From misfit to champion: the story of Portugal at Eurovision – part 1

| September 21, 2020

Before an early-summer’s night in Kyiv, Ukraine three years ago, a nation had little to show for all its efforts in the world’s largest music competition, holding a record 53-year long absence of a musical champion. On that day, two and a half thousand miles from its shores, the nation finally earned recognition for a 5-decade long musical project that both acknowledged a rich culture and heritage whilst also showcasing what they had to offer on the global stage. It is impossible to understate the effort it took this team of ten million to reach this moment, grinding through several eras of music to pull off an improbable but illustrious victory. 

From Saudade to Fado, for years, this nation offered the continent an array of diverse music, often with little success but always with incomparable passion. My goal is to acknowledge their remarkable, and sadly often underappreciated music, passion and determination. This is the Eurovision story of Portugal, the story of how one of the world’s most well-known countries fought to be recognised on the international stage of music. This is a tribute of the road to Kyiv and beyond, and most importantly, a homage to their music and culture. 

Portugal’s first entrant, António Calvário singing in Copenhagen (above), shown with Eduardo Nascimento, the Portuguese singer from 1967, performing “O Vento Mudou” (The Wind Changed).

It must be noted that this labourious, yet adventurous journey had incredibly humble beginnings. On the 2nd of February 1964, Festival Da Canção took place for the first time in Lisbon. This music competition was created to celebrate national music and to choose its first Eurovision representative. With a still largely undeveloped music industry, such a celebration of national songs and talent became very significant in a country that would participate in Eurovision for the first time in Copenhagen, three months later. On this night, the endearing and romantic voice of António Calvário took the victory, beating out the rest of the competition with his song “Oração”, meaning “prayer”. “Oração” followed the traditional, “chanson” genre that was widely popular for Eurovision entries at the time. Of course, many early winners including Eurovision’s first ever victorious entry, Lys Assia and her “Refrain” was written in this style. With this considered, it is no surprise that António was predicted to be quite the star in the upcoming edition in Denmark. However, just as Festival Da Canção had established the nation’s humble Eurovision entrance, it would turn out that Portugal’s entry onto the continental stage would be far from the grand success some had foreseen.

Unfortunately, Portugal’s debutant ballad was to finish joint last, with the dreaded ‘nul point’ score that sends thoughts of unease down every Eurovision fan. His lack of success on the scoreboard was a shock to many, even outside Portugal, as their attempt to wrap a native language in the multi-phonic, almost choral sounding popular choice of song at the time did not impress the juries. It was instantly apparent that not only had the fuse between Portuguese sounds and the chanson genre failed to be successful, but furthermore, it was clear that the debutant nation with big aspirations had a lot to learn from the competition before it could prove its worth to the Eurovision Community. 

Nonetheless, early disappointments on the scoreboard were set to continue. By the end of their first decade in the contest, six entries in all, Portugal still had not managed to reach the top half of the scoreboard, despite sending an intriguing variety of cultural music. For some, this must have been bewildering. After António’s unfortunate finishing score in their first Eurovision adventure and a similarly ill-fated entry in the chanson genre the following year from spirited Simone de Oliviera, two much more energetic songs followed. An up-tempo love song from Madalena Iglésias and a slower, yet equally feel-good tune from Eurovision’s first black, male performer, Eduardo Nascimento completed an ambitious change in genre. Early Portuguese fans became startled at how, in despite of their best attempts to diversify their entries, Europe were still finding their entries unrelatable and not worth an impressive finishing position. This left some to wonder whether Europe really understood the essence of Portuguese culture, both in music and beyond, whether Portugal was really suited for the world of Eurovision and how they could impress their friends across the content in years to come. However, as the competition changed in dynamic fashion, the Portuguese responded in an equally rapid and substantial way.

