Fado: Songs of Portugal

Portugal, like most countries, has both traditional and contemporary musical genres. At times the two are fused to create a pseudo style, appreciated by wider generations.

After continuous obfuscation by neighbouring Spain for many years, Portugal is finally garnering international attention on its own. Its tourism industry is now booming, and visitor numbers increase every year. Yet, such attention does not always translate to an understanding of cultural distinctions.

The streets of Lisbon. Wall art of Amalia Rodrigues. Image courtesy of Roland Johnson.

The streets of Lisbon. Wall art of Amalia Rodrigues. Image courtesy of Roland Johnson.

The Origins of Fado

When we speak of music in Portugal, and Portuguese identity, it is impossible not to mention Fado. Born on the streets of Lisbon, the origins of this musical genre remain contested. Some claim it began as a lament of sailor's wives on the Voyages of the Discoveries. Some claim inspiration came from slave songs called Lundus, that emerged from Angola and Brazil (the origin and destination of a significant part of the Atlantic Slave trade). Others claim it may have much earlier influences from the Arab conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. Either way, Fado as we (the locals) came to know it, only started to be noticed in the 19th century; especially in the Lisbon neighbourhoods of Alfama, Mouraria and Bairro Alto. Fado, in its dawning, was not a tune for the high classes or elite – quite the contrary, it was a low-level form of music debased by the populace and embraced by the downtrodden.

Wall art of Amalia Rodrigues. Image courtesy of Adriana Martin.

Wall art of Amalia Rodrigues. Image courtesy of Adriana Martin.

But what does Fado entail exactly? In a word: Saudade. Saudade means a type of longing, of “missing” something. Fado is typically a compilation of sad lyrics, although some can also be playful. And it must always be accompanied by at least two essential musical instruments: a classical guitar (viola) and a Portuguese guitar, a twelve-string instrument with a very particular sonority, that seems to entice the saddest and most nostalgic feelings in its listeners.

Traditional Portuguese guitars.  Image by Kaysha shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license.

Traditional Portuguese guitars. 

Image by Kaysha shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license.

The Iconic Figures of Fado

The original diva of Fado, Maria Severa, was a renowned prostitute and descendant of gipsies. She gained her reputation as a singer in taverns around the capital’s bohemian districts. As aristocrats and social elite sought entertainment in public houses and brothels, Fado began to acquire some notoriety. It is strange that a musical style initially so divisive and born less than a century earlier was adopted by the nationalist dictatorship in the 1930s – Fado became a “national song”. Imposed censorship ensured the lyrics were in line with the conservative ideology of the regime.

It was in the midst of this Fado appropriation that another female idol of Portuguese music was born – Amália Rodrigues. She became a world renowned fadista, enchanting international audiences with her fantastic and powerful voice. A vital link for Portuguese culture to the wider world at a time when the official policy of the regime was isolationism at all costs. Amália managed to incorporate other forms of rhythm into Fado, thus bringing traditional tunes into modernity. Amália died in the 1990s (1920-1999) but her home is now a museum (Fundacao Amalia Rodrigues Casa Museu) and if you are lucky your guide will be Estrela, who worked with Amalia for forty years and shares fond memories of her life. Unfortunately, by then, most of the nation’s fascination with Fado had disappeared. The style's entanglement to the old regime meant that after the 1974 revolution the depth and relatability of Fado in the community became overshadowed by other forms of music that incorporated freedom and provided a contemporary alternative.

Certain groups such as Madredeus attempted to recreate some of Fado’s popularity however it was only through the emergence of another female performer, Mariza, that Fado arose again, particularly on the international stage. If Amália gave Fado a soulful twist, Mariza gave it a contemporary one. Mariza opened the door for the 2000s rebirth of Fado, this time with a varied array of young fadistas, capable of mixing different musical styles but still with some nostalgia for classic Fado.

Mariza performing live at Coliseu dos Recreios in Lisboa. Image courtesy of Rui M. Leal.

Mariza performing live at Coliseu dos Recreios in Lisboa. Image courtesy of Rui M. Leal.

The famous composer Carlos Paredes was the epitome of Portuguese guitar genius. But he was also a humble man who never acquired the international notoriety that he deserved – in fact, despite his reputation and people’s admiration, he remained for most of his life an archivist of radiographic images at one of Lisbon’s largest hospitals.

Styles of Fado

There are, in fact, two types of Fado: Lisbon Fado and Coimbra Fado, each with unique nuances. Coimbra is a university town in Portugal, and Coimbra Fado originates from academic traditions. During the dictatorship, when many student activists opposed the regime, the Fado of Coimbra was coloured by a more political bent and some of it became what Portuguese people call “intervention songs”.

Fado street art. Image courtesy of Enrique M. Luna.

Fado street art. Image courtesy of Enrique M. Luna.

Intervention music resides in folk songs of a political nature, mostly crafted during the middle to late period of the Portuguese dictatorship in the 20th century. Many of the singer-songwriters were involved in the Communist Resistance, so some of the songs might seem to us a little dated in their themes and language. But others retain a strong sense of fraternity and opposition to oppression that still resonates with many people today. The movement's most famous singer-songwriter – José (Zeca) Afonso – was a Philosophy professor forbidden to teach by the regime and was eventually exiled from the country. Others, such as José Mário Branco, also suffered the same fate. There were also musical groups, such as GAC (Grupo de Acção Cultural – Vozes na Luta) or Brigada Victor Jara.

Porto Calem fado show: "Porto et fado 12". Image by Alain Rouiller shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license.

Porto Calem fado show: "Porto et fado 12".

Image by Alain Rouiller shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license.

