It took me about 15 minutes to fall in love with Lisbon. I didn’t really want to, but this colorful city by the sea gets to you in a hurry. I had come from spending a week in Évora, due east, 90 minutes on the train. The cycling in Évora was my reason for being in Portugal but I booked two extra nights to explore Lisbon. On my way to the train station in Évora one of the wheels on my suitcase gave up the ghost and I arrived in the city dragging its maimed carcass down the twisting cobbled streets of the Mouraria neighborhood cursing under my breath. It was an irritating introduction.
The immigrant shops along Rua do Benformoso were abuzz with languages from multiple corners of the world. The Mouraria, though adjacent to the famous Alfama district that’s popular with tourists, has remained ensconced in a sense of old Lisbon. I received a text from someone I’d met in Évora asking if I had plans for the evening and suggesting, if not, I consider a small concert held at a mansion every Saturday night in the Príncipe Real neighborhood.
After a caipirinha in a bar watching the sun set over where the river Tejo empties into the Atlantic, Mariette and I walked a few blocks to Praça do Príncipe Real, a small park where a cedar tree’s sprawling canvas shaded a few of Lisbon’s elderly residents out for an evening stroll. At the end of a row of two-tone, pink and marble mansions—one of which happened to be the embassy of the United Arab Emirates—a small group of people were mingling in an open doorway at number 18.
The sounds of Portuguese mixed with English and French as guests drank wine, smoked cigarettes or made small-talk around the entrance. In the main room a handsome bearded gentleman was playing the guitar alone on a couch under some brightly colored tapestries. There was a bustle in the hallway, as people continued to spill in; most of the rooms were largely empty of any furnishings, and at the front of the house was a room with wine and some heavy hors d’oeuvres. Over the next 30 minutes, the room filled to bursting, all of us seated on cushions atop crates or small chairs that looked like they were borrowed from your aunt’s kitchen. The sofa sat empty.
Rua das Pretas is a collection of musicians, who come from the world over to play with the group’s collector of sorts, Pierre Aderne. The French-born Brazilian grew up in Rio de Janeiro to the sounds of samba and bossa nova. His songwriting, and the husky whisper of his voice, has seen him playing concerts and recording music with Seu Jorge, Madeleine Peyroux, Ben Harper and some of Portugal’s most revered fado performers. Aderne bounced between Rio and Paris, New York and Lisbon, and along the way he realized that what he loved was making music with his friends.
“When I wasn’t performing or in the studio, I used to invite my musician friends to my house, along with my nonmusical friends, artists and winemakers and we’d have a gathering in my living room,” he said. “These were some very long nights of music, food and wine. I started to have more fun at these parties than I did performing on stage. I loved hitting the road to go on tour, but I no longer enjoyed the weight of the expectation of performances and the mundanity of it all.
“During these gatherings at my place my friends and I were posting pictures on our social media with a hashtag #ruadaspretas. It was the name of the street where I used to live in Lisbon. A friend called my attention to some of the comments. Things like: ‘If I ever go to Lisbon, I want to go to this acoustic jazz club.’ But…it was not an acoustic jazz club; it was my house. So, one day, we decided to do a session in my living room and open it up to the public, for about 40 people. In 30 minutes, it was sold out and I had more fun than I have had playing in a very long time. We moved from my living room to this historic palace in Príncipe Real, and people from all over the world have come.”
Portuguese is a difficult language to wrap your head around, and the first time you hear it, it can be a bit shocking. It has shared Latin roots with Spanish and other romance languages but with a unique melody and cadence that can at times surprisingly sound like Russian. While the spoken language can feel halting at times, Portuguese it seems to me is meant to be sung.
The show began with Aderne and one or two other performers, a beautiful Brazilian singer named Camila and the guitar player. Over the course of the evening 12 to 15 people sat alongside them and played or sang. There were people who I thought were guests like me who pulled up a chair alongside Aderne and the others and their voices could move you to tears. The beautiful melancholy of a fado ballad one minute was followed next by the warm rhythms of samba. Aderne held court over it all, pouring wine to people sitting in front of him and telling stories, and though they were in a language I didn’t understand, I felt like I understood. The interchangeable band played until one in the morning; with performers coming and going throughout the night. Not even one of us got up and left.
Rua das Pretas is a party, a celebration of the Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) musical traditions. “I moved from Rio to Lisbon 10 years ago to dive deeper into the music sung in Portuguese,” Aderne said, “not just the Brazilian music I grew up with. What I’ve discovered is that we have all the patents not only for bossa nova, sambas or cirandas, but also fado from Portugal, the Cape Verde mornas, and the music of Angola. So, without realizing or thinking about it, the music written and played by Rua das Pretas became organically the fusion of all these cultures.”
Aderne’s Rua das Pretas gatherings have been compared in the music press to the iconic Buenavista Social Club. I did have the pleasure of seeing Ibrahim Ferrer at a large venue in Pittsburgh one time. It was remarkable, but in this house in Lisbon, I felt like my presence was every bit as part of the evening as anything else. It was a unique moment that I’ve not experienced often in my life, like I was in on a secret. “I want people to take this experience home with them,” Aderne added. “Not only the songs, but the stories of these songs and my life in Rio, New York and Lisbon…somehow to understand why we still make music, to be closer to our art. Not just a single that you find online, or a show at a concert hall where you’re just sitting out there in the crowd.”
Aderne is also an avid cyclist. He has ridden all over the world whenever his tour schedule has allowed and finished several Ironman triathlons. His favorite rides in Lisbon include the Monsanto Park trails near his home; and the Lisbon–Cascais–Lisbon, a largely flat circuit along the river Tejo and the Atlantic. “Nowadays,” he concluded, “I really enjoy climbing the Arrábida Mountains near Setúbal with a unique landscape from the Sado river and climbs that have pitches up to 12 percent.” ruadaspretas.com