Finding Their Rhythm

The 1970s for Portugal was a decade that in the big picture may not seem significant. However, once you delve deeper, it becomes clear that during this era, the nation begins to find their rhythm on the Eurovision Stage. Despite bringing the country limited success, the 1970s truly saw Portugal experiment with an array of musical styles, tempos and vocal talents. At the heart of this process was the Portuguese language, remaining the sole lyrical component of their entries that allowed the continuation of a fusion between tradition and modernisation. In fact, to this day Portugal holds the esteemed title of being the only country that still competes in the contest that has always sung in their native tongue, 51 uniquely Portuguese entries, highlighting that it is possible for competing countries to embrace diversity without changing their own musical traditions. In this sense, Portugal does stand proudly alone in the modern Eurovision community, relentlessly expressing their identity in a way that showcases a whole variety of genres. Regardless, of their success, this attitude and determinist mindset is very admirable. 

The Portuguese music of Eurovision in this decade was pivotal towards consolidating their reputation at the contest, influencing their own country for the better, and even revealing some unsavoury aspects of the nation that contributed to the return of Portuguese democracy. Despite a mixed-bag of results in the latter half of the decade with only one top 10 finish between 1974 and 1979, and a 1970 boycott at the hands of their government, they began the decade with four consecutive top 10 entries, the first three of which set a new record for the country’s best ever result, one after another. Festival Da Canção’s viewing numbers grew rapidly in this decade once more, largely influenced by the fact that the national competition, and the music industry in general, was being used as an outlet to express discontentment of the authoritarian dictatorship under Marcello Caetano.  

An poster depicting an advertisement for the 7th Edition of Festival Da Canção in 1970. 

Composers and lyricists continued to hide many subtle criticisms or references in the entries to the harsh regime, placing music at centre stage to inspire a nationwide desire for freedom and unity against the oppressive Estado Novo “New State” government. Most significantly, the 1972 and 1973 winners of Festival Da Canção came under scrutiny when rumours emerged that they were written with the dictatorship of the day. Firstly, it was claimed that Carlos Mendes’ upbeat tune  of 1972 with the English title, “A Party For Life” purposefully compared partying without a care and that “celebrations will last until daybreak” to citizens celebrating a defeated dictatorship. Similarly, the following year, Fernando Tourdo’s track, “Tourada” or “Bullfight” resulted in many believing it was a metaphor of the activities of the autocratic regime. Indeed, the lyrics “We fight against the beasts shoulder to shoulder. Nobody deceives us,” certainly do appear both direct and provocative. Carlos Mendes so delicately represented the most iconic Portuguese feeling or genre of music, Saudade (this being a melancholic or saddened style of performing that represents longing for or nostalgia of something) whilst the year later, Tourdo conveyed what almost certainly was a hot-button, but necessary political statement in a manner that exposed Portuguese Jazz to the continent. This touching ability to be orientated towards multiple objectives, both musical and societal beautifully reminds us about how Eurovision has always been so much more than just a song contest.

This era of growing pride in “Portugese-ness” and political passion culminated a year later in the 1974 entry that saw unity flood the streets of the nation like no time before. Whilst the 19th edition of the contest is widely loved as the night that Eurovision saw ABBA crowned victorious at the Brighton Dome, few outside of Portugal will be as aware of the significance of Paulo De Carvalho’s uplifting song of national empowerment, the stirring ballad, “E depois do Adeus” (After the Goodbye). It only amounted to a last place finish, yet, what was special about this entry was not its popularity nor the music itself, but rather, the movement it symbolised and the message it would embody for those fighting for freedom within Portugal.

Paulo De Carvalho’s performance In Brighton (above), shown alongside a scene from the Carnation Revolution in Lisbon.

Going into the fourth decade of Portugal’s authoritarian dictatorship, domestic tension within the country was starting to peak. A revolution was on its way. However, such a good-hearted and proud political movement needed an anthem. In the run up to the 1974 contest, with their national entry’s unapologetically anti-dictatorship lyrics and message, it was decided that De Carvalho’s track would play a hugely significant role in the fight for the return of democracy. Roughly three weeks after its disappointment on the scoreboard in Brighton, “E depois do Adeus” was played on national radio from the same broadcasting station that selected the song in Festival Da Canção a couple of months earlier. This officially signalled the start of the Carnation Revolution whereby at 22:55 on the 24th of April, the translated lyrics “In your body, my love, I fell asleep. I’ve died in it and after dying I was reborn” played across Lisbon and beyond. Over the course of a day, the revolution was complete, with barely any shots fired, and democracy began to return. The power of music must never be understated. It is often believed that the words of the song represent the population’s struggle but resilience against adversity and personally, I certainly like the idea that Carvalho’s words represented the nation’s rebirth into a better future after a troubled political past.

