PROVINCETOWN — At the start of each performance, Sonia Bettencourt, dressed to the nines, takes center stage with a warm smile. But as soon as she opens her mouth, she leaves the room. In fact, she leaves the country.
“When I’m singing fado, I travel,” says Bettencourt, a dreamy lilt in her voice. “I go back to my country.”
Bettencourt, an award-winning fadista, that is, a singer of the traditional Portuguese folk music called fado, will be performing at town hall this Saturday night from 7:30 to 9:30 at the Provincetown Portuguese Festival. She was raised by her grandparents in Lisbon. She began singing around the house with her grandmother and great-grandmother, she says, and eventually joined the church choir. Twelve years ago, after her grandparents passed away, she moved to be near extended family in Hudson, west of Boston. There, she joined a Portuguese-American pop group called BandFaith.
It wasn’t long before she felt the pull of fado. Liliana DeSousa, who organizes the music for the Portuguese Festival, discovered Bettencourt’s talent as a fadista and connected her to other East Coast fado musicians.
“When you start feeling homesick,” says Bettencourt, “that’s when fado comes in.”
The essence of fado is found in the word saudade, which conveys a deep longing for something that is missing. Fado’s origins are unclear, but historical records date back to the early 1800s when Portuguese seafarers sang of their sorrows and separations from loved ones. Likewise, their land-bound counterparts sang of their longing for their beloveds at sea. When Provincetown whalers recruited Portuguese sailors to come back with them to America, their saudade was for Portugal itself. Thus, fado has long been a metaphysical bridge between the new and old worlds.
“The more you get away from your country, the more you miss it, and the bigger the fado gets,” says Bettencourt.
Her favorite fado is called “Gaivota,” Portuguese for Lisbon’s unofficial mascot: the seagull.
If only all the birds in the sky
When I say life goodbye,
Could grant me at the parting
The last look in your eyes,
That look that only you had
You, the first love of my life.
Bettencourt says it is a song about first love. “Not only a physical love for another person,” she explains, “but a love of a place. When I sing it, I’m thinking about the seagulls flying all over Lisbon, my first love.”
“Gaivota” is extra special to her because it was the song she was singing to her grandmother the last time she squeezed her hand before she died.
Fado is like that — it can simultaneously hold the emotions of a first love, a longing for Portugal, and the memory of a grandmother.
“It’s all of those emotions, your younger years, teenage years, and now, everything is there,” says Bettencourt. Wrapped up in that “everything,” of course, are the emotions of the early Portuguese seafarers and their loved ones. Fado connects those who sing it to the long Portuguese history of saudade.
But fado isn’t all saudade, says Bettencourt. “We enjoy life, we love to laugh, we love wine,” she says of the Portuguese, maintaining that this attitude towards life is present in fado, too. Her own vivacity and genuine joy are evident. She sings a cheery crowd pleaser, “Signor Vino,” told from the point of view of a drunk comically lamenting his own drunkenness.
In this way, fadistas are actors as well as travelers. Bettencourt takes on the persona of the song’s protagonist and embodies his emotional state. Sometimes she’s a drunken man, sometimes a lost sailor, sometimes a widow.
The most important element of fado, she insists, is the Portuguese guitar, which Bettencourt refers to as “she,” because “it doesn’t matter who the guitarist is, the Portuguese guitar is definitely a woman.” The fadista is in constant dialogue with the 12-string guitar and its player.
“It’s like the guitar is talking to me,” says Bettencourt. “I say something and she either supports me or goes against me — I’m having goosebumps already.”
Since Bettencourt left BandFaith to pursue fado, she’s performed at countless Portuguese restaurants and festivals and at American museums.
“Americans love fado!” Bettencourt exclaims. “You don’t have to understand it. You just have to feel it.”
Her fans revel in the emotions in her voice as it climbs and descends the octaves and in the expressiveness of her hands and face.
When not on stage, Bettencourt practices other crafts, including microblading. She works at an esthetics clinic, doing the delicate work of repairing the areolas of breast cancer patients. She has a 26-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter, with whom she loves singing Broadway duets at home.
Fado melodies are complex and, to the untrained ear, entirely unpredictable. Bettencourt’s vocal control and intuitive sense of melody and meter are prodigious. In 2017, she wrote her own fado, titled “Fado Meu,” with the help of guitarist Loic DeSilva.
“They used to say that you cannot create a new fado,” she says. “Of course you can!”
“Fado Meu” won Bettencourt the “Best Fado Performance” prize at the 2018 International Portuguese Music Awards.
“It was amazing, because I don’t know how to read music,” she says. “Everything I know is just by listening.”
The future of fado is precarious. Bettencourt says that most of the masters of the Portuguese guitar are very old. The younger Portuguese Americans, more removed from the pull of the homeland and surrounded by American influences, aren’t as interested in learning fado, she says.
“My kids know what fado is,” she says, “but if you don’t have it in your veins, it’s not that easy to dedicate yourself to learning to play guitar.”
For Bettencourt and others who feel saudade for Portugal, though, there is nothing more important than fado.
This will be Bettencourt’s fourth year performing at the Provincetown Portuguese Festival, and she looks forward to introducing her art to some who are new to it as well as singing for old friends.
The event: Sonia Bettencourt sings fado at the Provincetown Portuguese Festival
The time: Saturday, June 25, 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.
The place: Provincetown Town Hall
The cost: Free