Portugal is known for its sun, joy, and colour. However, its national music is the exact opposite: Fado is sung in the darkness, thrives on melancholy, and dresses in black… and yet, its bitter-sweet melody has captivated people from all over the world!
It is this contrast between what the Portuguese people appear to be and what they really are, that lies the unique balance of the Portuguese soul. With the simple knowledge that there is no joy without pain, nor light without darkness, the Portuguese accept the good and the bad with the same simplicity with which they hear the sweet lament of a Fado over a glass of wine.
In the silence of the night, with the mystery that surrounds it, the Fado singer sings alone, accompanied by a classic guitar and a Portuguese guitar. “Silêncio, que se vai cantar o Fado” - Silence, that Fado will be sung. In the loneliness of the Fado singer’s lament, all who hear share this raw connection and understand the universal language of the heart.
Portugal has enchanted foreigners with this beautiful form of music, and if you have only now stumbled upon Fado, we can only hope you enjoy it as much as Portugal loves sharing it with the world!
The history of Fado
Fado emerged in the working-class districts of Lisbon. Until the middle of the 19th century, the only known Fado was sung by sailors, when they went to sea, fished, or were on the bow of ships. It was their vernacular and particular style of singing life’s hardships that inspired the first Fados sang on land, namely in the rural outskirts and “hortas” of Lisbon.
Fado rapidly spread to the taverns and brothels of the poorest neighbourhoods of the capital, where prostitutes and fishermen's wives sang their poor fate… or as Portuguese would call it, their “fado”.
The underprivileged classes of Lisbon believed that their fate, or "fado", was written before they were born. When a fisherman died at sea, that wasn't bad luck, it was "fado". And it wasn't necessary to have a good voice to sing Fado… if you could sing the hardness that was life on the banks of the river Tagus, you were a “fadista”.
Different ways of singing Fado throughout Portugal
Although Fado is closely tied to Lisbon, its popularity also grew in other parts of Portugal.
For over a century, Fado has also been sung in the streets of Porto (but with a Lisbon accent!) and Coimbra, although in the latter case with its own style linked to the academic traditions of its University.
In Coimbra, Fado is sung exclusively by men, accompanied by a Coimbra guitar and a classical guitar. The most traditional place to sing "Fado de Coimbra" is in the square next to the Sé Velha Monastery, but it is also a tradition to organize serenades under the window of a lady whose love a singer wants to win.
The 20th century marks a turning point for Fado, where its popularity grows from the streets of Lisbon’s “bairros” to the rest of Portugal through cinema, theatre and radio. Popular lyrics are replaced by elaborate verses and Fado becomes an incredibly more complex (and commercial) musical style.
The golden age of Fado occurs between the 30s and 40s when the Casas de Fado start to appear throughout Lisbon and with them a new generation of authors, composers, and singers.
The melancholic themes of the songs, however, remain faithful to the past. In Portuguese radio stations, songs of unrequited love and tragedy transform Fado singers into national celebrities.
Amália Rodrigues: A star is born
However, no Fado singer has ever been so famous and respected as Amália Rodrigues, who was responsible for bringing Fado to the world’s attention.
More than an extraordinary voice, Amália’s fados were innovative, with lyrics written by some of Portugal's most famous poets. She sang both the classics, such as Luís de Camões, but also contemporary poets among which Alexandre O'Neill, David Mourão-Ferreira, and Ary dos Santos. Amália’s fados also brought to the stage new music arrangements, thanks to the talent of composers such as Alain Oulman.
Her emotional and unique way of singing inspired a new generation of Fado artists to emerge, namely male voices such as Carlos do Carmo, one of Portugal’s greatest singers.
Carlos do Carmo’s famous Fado “Lisboa, menina e moça” is, to this day, one of Lisbon’s most well-known and cherished songs:
“Lisboa, menina e moça”
No Castelo, ponho um cotovelo
Em Alfama, descanso o olhar
E assim desfaço o novelo de azul e mar
À Ribeira encosto a cabeça
A almofada, da cama do Tejo
Com lençóis bordados à pressa
Na cambraia de um beijo
Lisboa menina e moça, menina
Da luz que meus olhos vêem tão pura
Teus seios são as colinas, varina
Pregão que me traz à porta, ternura
Cidade a ponto luz bordada
Toalha à beira mar estendida
Lisboa menina e moça, amada
Cidade mulher da minha vida
No Terreiro eu passo por ti
Mas da Graça eu vejo-te nua
Quando um pombo te olha, sorri
És mulher da rua
E no bairro mais alto do sonho
Ponho o Fado que soube inventar
Aguardente de vida e medronho
Que me faz cantar
Lisboa menina e moça, menina
Da luz que os meus olhos…
Fado’s popularity grew even more and around the world Portugal suddenly became known for its music. In 2011, Fado was classified by UNESCO as an Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Fado around the world
Alicia Waller is a professional singer from New York who came to Portugal to learn Fado…
Today, Fado is not only a style of music, it is a symbol of Portugal and the Portuguese soul. In Lisbon, there are several places that pay homage to Fado, from graffiti of Portuguese guitars to murals of Amália made of cobblestone... there's plenty to do, to see, and to listen for anyone wanting to discover Fado.
Discover Fado - What to visit in Lisbon?
Museu do Fado - The largest and most complete museum dedicated to the history of Fado. Listen to fados of several singers and become acquainted with the charms of the Portuguese guitar.
Casa Fernando Maurício - Considered the "King of Fado and Mouraria", discover the Fado singer's career, listen to his complete discography and see archive films with live performances and interviews.
Amália Rodrigues Foundation - Discover the house where the great Portuguese Fado diva lived.
Casas de Fado - On the hills of Lisbon there are many Casas de Fado where you can dine listening to artists singing live. The most traditional ones are found in the traditional "bairros" of Alfama, Mouraria, Bairro Alto and Madragoa.
Contemporary Fado artists to discover: