type of music. But we do need to bear in mind that this shift is also a response to audience demand and, as such, even rawness or realness can be features of a carefully-constructed commodity.

This is why it’s so important to avoid concerning ourselves solely with the question “Is it authentic?” Perhaps it is more important to consider what goes into the claims about whether something is faithful to the original or not. One of the tenets of ethnomusicology is the idea that music is of the people and, as people change, and society changes, music will change too. It is this living, changing music that we need to understand and explore. A commodified or ‘purified’ type of music is not necessarily better or worse than the ‘original’, just different, and can often provide a useful entry point into an unfamiliar type of music. Elements of this purified type of music, from the food that’s served and the setting of the performance, to colour and costume, become representative of a concept. A facial expression that an ‘insider’ might consider histrionic or inauthentic, becomes a signifier that makes sense to an ‘outsider’, providing an accessible entry point to the signified — saudade — which may otherwise be difficult for them to understand. These accessible entry points are important; they give audiences the flexibility to engage as deeply as they want to, while giving them something that’s meaningful to them.

The ethnomusicological perspective gives us a lens to explore these complex issues by asking ourselves what music means to a person and a people, whether those people are fadistas or tourists, professional performers or amateurs, well-heeled concert hall audiences or people dressed casually in a bar. We know that music does mean something to all these people, and it’s the job of the ethnomusicologist to enter into a nuanced, empathetic discussion about this issue.

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