It took 53 years for Portugal to win the Eurovision Song Contest, and few could have predicted that it would be with an act as stripped-down and melancholic as this.
When Salvador Sobral, a 27-year-old bar singer, entered the Kyiv International Exhibition Centre as part of the Eurovision Song Contest’s opening montage, he looked like a production runner who had wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time. With a shaggy beard and an unkempt topknot, Sobral offered only a shy smile while his fellow contestants presented bravado and tenacity worthy of District One tributes in the Hunger Games.
Little changed when Sobral got on stage. Hunched around a microphone in his ill-fitting suit, Sobral sung Amar pelos Dois, what he described as “a love song. A sad one”, that was written in Portuguese by his sister, Luisa, who joined him on stage after their victory had been announced. But his whispery, mouth-of-marbles vocals tugged on heartstrings despite the language barrier. Amar pelos Dois pays tribute to Portugal’s folk traditions, borrowing from the Fado style, an entire genre that mines mournfulness, and Sobral’s vocals were nearly overshadowed by swooning strings and twinkling keys.
Among the glossy trappings of 2017 club-tinged pop that were adopted by other favourites Italy’s Francesco Gabbani and Bulgaria’s Justin Bieber 2.0 Kristian Kostov, Amar pelos Dois cast a distinctly vintage shadow over the competition. While Sobral may have competed on the Portuguese version of Pop Idol seven years ago, he has made his name since by performing on smaller stages. And Amar pelos Dois mined this; it could have been emerging from the doorway of a dimly lit bar in Lisbon’s Bairro Alto, not hushing the thousands of flag-bearers filling an arena in Ukraine.
Sobral’s song is a divisive one: as many viewers dismissed it as morose and boring as called it beautifully haunting. The success of Ukraine’s Jamala last year, who won with an emotional tribute to those who were killed in the deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944, proved that there is plenty of room at the top of the Eurovision leaderboard for poignancy.
However, until the semi-finals, Portugal were not considered a likely winner. Sobral’s victory, therefore, is as much due to his disarming performance than it is a song that, on record, was unremarkable. And, as for those who claimed Amar pelos Dois wasn’t befitting Eurovision’s more spangly surroundings, well, Sobral didn’t care, dismissing “disposable” and “fast-food music” for “music that means something”. “Music is not fireworks, music is feeling”, he told a glitter-covered crowd. For Portugal, that feeling had been half a century in the making.