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  • UNESCO Collection Week 24: Portuguese Fado and Ukrainian Dumy

    This week’s release celebrates Portugal’s Republic Day on October 5 with fado music in Portugal: Portuguese Traditional Music. The other recording reissued this week, Ukraine: Traditional Music, documents 34 folk songs originally released in 1991 that reflect the regional characteristics of Ukraine’s diverse folklore.


    by Colin Harte

    Portugal: Portuguese Traditional Music
    Portugal: Portuguese Traditional Music benefits from a unified sound that listeners can experience throughout the entire recording. The music featured is primarily fado, presenting powerful vocals and stringed instrumental accompaniment.

    Each song, to varying degrees, is permeated with saudade (a sense of longing). The lyrical content ranges from lullabies to long-lost love. The sparse instrumental accompaniment often includes the viola and the teardrop-shaped, twelve-string guitarra Portuguesa.

    Ukraine: Traditional Music
    In contrast, the appeal of Ukraine: Traditional Music lies in its musical eclecticism. Given the daunting task of representing a nation spanning over 200,000 square miles—roughly the size of Texas—and populated by almost 45 million people, the field recordings present various vocal and instrumental folk ensembles that capture different musical forms ranging from the northern wooded frontier to the Carpathian Mountains in the west.

    The songs are organized around the categories of ritual and non-ritual. Ukrainian music traditions stretch back to antiquity and, therefore, many of the songs are based upon pre-Christian themes such as pastoral, celebratory, seasonal works, and wedding songs, as well as folk epics (dumy). Featuring a wide array of instruments such as the tsimbaly (hammered dulcimer), the listener is rewarded with a rich, variegated experience as each song highlights various instruments in contrasting orchestrations.

    The regional differences are quite distinctive and readily apparent to the ear, but the recording is unified by its song taxonomy and its breadth of musical material. Unlike Portugal: Portuguese Traditional Music, the majority of the music is performed by larger folk ensembles.

    In the 20th century, state-sponsored folk ensembles were widespread throughout Slavic countries under Soviet control. Drawing upon folk music traditions, folk music ensembles were given newly arranged versions of traditional music that were broadcast over state radio in an effort to instill a nationalist sentiment in the hearts of listeners. Ukraine was no exception and, due to its large geographic size, featured many prominent choral and instrumental folk ensembles that often gave highly nuanced, regionally stylized performances which were appropriated by the state and promoted as distinctively nationalist in nature.

    The concept of the state-sponsored folk ensemble was considered a recent addition and alteration to the musical tradition and offered new opportunities—as well as challenges—in orchestration, harmonization, and tuning for arrangers and musicians alike. This recording provides evidence of this shift in musical aesthetic in tracks such as “Arcan: ‘The Lasso’.”

    While Portugal: Portuguese Traditional Music does not feature as wide a selection of regional musics, it does offer wonderful vocal performances with measured, tasteful instrumental accompaniment. As an aesthetic juxtaposition, the raw emotional quality of the vocalists performing fado and the sparse accompaniment are equally satisfying. The sense of melancholy that is evoked in the listener persists throughout the performances and creates a sustained emotional response to the recording as a whole.

    The Portuguese traditional music recording would benefit from a more comprehensive discussion of musical traditions and instrumentation in the liner notes. The lyrical translations are accurate and informative; however, information regarding the performers is rather lacking. This recording would also benefit from a few more instrumental pieces featuring the guitarra Portuguesa and viola.

    The same cannot be said of the detailed, explanatory liner notes accompanying Ukraine: Traditional Music.  However, there is a drawback to presenting such varied and rich musical traditions on a single CD. While musically enjoyable and stimulating, from an educational standpoint, the limitations of the size of the recording provide a dizzying amount of contrasting musical material. A multi-disk album focusing upon different regional musical traditions would inform the listener in a more digestible manner.

    Colin Harte is a PhD candidate in Ethnomusicology at the University of Florida. He received his Master’s in Ethnomusicology from the University of Limerick, and he received a Master’s in Education from CUNY Lehman College while teaching band, general music, and percussion ensemble in the Bronx. A pianist and bodhran percussionist, Colin has founded, manages, and performs with the UF Irish Traditional Music Ensemble. He is also active as pianist in the Gainesville jazz and Brazilian musical communities.

    UNESCO Collection Week 24: Portuguese Fado and Ukrainian Dumy | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings