A little more than a week ago, on a dull gray Saturday, I heard a song I had long forgotten, or maybe never really known: “Haja O Que Houver” by the Portuguese group Madredeus.
Madredeus combines folk music and Portuguese traditional music into a whirlwind of thrumming sound. The founders included Teresa Salgueiro — the group’s original vocalist — and a quartet of instrumentalists: a classical guitarist, a keyboard player, a cellist and an accordion player. Over the years, the lineup has shifted, but the original five remain the most famous.
I don’t know when I first heard “Haja O Que Houver,” or where. I know that my parents have always loved Madredeus, that decades ago they discovered its music in a movie I still haven’t seen and may never see called “Lisbon Story.” I know that they played these songs for my older brother right after he was born — and just before, too.
I have no memory of hearing the music of Madredeus as a kid. But when “Haja O Que Houver” appeared on a random playlist of songs recommended to me by Apple Music, I was struck by what the Portuguese might call “saudade.” A deep feeling of nostalgia for something I’ve never known.
I’m at home this semester and have developed a habit of taking long late-night walks around my suburban neighborhood on the weekends. On that Saturday, I found a pair of earbuds, grabbed a light jacket and began to walk down the long empty road a block east of my house.
I listened to “Haja O Que Houver” five times. The ethereal melody echoed over and over as I made my way toward the curve in the road. At one point, I looked up at the moon and stared at its yellow glow until I tripped on the curb and almost fell into the wet grass.
My house is near the highway, and this road runs next to it, coming closest to I-84 right as its two lanes snake up the hill past the elementary school. I got to the base of that hill and saw the green sign with white lettering peek over the fence. Heard the sound of an angry truck driver striking the center of the steering wheel with a balled fist.
“Haja o que houver, eu estou aqui,” Salgueiro sang. “Come what may, I am here.” I wondered whether the truck driver would ever hear this song.
As I approached the top of the hill, “Haja O Que Houver” came to an end for the fifth time. I clicked on another song, “O Pastor,” and was struck again by the same feeling of longing, a feeling so powerful that I stopped for a moment on the road and listened in total silence. Midnight.
The houses sat low, lights above their front doors casting wispy shadows over the sidewalk and onto the street. Earlier that day, I had seen a raccoon, fat and scruffy, waddle across a road and slink into the sewer. Where was he now? The accordion pulsed with quiet energy, and I tried once more to remember when I might have heard this song. Nothing.
Do you know when you dream about a place you know, then walk past that place in real life and feel a nagging sense that something is missing, that the place in the dream had something that the place in real life lacks, like a color, or a smell, or a sound in the trees? Do you know when you dream about a world in which something is assumed to be normal, even boring, then wake and realize that this thing is neither normal nor boring? Then you know how Madredeus affects me.
The next morning, when I told my parents I had listened to Madredeus, my mom’s eyes widened.
“Oh my gosh,” she said, as if my words had opened some invisible door in the air before her eyes. She told me that when she was pregnant with my older brother, she used to lie on the couch with my dad in the dark and listen to Madredeus. For hours, she said.
As my dad made eggs, I played “O Pastor,” and we stood in silence, each of us somewhere different. Each of us in a place from a different dream.
Rarely have I felt as alive as I do now. I’m listening to Madredeus and typing and no doubt failing to express what this music does to me. Maybe that’s it, maybe that’s the best explanation: This music does something to me. It doesn’t make me feel something. Feeling is superficial, subjective. Madredeus affects me physically.
It’s important to be reminded that you’re alive, especially during a pandemic. I don’t mean “alive” in the sense that your heart is pumping blood to your brain. I mean “alive” in the sense that you register on some deep, instinctive level that you are here, existing, conscious, a body taking up space on a couch at night. It’s a grim, beautiful, quiet, meaningless, life-affirming experience.
“Alfama” begins to play. Frantic plucking of guitar strings, furious bowing of cello strings. A cacophony of strings. This song is faster, more anxious than “Haja O Que Houver” or “O Pastor,” yet it affects me in exactly the same way.
She starts to sing. Her voice is simple, plaintive, pure. It rings like a bell struck once by a silver mallet. “This is music,” I think. The emphasis isn’t on “this” or “music” but on “is.” As if for a moment, I doubted myself, asked whether this sound could possibly be real, then concluded that it must be real, that I’m here, listening, hearing. And there’s nothing more real than that.
After I finish this piece I’ll once again find a pair of earbuds, grab a light jacket and begin to walk down the long empty road a block east of my house. But for now I’m content to sit and type, to feel my fingertips strike the keys with trembling force, to hear a song from a place in a dream I dreamed long ago, to smell Lisbon, or at least what I imagine Lisbon might smell like. To feel alive. To be made alive.
“Agora que lembro,” sings the woman. “Now … I remember.”
Xavier Blackwell-Lipkind | firstname.lastname@example.org