There she was, standing, alone. Alone – with her guitar. Evening was approaching. Soon she would be under the stars. Before long she could be looking at those stars, looking into eternity. She was singing. I stopped to listen. She sang from the farthest reaches of her soul – from a space that only the poets know.
We’re by the great river Thames in London – near to the concrete beauty of the National Theatre.
Who is she?
She let us know – quietly and gently – like a zephyr’s caress, like the perfume of spring; she let us know through her singing and her presence and her place by the river.
And she let us know, most simply, through a piece of cardboard: next to her, and on the ground, lay a flake of her life: upon that rectangle of cardboard she had written her name – and she had added a little symbol of love, an outline of love.
What did that symbol of love tell me? I wondered: maybe she was born in those years that followed the Beatles and ‘All you need is love’. Maybe …
But now she is singing – so I look at her – her face, her expression and the way she plays her guitar. And I look at her guitar. It has a patina, a shine – a soft shine. It reflects the twilight …
The sun’s going down.
In the winter light, in the dimming winter light, I see the first star. Above us, a dusky blue-black; below, a silver glint on the river.
I listen to the sweet sadness of her songs – and then walk on. I remember her name, the name written on that piece of cardboard. Her name is Susana Silva.
That night I discover a little more of who she is through the blue electrons of the online-world. Bit by bit I learn about the things that matter to her.
The night-time notes told me that Susana likes Etta James and Alanis Morrisette. Have you ever seen that time when Alanis Morrisette gave us Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean homesick blues’? She just walked out on stage – alone – with no props – and she stood there and faced her audience and she sang strait and true. Those eyes, that gaze…
I looked out of the window again. The street light flickered and then, as if a ghost had stopped a candle’s flame, it shone no more. I looked into the quiet of the night. Then, in imagination, I saw Susana singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Alexandra leaving’. I heard her singing his ‘Story of Isaac’. I heard her sing the poetic bliss of those songs.
I learn, too, that Susana has been influenced by Maria Gadu – the Maria Gadu who showed us the genius of Jacques Brel’s work as she sang ‘Ne me quitte pas’ and then the heartache of love lost – in her duet with Tony Bennett as, together, they sang ‘Blue velvet’:
‘She wore blue velvet
Bluer than velvet was the night
Softer than satin was the light
From the stars’
The night is closing in.
I read on: she tells me that she’s from Portugal.
Years ago a man from Portugal told me about the importance of the music that is special to his country; it’s called Fado. He said: ‘You can’t come to Portugal without being touched by Fado. You can’t be born in Portugal without Fado becoming a part of you.’
As I looked out into the amber glow of the streetlights I thought of her singing and in it I heard a touch of Fado. Fado? It’s the ancient music of Portugal – all mournful tunes and desolate lyrics; it’s often about hardship; it’s tinged with melancholia and of hope-abandoned.
I turned away from the online world. I recalled those moments earlier in the day when I first heard Susana sing: Yes, she blends the old traditions of the wandering minstrel and of folk blues with the new post-Dylan age and makes it all her own.
When she first arrived in London, she had only herself to rely upon. Everything was down to her. She had to sleep under a bridge. It’s hard. It’s very hard when you’re out there on the streets alone. I remembered how I used to hitch-hike around Europe sometimes sleeping rough – on park benches or the beach or under bridges. And bridges, like music, are a going across …
Susana Silva wants, through her songs, to bring warmth and pleasure and joy to us – in the face of this sometimes ravaged, cruel and desolate world. She does. She expresses in her songs the deepest feelings of love and loss and hope. Like Joan of Arc we see the glory in her eye…
First, the photograph shows a piano in a beautiful old room waiting for a musician to play.
Second, on 27 November 2011, Fado was inscribed in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. It is one of two Portuguese music traditions on the lists, the other being Cante Alentejano.
Third, information on Fado can be gathered from a number of sources including the cultural historian Rui Vieira Neryas as well as Andreas Dorschel’s ‘Ästhetik des Fado‘ in: Merkur 69 (2015), no. 2, pp. 79–86