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Portugal’s revolutionary music came in the form of folk songs

When the music arrived, it addressed a world, not only a country, in turmoil, writes SOPHIA DEBOICK.

Neil Leyton (second left) with Lusitanian Ghosts. Credit: Lusitanian Ghosts

When revolution came to Portugal, it was to the sound of folk music. The signal that the left-wing military coup against the authoritarian Estado Novo regime was beginning was the broadcast of banned folk musician José Afonso’s Grândola, Vila Morena on Catholic radio station Rádio Renascença. Beginning with the sound of marching footsteps, the song was appropriately martial, and it had been written by Afonso – who had seen many of his political canções de intervenção (‘intervention songs’) banned – in celebration of the working class musical fraternity in the southern town of the title.

A less obvious choice was the song that had been broadcast on Emissores Associados de Lisboa the previous evening to signal that military units should ready themselves for action. The lush orchestration of E Depois do Adeus (‘And After the Farewell’) by contemporary fado singer Paulo de Carvalho hardly had the same rousing feel as Afonso’s song, but its sense of the agony of endings was perhaps even more appropriate to Portugal’s painful turn to democracy after nearly half a century of authoritarianism than the rebel army officers realised.

Some 47 years on, the anniversary of the Carnation Revolution has been marked by the release of a song which echoes both the call to solidarity of Grândola, Vila Morena and the sense of emotional turmoil of E Depois do Adeus, while also confronting the problems of the present. Portuguese-Swedish musical collective Lusitanian Ghosts’ Exotic Quixotic, the title track of their new album released this month, is “an ode to being an artist in a digital century threatened once again by the rise of social media powered populism”, according to the collective’s Lisbon-born co-founder Neil Leyton.

Leyton was three when the revolution came, and he hopes that, just as Grândola, Vila Morena once galvanised a nation, Exotic Quixotic “will send vibes of strength and courage to every artist currently enduring this pandemic”. The crossborder impact of that pandemic is highlighted by the contributions to the song of Sasa Vipotnik of Slovenia’s downtempo trip hop act AKA Neomi, Joana Negrão from the revivers of ancient Portuguese folk tradition, Seiva, and Finnish authorguitarist Petri Leppanen.

But Lusitanian Ghosts’ agonised indie ballad not only relates the role of artists in the crises of today to their role in those of nearly 50 years ago, but also celebrates the distant Portuguese past. Lusitania was the Roman province covering the south of Portugal, including the historic regions of Torres Vedras and Setúbal which feature in the Exotic Quixotic video, and the band have made the rediscovery of the stringed instruments of Portuguese musical history – which they have dubbed ‘Lusitanian ghosts’ – a central part of their raison d’être.

Traditional Portuguese chordophones trace their origins back to a time well before the birth of the country’s defining fado tradition, back to even before the Romans, and they were later shaped by Moorish influence. Leyton came to these instruments via the literal inheritance of his Portuguese roots, being given two instruments before his grandfather died, and the band’s eponymous debut of 2018 was predicated on the integration of these chordophones into a rock structure, a process captured in a documentary of that year.

But on their latest album, Lusitanian Ghosts have abandoned the modern guitar altogether for the violas Amarantina, Braguesa, Terceira and Campaniça, as well as rejecting rock drums on some tracks in favour of the Moorish square tambourine, the Adufe. The result is an album of uplifting, melodic indie rock with a political conscience and the sepia tinge of the antique. They call it “chordophone rock n roll”.

All The Sounds, released as a single six months into the Covid crisis, is “about being open to everyone, all the sounds, all the colours, all the cultures”, according to Leyton. On the track, the viola Braguesa played by Vasco Ribeiro Casais of electrofolk project OMIRI evokes the 12-string-guitared dramatic bitter-sweetness of the goth rockers of the 1980s.

Living One Life (Just Ain’t Enough These Days), which features Lisbonbased ska band Primitive Reason’s Abel Beja on the Terceira, similarly harks back to the 1980s, with a melodic bassline worthy of New Order’s Peter Hook.

Leyton sums up “This album is about living your life against the odds”, which is certainly a timely theme, but it is also about ‘fighting the good fight’.

“It is hard to help everyone,” Leyton says, “but you can at the very least do no harm while trying to leave this world a better place than the one you found”.

This social consciousness forges a link between Lusitanian Ghosts and the purveyors of the canções de intervenção, but explicitly addresses a whole world, not just a country, in turmoil.

PORTUGAL’S POLITICAL MUSIC IN FIVE SONGS

José Afonso, Grândola, Vila Morena (1971)
This radical anthem, with its opening footsteps recorded on the gravel path outside the famous Parisian studio the Château d’Hérouville, made a return to prominence during Portugal’s anti-austerity protests – the biggest demonstrations since 1974 – during the eurozone debt crisis.

Sergio Godhino, Que Força é Essa? (1971)
Godhino’s canção de intervenção was one of many political songs that saw his debut album banned. Meaning ‘What Strength is That?’, this anti-capitalist anthem bemoaned workers “wasting lots of strength for little money”.

Paulo de Carvalho, E Depois do Adeus (1974)
Carvalho’s song had been Portugal’s entry at the 1974 Eurovision, coming a disappointing 14th. But the ballad nevertheless claimed a place in history when it was used as a signal of the coming military coup.

Lusitanian Ghosts, Exotic Quixotic (2021)
Band co-founder, the Swedish guitarist Micke Ghost, showcases his beguilingly overwrought vocals reminiscent of Scott Walker via David Bowie and Brett Anderson on this love song to “Exotic, quixotic creators”, which also critiques the “new ladders leading to false gods” of populism.

Lusitanian Ghosts, For The Wicked (2021)
This slithering track is “an open critique against religious or political extremism,” according to Neil Leyton. Both its lyrics and earnest vocals echo the Manic Street Preachers (“Public schools and hospitals/ Eradication/ Yeah, they might not exist for future generations”).

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