Between 5th and 9th March this year, I went out to Lisbon to cover the 56th edition of Festival da Canção. Fair to say RTP did a fantastic job, giving me exclusive access to the live shows and the press rooms, where I conducted interviews with all the finalists. Here are some of my thoughts.
Check out my post-show interviews with the qualified artists here.
Festival da Canção is one of those national finals that is just that: national. While songs from UMK and Melodifestivalen are utterly brilliant at the best of times, you could see them charting anywhere in the world, and the performances are all very heavily-produced. Festival da Canção has underground roots from the dark days of the Portuguese dictatorship, and still shows its heritage to this day. The thing that convinced me to go out and see it in person was a combination of having met Portuguese HoP Maria Ribeiro Dias at Junior Eurovision and having had a great experience chatting to Simão Oliveira, but also a fascination with just how diverse this national final seemed to be. Songs like Telemóveis and Amar pelos dois are, for me, perfect examples of how important not only showing off your national culture is at Eurovision, but doing it right.
2022’s line-up certainly did not disappoint. There was pop, bluegrass, hip-hop, synth funk, musical theatre, rap, jazz and many more genres mixed in with the usual fado offerings, and even they were whackier than usual this year. If, when I first listened to the songs, you’d told me it was the line up of Eurovision, I wouldn’t have complained.
As someone who’s never been out to a national final before, it’s fair to say I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d guessed I might be watching the show, but given the stage design and small studio, it was unclear how that would happen. Obviously I’d need to use my Spanish knowledge to just about decipher what was being said (I can read Portuguese no problem, but it sounds almost Slavic at times, particularly in Lisbon itself). I hadn’t guessed that there’d be pretty much no interest beyond the Iberian peninsula, and that, in effect, I’d be THE “International Media”. Everyone made a bit of a big deal out of me when I arrived, including Portugal’s commentator Nuno Galopim, who I had a lovely conversation with before the first semi-final. While I was flattered, I’m hardly Pulitzer prize-worthy, and it’s a shame that so little international attention is paid to such a wonderful show.
Other than a brief period of economic hardship in the early 2010s, a symptom of the global financial crisis which persisted far longer in Portugal than in other parts of Europe, Festival da Canção has been a mainstay on its airwaves, and the pinnacle of musical pride for the national musicians of every genre. It’s everything Eurovision could be if chart and mainstream success wasn’t also a factor. Not that I’m sullying Eurovision, but I do think there is a clearer identity to be found in FDC than in most other Eurovision-related shows, influenced in no small part by its country’s history.
Nowhere was this ethos better exemplified this year than in Fado Bicha’s Povo pequenino (“Little Nation”), which performed in the first semi-final. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it through, but Lila and João succeeded in demonstrating everything the show is about: taking an old national music style seeped in tradition, and bringing it up to the modern day with some twists: notably, the oil can guitar and synth beats, and the anti-discrimination lyrics that call for serious reflection on Portugal’s dictatorial and imperial past. As Lila says in my interview from last month (below), “bicha” is a homophobic slur in Portuguese, and Fado is such a well-respected music style by the nation’s elites, so those two words together is certainly enough to stir up some controversy, but also some fantastic music.
The shows themselves, at nearly 3 hours each, are not for the faint-hearted, and the seating arrangements added to that. With Covid still very much on the minds of RTP, only limited press and a couple of guests invited by each artist and the broadcaster itself were allowed into the studio, sat at either side on raised church pews Daily Politics-style. Our view of the performances was side-on, but it still gave us a wonderful immersive feel to each of them. Plus, under the hot studio lights and with only one ad break to so much as stand up, it’s the only music show I’ve ever been to with a designated water boy, i.e. crew member with water bottles, ready to supply you stage-side.
But it was worth it. The performances were just as polished as in any other show, and the intimacy of the venue added to the little production value needed to sell what were all songs with so much heart and soul. Maro, who performed Saudade, saudade, talks about how her outfit was simply acquired from a thrift shop a few days in advance. Many of the acts, including Os Quatro e Meia, Pepperoni Passion and ESCBubble favourite Inês Homem de Melo, are not professional musicians, and have other day jobs in everything from medicine to broadcasting. Not to say there weren’t more polished performances with levels of extravagance to them, but the atmosphere felt very friendly, down-to-earth and human. We were all mates at FDC. Even the hosts would occasionally strike up conversations with the crowd in the moments of downtime.