Picking Up The Pace

Whilst the following two decades of Portugal’s time at contest did not prove incredibly fruitful, as the times changed and society progressed, so did Portugal. Those who know me well will know that due to my passions in the world of sport alongside my love for Eurovision, I am a big fan of statistics. Often, I make big predictions about upcoming events that either lead me to embarrass myself, or predict the most improbable of outcomes. By averaging every finish position in the 1970s and giving it a score out of the average number of participant countries in those years, the figure would be 12/18.2. In the 1980s this figure would be 12.8/19.8 and in the 1990s, it would be 14.7/23.6. Even though the finishing position improved over the course of the next twenty years, so did the number of participating countries, meaning that in truth, over two decades, Portugal’s average result was not improving against the growing Eurovision Community. In two decades, the top 10 was reached on only four occasions. But once more, Portugal was proving its worth to the contest not due to many impressive results, but due to its ability to adapt and embrace a new musical era. As Europe moved forward into the 1980s, Portugal caught up with an admirable leap of faith.

Having listened to all of Portugal’s 51 entries, it is my opinion that this is the era in which we see the country “have the most fun” at Eurovision. In particular, Diná’s jazzy guitar-centred entry in 1992 and the successful Sara Tavares with her mid-tempo ballad featuring modern band music are fantastic entries, but also fantastic examples of this new-found Portuguese music in the competition. For some time, Portugal was continuing to reuse traditional genres and interesting music that despite its uniqueness, was becoming somewhat repetitive. However, the most significant change that Portugal embraces in these two decades is that they begin to gather the confidence necessary to experiment with unfamiliar genres, open up to more mainstream culture yet, not marginalising their national language.

Lúcia Moniz performing “O Meu Coração Não Tem Cor” in Oslo 1996, the country’s best result between 1980 and 2016.

The first entry of what I like to call a new era of the contest in 1981 featured multiple languages, and was the first time Portugal sang a single word not in Portuguese in their entire Eurovision history after 16 years in the competition. The contemporary “Um Grande, Grande Amour” gave Portugal their joint best result regarding finishing position to the date, placing 7th in The Netherlands in 1980. For me, this entry is emblematic of their style throughout this era, becoming bold with their music, lightening the hearts of onlooking Europeans, catering towards a Western audience but in ways that are undoubtedly Portuguese at heart. 

The following year is another example of this. Despite its not so impressive result, the musical display is rather similar to the success of the year before, as Carlos Paião’s “Play-Back” began to raise interest, showcasing an up-tempo, rock ‘n’ roll influenced song that forced Europe into a feel-good mood. In fact, 6 of the 10 Portuguese entries in the 1980s and 8 of the 10 in the 1990s were of mid to high tempo, often performed in jazz, rock ‘n’ roll or pop-ballad styles. This is quite a turn from the days were saudade and melancholic love anthems were dominant, largely due to the development of western culture within Portugal following the end of the dictatorship.

Festival Da Canção also expanded rapidly with increasing western influence regarding media following and interest outside the capital. Portuguese broadcaster RTP staged the final outside Lisbon for the first time in 1983 when the competition went to the country’s second city, Porto, in 1983. This was followed up with visits to Évora in 1989, Estoril in 1990 and even Funchal on the island province of Madeira two years earlier. This truly signified a new effort from the broadcaster to spread a wider European musical influence across the whole country, and it worked. Entries in the festival became increasingly popular, even on regional radio stations, and a new passion for modern music began to embrace the country. With more freedom, comes more diversity.

Join us next week for part 2 of Portugal’s Eurovision journey, as we venture into the new millenium.

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