Protest songs are common in every country. Mainly throughout the 60’s and 70’s, when rock and folk became charged with political and social statements about the world, sex, work, power, relations between people, discrimination. They call for change and denounce that which is wrong. Protest songs are especially important and courageous in countries where fighting oppression can cost you your life. And that was the case in Portugal during the 40 year period of the dictatorship that ended with the Carnation Revolution in 1974.
In Portugal, these songs are called “Intervention Songs” instead of protest songs. Unlike their American counterparts, most of these singers didn’t invest in rock or even folk rock music. Instead, they went directly to the most traditional instruments, re-inventing tradition. Although orthodox ways of life were themselves reinforced by the dictatorship in an attempt to value what was “truly Portuguese”, these musicians found in traditional music a way of expression that was subversive and provocative, yet familiar in tone, in order to get closer to the people. That doesn’t mean they weren’t innovative in their take on traditional music elements. However, the greatest achievement of intervention songs were their lyrics.
They spoke of the war, of injustice, of poverty, of corruption, of resistance against the dictatorship, and all of this while trying to escape censorship. The infamous “blue pencil” was avoided with clever metaphors and innuendos. Zeca Afonso for example, (probably the most important musician, lyricist and singer of this time) metaphorically refers to the secret police PIDE as “vampires” in his song “Vampiros.”
Many of the songs were still banned though, and many of the singers arrested. A significant number of these musicians were also in the communist resistance against fascism. The ones who could escape would go abroad, most of them to France, since Spain was also under a fascist regime with Franco. But they sung and recorded anyway. Most of these songs are simple guitar ballads, but soon other instruments were incorporated, such as pianos, accordions, flutes, and percussion. The lyrics are very poetic in style. In fact, a great deal were first poems, only afterwards becoming songs. Two of the poets that intervention songs drew upon the most were Manuel Alegre and Ary dos Santos. Also, a distinctive style of fado was re-invented by intervention musicians, many of which were still students when they started: fado de Coimbra (from the famous university city).
The great quality, emotion and poetic nature of the lyrics, as well as the melodies, make intervention songs eternal and at the same time connected with a very specific period of portuguese history. They are simultaneously universal and the reflection of the struggle and resistance faced by thousands for whom art was a way of fighting back against oppression, of trying to unite and educate the people, and most of all, to give them a sense of hope and freedom. The forbidden records were listened to in secret by rebellious teenagers and university students who went on to protest in public against the lack of liberty.
One intervention song was also one of the signals of the start of the revolution in 1974: Grândola, Vila Morena by Zeca Afonso, which is one of the coolest things that can ever happen to a song.
I’ll leave you with a very cheerful example of an intervention song, as well as a recent one by a portuguese group that has been hailed as the intervention music of our generation (it’s mostly about youth unemployment and inertia.)