Perhaps the only truly sour moment I could think of was the fact that Fado performer Jonas, who performed Fábia Rebordão’s beautifully eerie Pontas soltas (“Loose Ends”), surrounded by dancers in hard-tipped Flamenco-style shoes, didn’t make the final. Watching each act come on from stage-left during the postcards (which highlighted another quirk specific to FDC: the love for the composer as much as the performer), it was generally a mix of nervous energy and waving to their groupies, maybe with the odd vocal warmup. Jonas entered surly-faced, his dancers encircled him, and as the lights went down dramatically, as they do with every act, Jonas let out a rallying cry and clapped twice, ordering his subordinates to take their positions. From that moment, we were all in his space, the sound of the shoes reverbing all around the room, carried by Jonas’ unique, anguished voice. I think part of the appeal was that it worked as a 360-degree performance, drawing in the audience on the sides of the stage, and I did receive comments after the show that the claps of the shoes might not have worked as a television spectacle, but in the hall, it was tens all round.
But, to be fair, both of the shows were so high-quality, it would have been hard to pick five qualifiers at the best of times. From a personal perspective, the other stand-out performances came from Inês Homem de Melo, whose difficult multilingual song did not at all lose its fun charm when surrounded by dancers and fast-paced suitcase choreo, and FF, whose performance of Como é bom esperar alguém (“How Good It Is To Wait For Someone”) brought to mind Night At The Opera-era Freddie Mercury, again captivating the audience with his impressive vocals.
One of the audience’s highlights had to be the last performer in the second semi-final, as Angola-born Pongo and Cape Verde-born Tristany brought the “triângulo love” and some truly memorable dance moves to the stage for the DJ Marfox-penned DÉGRÁ.DÊ, the crowd defying calls by the crew to move as little as possible by clapping and dancing themselves. With the pair performing first in the grand final, unfortunately, maybe the win is a stretch for now, but they’ve definitely given us one of the most unique songs of the entire national final season.
Away from the show itself, while most of the interval acts you saw were pre-recorded, we were spoiled with a huge surprise at the end of the second semi-final on-stage: Spain’s Chanel performing her Benidorm Fest-winning banger SloMo, which, I have to say, is even more amazing live than I thought it would be, possibly because of the small stage, and reminds us the amazing results singing on a treadmill in high-heels can get you.
When it comes to who will win, based on the fan media and reactions in Portugal itself, I’d have to put it somewhere between Aurea, Maro, Syro and Pongo-Tristany. Or, like The Black Mamba last year, given the quality, we could be in for a complete surprise.
Pepperoni Passion is a group of three friends, all with jobs in TV, who decided to create a YouTube channel before turning thirty. They weren’t even invited by RTP to compete, winning the right through the online submissions process. We’d have been forgiven for thinking the fun yet chaotic rap Código 30 was just filler, albeit very well-performed filler, with karate kicks, twerking and a giant birthday cake. Then, when they were announced as the final qualifier on Monday, to the delight / bemusement of the entire press portion of the crowd, we were reminded that utter belief in your song is so important when you’re an up-and-coming artist on a level playing field with the tried-and-tested in such a diverse contest. And they’re performing last in the grand final, just like The Black Mamba. I’ll be bearing that in mind when I watch the final on my London-based armchair.
Really, whatever wins, Portugal has once again succeeded in showcasing its national pride in a non-nationalistic way, and reminds us that, when it comes to music, they go their own way. It just leaves me to say: “Parabéns, boa noite e até a próxima!”
Thank you to everyone who made this experience so incredible and for your translations, notably: Filipa Dias from RTP, Bernardo from Wiwibloggs, Edoardo from ESCPortugal and Daniel from Eurovoix!
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- Syro - Ainda nos temos 19%, 226 votes226 votes 19%226 votes - 19% of all votes
- Maro - Saudade, saudade 18%, 211 votes211 votes 18%211 votes - 18% of all votes
- Pongo and Tristany - Degra.de 14%, 163 votes163 votes 14%163 votes - 14% of all votes
- FF - Como é bom esperar alguém 11%, 129 votes129 votes 11%129 votes - 11% of all votes
- Aurea - Why? 10%, 114 votes114 votes 10%114 votes - 10% of all votes
- Ines Homem de Melo - Fome de viagem 8%, 95 votes95 votes 8%95 votes - 8% of all votes
- Os Quatro e Meia - Amanha 7%, 77 votes77 votes 7%77 votes - 7% of all votes
- Diana Castro - Ginger Ale 5%, 57 votes57 votes 5%57 votes - 5% of all votes
- Milhanas - Corpo de mulher 4%, 51 vote51 vote 4%51 vote - 4% of all votes
- Pepperoni Passion - Codigo 30 4%, 50 votes50 votes 4%50 votes - 4% of all votes