Goa's Sonia Shirsat Hit The Right Note With Fado

Goa-based, Sonia Shirsat - India’s only renowned fadista (Fado singer), has been assiduously striving to keep the Portuguese semi-classical music form alive

Published On Mar 19, 2024 | Updated On Mar 19, 2024

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For someone who has never received formal training in music, receiving accolades and awards for her singing, including the National Award in Music, ‘Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar from the Sangeet Natak Academy, Government of India, and the ‘Yuva Srujan Puraskar’ from the Government of Goa, is no mean feat and she acknowledges with gratitude, “my voice is a gift from above.” 

A Law Graduate from VM Salgaocar College of Law, Miramar, Goa and with a brief stint as a professor at her Alma Mater, Sonia never dreamt of a career in music. Thus, being hailed as ‘Goa’s ambassador of Fado music’, is, “nothing short of a miracle”, for this 44-year-old. 

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Her entry into Fado in 2003 in fact, was “by sheer accident”, when at a Portuguese guitar workshop in Panjim, Goa, she reluctantly sang a fado, ‘Triste Sina’, and was lauded by celebrated Portuguese maestro, guitarist Antonio Chainho, who thought, “her voice was best suited for fado", and encouraged her to learn it. 

Fado which can be traced to Portugal of the 1820s, borrows its name from Latin fatum (fate), and is a Portuguese musical genre characterised by mournful tunes and lyrics, infused with resignation and melancholy. It has been around in Goa for over 100 years, but was lost for a while as there weren’t any Fado singers. Even though she was drawn to music, from her childhood, it was always, Western, Hindi and Konkani. “I won the All-Goa English Solo Singing Competition when I was in my tenth standard. That was my first trophy,” she reminisces. Whitney Houston, Celine Dion and Tony Braxton, were the artists, she loved to listen to, in her teenage years, apart from Hindi film songs. 

Fado was never something she even remotely considered. She elaborates, “Portuguese as a language and the music form, Fado, were alien to me. The closest that I ever got to these were, listening to my mother sing at home, as a hobby. No one in the temple town of Ponda, from where I hail, even spoke Portuguese.” 

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Her global sojourns started while she was still a Law student. Winning Alliance Francaise’s ‘French Nightingale Competition’ landed her in France for a month and subsequently, winning the Portuguese singing competition, ‘Vem Cantar’, enabled her to visit Portugal. She elaborates, “These victories put me in the spotlight in Goa and in 2006 my story was featured in the first episode of the Portuguese-language, 13-part TV serial, ‘Contacto Goa’, about the trail of the Portuguese language in India. As a result, I received the Fundacao Oriente Scholarship to Portugal.” 

Opportunities presented themselves, but success never came easy to Sonia, as the struggle to perfect her Portuguese and master Fado, was real. To perfect her Fado and command over the Portuguese language, she relentlessly listened to CDs she got from Portugal, made her mother correct her pronunciation and later at ‘Fado Houses’ each evening in Lisbon, closely observed performers and practiced her diction. Her hard-work and persistence eventually paid off, as she proudly declares, “in the same Portugal, where I used to learn, years later, my first solo concert in Lisbon in 2008, ‘Mundo Fado’, was a sell-out.” 

She adds, “That night, I felt for the first time, I must be doing something right, as calls, and congratulatory messages poured in.” 

There was no looking back after that. In May 2010, Sonia released her debut album, ‘Saudades de Fado’, which was recorded in Lisbon and released by Rock and Raaga, in Goa. This was followed by another three solo Albums, which included Saudades de Fado II. 

Not content merely performing across the globe in 19 countries and garnering fame, Sonia was engulfed by the burning desire to keep the Fado tradition alive. For this she knew, she had to create an awareness about Fado and began her pursuit. She started the ‘Fado in the City’ programme in 2016 to “popularise Fado in Goa by taking it to places where it had never been performed.” 

Sonia strongly believes in, there is nothing as thrilling as finding talent and nurturing it, and thus ‘Fado de Goa’, happened in 2017. Under this ongoing project, she has trained over 300 Fado singers ranging from 8 to 82 years and familiarised them with Fado’s history. “About 25 students among these, have displayed extraordinary talent and now perform regularly, sometimes with me, too,” she announces with justifiable pride. 

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After immersing herself in Fado for several years with complete dedication, she experiments, if only to add a creative dimension. She has given Fado her own cross-cultural touch, by performing it, with an accompaniment of Indian musical instruments - Sitar, Flute, Tabla and Santoor. She has even sung the Hindi song, ‘Humne dekhi hai in ankhon ki,’ with Fado instruments. 

Down-to-earth and never smug about her success, she covets the praise heaped on her by Fado exponents in Portugal for her rendition of Lágrima (Amália Rodrigues’ fado album), which has an intense verse that she has modified and added her own touch - a crescendo. 

Having lost her parents, Sonia, a self-proclaimed animal lover, lives with her three dogs and a cat, whom she has rescued from the streets and adopted as her pets. She also enjoys travelling and gardening. However, everything else takes a backseat over Fado. Her life revolves around her music. Training students and performing at Madragoa, Panjim where Fado concerts take place and Alfama, Taj Cidade de Goa Heritage, keep her busy. 

But for now, she is excited and overwhelmed, as she has been invited by the Goa University to conduct a Credit Course on Fado - the first time ever, that Fado is being taught officially in any University in the world. At last, her dream of initiating more youngsters into Fado to keep the flag flying high, is becoming a reality. 

Fado loosely translates to destiny in Portuguese and indeed, Sonia Shirsat has made it hers.


Photo: Sonia Shirsat

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