Portuguese protest music was traditional and primitive in style for appeal to the masses. Songs were a powerful tool for the mobilisation of the people. In fact, one of José Afonso’s most famous songs – Grândola Vila Morena – was utilised as a signal for the military to begin the revolution in 1974. Intervention music was critical in shaping political sensibilities in Portugal and delineate the lyricism and poeticism of the songs themselves; most derived from poems by persecuted poets such as Manuel Alegre. Although concerts were, at times, organised as an act of resistance, strict censorship prevented many songs from airing on the radio. So the albums of these singers would usually be edited outside the country – usually France – and then circulated in person. The allure from the simple act of listening to an album was rebellious enough, let alone protest songs. One must never turn the volume too high for fear of inciting the neighbours' or the secret Policia’s curiosity.

Although much older and more ordinary in style and theme, Cante Alentejano could also be thought of as protest music by and for the repressed. So treasured, it is listed under UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. A traditional kind of choral singing, usually performed by groups up to thirty. There is no instrumentation, just a compilation of expressions and melodies. Cante Alentejano was created by the people of the Portugal southern province of Alentejo, mainly farmers and “peasants” who experienced a gruelling rural life of deprivation. Alentejo held a feudal character, and the songs were usually performed absent-mindedly by farmers while tending to the land of their master. Following the 1974 Revolution, Cante Alentejano saw a rebirth as communist peasants of Alentejo took claim of the lands in which they had laboured for generations, and the genre established itself as a kind of rebellion. Today, it primarily exists through organised choral groups in parties and contests throughout the region. Most of the repertoire performed was and is almost always only oral in nature.

Fado Vadio: An urban tribute to Fado at Escadinhas de Sao Cristovao.  Image by Jan Hamlet shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license.

Fado Vadio: An urban tribute to Fado at Escadinhas de Sao Cristovao. 

Image by Jan Hamlet shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license.

But what about the North?

A region that was mostly influenced by the Celts and that remained opposing of the Roman invasion of the Arab Peninsula and, later, of the Arabs. Portugal is indeed a multi linguistic country; not only due to a growing immigrant community but because it is the home of at least two native languages: Portuguese and Mirandese. The Mirandese language has its roots in Vulgar Latin and is primarily spoken in three municipalities in Northeastern Portugal: Miranda do Douro, Mogadouro and Vimioso. A descendant of the ancient Iberian language spoken in the Kingdom of León, it has evolved in almost total isolation of other languages besides Portuguese. At times described as the language of farms, work, home and love between the Mirandese by scholar José Leite de Vasconcelos. It’s legacy today is threatened: fewer than 5000 speakers remain in the region. During the dictatorship, Mirandese was suppressed for the ideal of Portugal as a unitary colonial empire, and likewise, other native languages from African colonies were also disregarded. However, since the 1980s there have been efforts to make sure the language is not lost during the next century, and so young children of the region are taught Mirandese, or naturally adopt it from their ancestors.

In the early 2000s, a musical project emerged in an attempt to preserve the legacy of the Mirandese language and performances, Galandum Galundaina. It was the first mainstream insertion of Mirandese into popular culture that found success. The members of the group toured the world showcasing elements of their culture with upbeat and danceable rhythms yet staying true to their roots. The musical style, which sounds Celtic-inspired, is the most traditional type of music played at Mirandese festivities.

Fado house performance.  Image by James Savage shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license.

Fado house performance. 

Image by James Savage shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license.

A celebration of music and mischief in Portugal:

Carnaval dos Caretos

One of the most famous celebrations in Portugal is the Carnaval of Caretos, a pagan tradition with roots in either Ancient Rome or Celtic civilisation that persists to this day. It has merged with the more contemporary celebration of Carnaval, producing the Carnaval dos Caretos, an invasion of noisy and mischievous demons. Carnaval has long been regarded as the day of excess, of law-breaking behaviour, and an escape from routine symbolised by the wearing of the mask. The Caretos are indeed a part of that mindset with a certain allure from a previous, more primitive age. Often it is young men and boys wearing the masks made from tin, leather or wood and a colourful suit made from red, black, green or yellow fringes with bells attached around their waist. They come out in groups, yelling and scaring off visitors, robbing wineries and preparing to chase single young girls until they scale walls and verandas. The goal is to hold them and shake the bells against their legs, symbolising fertility for the women. Nowadays, females are allowed to join in the mischief. Podence, an ancient village with stone houses and stunning landscapes, is home to one of the most well-renowned Carnaval of Caretos. Often, the Caretos also emerge during Christmas and New Year, always with their characteristic talent for making trouble. The accompanying music of the region is inebriating, both playful and rough, and helps give the festivities their distinctive touch of mischievousness.  

Portuguese music is varied and often rooted in the political and social context of its emergence. Far from being a mere reflection of social practices, it was a key contributor to the revolution and a weapon against oppression. Today, that tradition remains in musical groups that strive for social significance while re-inventing their musical heritage – the group Deolinda released what could be considered a protest song (“Que Parva Que Eu Sou”) denouncing exploitative work practices for young people striving to be financially stable. Portuguese artists are ever more aware of their significance in awakening the politically numb, without falling into old stereotypes and criminalising their legacy. In fact, it’s precisely in this re-invention of tradition that the greatest creative genius of Portuguese music stand.

Fado Houses

For extensive information on Fado houses in Portugal take a look at the Museo do Fado, (roteiro.museudofado.pt) which includes a map, hours, descriptions and locations. There is also information on learning to sing fado.

Clube de Fado, Alfama, Lisbon. Image courtesy of Baptiste Nasselevitch.

Clube de Fado, Alfama, Lisbon. Image courtesy of Baptiste Nasselevitch.

Margarida Teixeira.jpeg

Margarida Teixeira is a Human Rights student living in Paris with a background in Philosophy and Cinema.