Sonia Shirsat (38) fado singer
Her tip for women entrepreneurs
‘It’s important to always keep wanting to develop yourself. That prevents your ego from getting too big. If your ego becomes too big, you stop growing.’
The Indian singer Sonia Shirsat is known as the Queen of Goan Fado. Fado, the soul of Portuguese music, is her whole life. This wasn’t always the case. She studied accounting and law and started out working as a teacher. Eight years ago she decided to finally follow her heart and embrace a fulltime singing career.
Spacious and homey
She lives in a white-and-blue house at the bottom of a steeply sloping street in the town of Ponda. Next to the front door there is a brass nameplate: Shirsat, Doctor. The name and profession of her father. The high-ceilinged living room feels spacious and homey. Family photographs hang on the wall and the rosewood cabinets display dozens of trinkets. Two dogs, who were strays until they adopted them, walk around wagging their tails. A chocolate cake is on the table, to celebrate Sonia’s mother’s birthday today.
“I have lived all my life in and around the 500 square meters of this house,” Sonia tells me. “My father’s hospital, where I was born, is a couple of hundred meters away. My kindergarten, elementary school, high school and university are all just a stone’s throw away. It was not until pursuing my masters that I left Ponda.”
Sonia’s school career was like that of many Indian children. She went to an elementary school run by nuns. After high school, as a matter of course, she decided to study for a bachelor degree in accounting. And then obtained her masters in law. But during her studies she did spend a lot of time doing what she loves most: singing.
‘Fado touches you in your heart’
The love for singing was passed on to her as an infant. Her mother and grandmother often sang fado, her mother while she was cooking. “Fado touches you in your heart,” says Sonia’s mother who is sitting with us at the table during our conversation. Many Portuguese influences are still strongly felt in her mother’s Catholic family. From 1505 to 1961, Goa was a Portuguese colony, and these centuries of Portuguese domination left a deep imprint on the culture of the province. You can see it in the architecture, taste it in the food and hear it in the music.
Sonia remembers her first performance very clearly. “I was eight years old and I was on stage at the Ganesh Festival, an important religious festival. I had no stage fright at all. I was excited I was going to perform for a large audience. I sang a song from the Bollywood film Qayamat Se Qayamat. That film had provided a breakthrough moment for several people including the director and the star. And now also for me.” After that day she was frequently asked to perform. “Even though I still don’t know whether they asked me because they thought I was a good singer or because my father was a respected doctor in Ponda,” she jokes.
‘That way I keep both feet firmly on the ground’
Another performance that is etched in her memory was her first time in a singing competition for secondary schools in the region. “No one took our school very seriously because we came from a small provincial town. But I won against all expectations.” Still she didn’t feel totally convinced of her victory. A well-known school from the province’s capital Margao hadn’t shown up. “My first thought was: if that school had participated, I may not have won. Not because I’m insecure. But because I think it’s important to realise that it’s possible for people to be better than me. That way I keep both feet firmly on the ground.” Her mother nods in agreement.
‘It’s important to always keep wanting to develop yourself’
Was she proud of her daughter when she won the competition? “Yes, I was proud of her,” her mother replies and Sonia cries out: “You’ve never said that before, Mom!” Followed immediately by: “Well, I don’t tell my students that kind of thing either. I don’t spoil them with compliments. I focus on telling them what they can improve. Otherwise they might be tempted to sit back and rest on their laurels. It’s important to always keep wanting to develop yourself. To always work on being better than your last performance. That prevents your ego from getting too big. I firmly believe in that: if your ego becomes too big, you stop growing.”
Winning the school competition inspired Sonia to start taking singing seriously. In the following years she participated in many singing competitions, singing in different languages and genres, and almost always winning first prize. “Participating, and winning in particular, almost became an addiction for me,” says Sonia.
‘Sing out loud enough to be heard at the chapel down the street’
But she still wasn’t singing fado. She only started singing these songs in 2003. After another victorious singing competition, the guitarist who had accompanied her performance approached her. “He told me that my voice was made for fado. He had heard how I put emotion into my voice. That’s vital, because fado songs are often melancholy love songs. And my voice had a good range and volume.” This is important for a fado singer who is usually accompanied only by two instruments. “My mother had always taught me to sing loudly,” Sonia explains. “That was great training for my voice.” Her mother adds: “I always said: when you sing, sing out loud enough to be heard at the chapel down the street.”
“I could no longer give my students the attention I felt they deserved. So I chose singing.”
From that day forward fado was the most important thing in her life. But the time was still not yet ripe to put all of her energy into her singing career. After her law degree she started working as a law teacher and combined that with her singing. In 2008 she gave her first fado concert, in Lisbon, for a sold-out concert hall. “Fado from Goa – the Portuguese were definitely curious about that.” Three years later she decided that combining teaching and singing was becoming too demanding. “I could no longer give my students the attention I felt they deserved. So I chose singing.”
Her career progressed steadily from that moment on. She has performed in concert halls around the world, toured extensively through India, and released several albums. Nevertheless in 2016 she decided it was time for a change. “When I looked into the audience during my concerts, I noticed two things. That a faithful following of people aged over fifty came to my concerts. And that that group was thinning out: there were no new followers. I realised that if I wanted to keep fado alive in Goa, I had to change something.” Sonia had to find a new approach. “Fado is a niche genre. There is no one who arranges my bookings or my promotion. I do everything myself. As a fado singer in India you have to work hard to make sure that each concert actually takes place.”
So Sonia introduced something new: Fado in the City, series of concerts where each concert has a different subject: such as men in fado, or different styles of fado. Those concerts were free. “We expected to have about 80 visitors per concert. But there were usually more than 300.” The concert series led to something new: Fado Classes. Young people with an interest in fado follow a course in which they learn to sing five fados, concluded with an oral and written exam and a performance. Then the best are selected for extra singing lessons.
‘I think that’s the entrepreneur in me’
“I love it. Not only the creative part, but also the organisational aspect,” says Sonia. “Selling tickets, making a programme booklet, decorating the stage, giving interviews. I think that’s the entrepreneur in me. And my background in accounting and law comes in handy. I have friends who are very artistic but have no idea how to handle the financial side.”
Sonia is hopeful about the future of fado in Goa. “It would be great to have a place here where talented fado singers could perform every day. Just like in Lisbon – a Fado House.”