Friday, January 3, 2014

Fado, singing blue in Portugal

A shawl, a guitar, a voice and heartfelt emotion. These are the ingredients of Fado, the celebrated form of world music that captures what it is to be Portuguese. Fado is probably the oldest urban folk music in the world and represents the heart of the Portuguese soul. Listening to Fado is like visiting Lisbon, meeting the Portuguese people, those that once upon a time faced the unknown sea. This type of music that connected nobles, vagabonds and seafarers, is still nowadays a shared passion by all Portuguese. Fado has been recognized last November 2011 by the UNESCO as Inmaterial Humankind Patrimony.


Fado can be performed by men or women, although the raw emotion of the female fadista is nearly always preferred. Dressed in black with a shawl draped over her shoulders, a fadista stands in front of the musicians and communicates through gesture and facial expressions. The hands move, but the body remains stationary. It’s a solemn and majestic performance.

Traditionally accompanied by the Portuguese guitar, there are many ways of singing the Fado. It can range from the faster Fado corrido of Mouraria, to the impromptu singing known as ‘desgarrada’, or the mournful music of the students of Coimbra. And the well known Fado Vadio (Vagrant Fado), which is characterized by the place where it was born and sang for so long, the streets!

There are two main varieties of fado, namely those of the cities of Lisbon and Coimbra. The Lisbon style is the most popular, while Coimbra's is the more refined style. Some of their characteristics are that in Lisbon it is always sung by a solo performer on the contrary, in Coimbra it is often performed by groups of male university students. Both are accompanied by two guitarists, one playing the melody on a twelve-stringed Portuguese guitar and the other supplying the rhythm on the six-stringed viola. In Coimbra we find the usual Fado’s sad style, but with different motivations and also based in the medieval songs called trovas.
Inspiration for Fado can come from almost any source, with predominance of themes like: destiny, deep-seated feelings, disappointments in love, the sense of sadness and longing for someone who has gone away, the sea, the life of sailors and fishermen, and last but not least “Saudade” (one of the main themes used in
fado, that means a kind of longing).


The word Fado comes from the Latin fatum, which means fate or destiny. Fado, in a certain way, represents better than anything the spirit of the Portuguese people: the belief in destiny as something that overwhelms us and from which we can't escape, the domination of the soul and heart over reason, which leads to acts of passion and despair, and reveal such a black and beautiful sorrow. There are many theories about the origin of Fado, like:

  1. Fado has its origin in Moorish songs; Moors kept living near Lisbon even after the Christian take-over. The melancholy of those songs and the referral in many lyrics to Mouraria strengthen this theory.
  2. Fado arrived to Portugal with the sailors returning from their long trips (1822), under the form of Lundum (the music of the Brazilian slaves). Lundum only after a while started modifying until it became the Fado. The first lundum songs related to the sea and the lands far beyond them, where the slaves lived. Then, one of Amália's Fados, called "The Black Boat" talks precisely of a senzala (place where the slaves were kept).
  3. The melancholy character of Fado evolved from Portuguese seafarers who sang of home during their long absences at sea.
  4. Fado was born in the Middle Ages. As cantigas de amigo (friend songs) are a good example of it. They were love songs dedicated to a woman and have great similarities with diverse subjects of the Fado of Lisbon. Also with the Fado of Coimbra, where the students intone their songs beneath the window of the loved one (serenades).


Fado became popular thanks to the singer Maria Severa who lived in the first half of the 19th century and died at the age of 26. She made this type of song famous in aristocratic circles through her romance with the Count of Vimioso. Her life later became the subject of Portugal's first sound movie in 1931. To this day, female performers wear a black shawl in her memory and her life story has been the influence of several Fado songs, poems, novels, and plays.

By the early twentieth century, Fado had become a fixture in the everyday life of Lisbon’s working class. It was played for pleasure and also to relieve the pain of life. Fadistas, skilled singers that performed at the end of the day and long into the night. Fado was the earthly music of taverns, brothels and street corners mainly in Alfama, Mouraria, Bairro Alto and Madragoa. Fado reached its golden era in the first half of the 20th century, when the Portuguese dictatorship of Salazar (1926-1968) forced the fado performers to become professional and confined them to sing in the fado houses and the so called "revistas", a popular genre of "vaudeville". The main names of this period were: Alfredo Marceneiro, Amália Rodrigues, Maria Teresa de Noronha and Armandinho and Jaime Santos (guitar players).

From the 1940’s until 1999 Fado was shown to the world through the voice of one amazing artist, Amália Rodrigues, the towering figure of Portuguese fado. In the 20th century she made Fado known beyond Portugal, performing all over Europe, Japan, South America, and even in the United States, in New York's "La Vie en Rose" in the 1950s. When she died the country’s prime minister called for three days of national mourning, and as a national icon, she was buried in Lisbon's National Pantheon.
Amália has found a worthy successor in Mariza, who takes Fado to an even wider audience. Other very important names of Fado are Maria da Fé, Hermínia Silva, Argentina Santos and Carlos do Carmo.

Nowadays in Portugal, the younger generation respects fado but isn’t dedicated to it. Contemporary fado musicians like Misia have introduced the music to performers such as Sting. Cristina Branco, Dulce Pontes, Camané, Mafalda Arnauth and Katia Guerreiro are other sonant artists that keep Fado alive, and brought with them a new look to the traditional song, occasionally reviving 19th century fado. Amendoeira.

And also please note that despite Fado being a symbol of the Portuguese nationality, it is, by no means, the national song. From region to region, Portugal possesses several rich and typical folklores of each geographical area that have nothing to do with Fado. Perhaps we can, if you want, to say that this will be the form of folklore of Lisbon, Oporto and Coimbra. However, it is appreciated and recognized in all the Portuguese country as a symbol. This is the spirit of fado, the expression of a collective soul, made of each one's soul.

Sources: Clube de fado, www.fado.comHistoria do Fado, Pinto do Carvalho, A history of the Portuguese Fado , Paul Vernon,…

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