Fado: the song that harnesses the Portuguese soul

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A shawl, a guitar, a voice and sincere emotion. These are the ingredients of Fado, the celebrated form of world music that captures what it is to be Portuguese.

Fado is the song that harnesses the Portuguese soul. Deep-seated feelings, disappointments in love, the sense of sadness and longing for someone who has gone away, everyday events, the ups and downs of life - inspiration for Fado can come from almost any source.

Nowadays, Fado is almost a symbol of Portugal, a celebrated form of world music that has retained its traditional qualities but moved with the times. Amália, the world-renowned singer who brought Fado to the great concert halls of Europe and the attention of international audiences.  Today, Fadista Mariza, who continues to tour overseas, taking the Fado to an even wider audience.

The more popular forms of Fado are to be heard in the cities near the sea, such as Lisbon or Porto, but Coimbra has given the music its own unique feel, making it popular among students.

The Fado houses are the best places for enjoying an evening of Fado. A candlelit dinner, accompanied by songs you’ll understand without even speaking the language, is an experience that you simply have to include in your holiday plans.

The Fado and its origins

No-one knows quite how Fado first came into being, but to this day Portugal's traditional music remains at the very heart of the country's culture.

The origins of Fado are uncertain. It may have its roots in the 10th century songs of troubadours, the homesickness of seafarers or the Lundum songs sung by the black slaves from Brazil. It began with popular rhythms and lyrics, in Porto and Lisbon, and as the country developed so Fado gradually evolved into something more complex. Today it is considered an important form of world music.

The word Fado comes from the Latin fatum, which means fate or destiny. It is a style of music that it is all about deep feelings: the disappointments of love, the sadness and longing felt for someone who has gone away, the everyday life of the neighborhood and the conquests of the local inhabitants.

The first written record of Fado dates from the 19th century. Since that time the image of the music has been shaped by those who have sung it. Maria Severa, very much a Fado singer from her own local neighborhood, made this type of song famous in aristocratic circles through her romance with the Count of Vimioso.

Amália Rodrigues was both the voice and soul of poems written by Portuguese writers and helped to make Fado famous outside Portugal. Mariza is the most recent revelation and has continued the tradition of these earlier singers while also providing a new form for the singing of Fado.

Traditionally accompanied by the 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. Visit the Museu do Fado e da Guitarra Portuguesa to find our more about this music and then absorb the atmosphere of one of the Fado Houses at night.

Voices of the Fado

Fado, the perfect blend of voice and guitar.

Traditional Fado can be sung in many different ways. The most respected names are those of Amália Rodrigues, Maria da Fé, Hermínia Silva and Argentina Santos, whilst Carlos do Carmo is one of the best-known male voices, famous for the way he sings about Lisbon.

A new generation of Fado singers has brought us fresh voices, such as Dulce Pontes, who featured in the Hollywood film "Primal Fear" (with Richard Gere), and Mariza, who won the BBC Radio Award for World Music in 2003. Other new names in Fado are Mísia, Camané, Mafalda Arnauth and Katia Guerreiro. They all have an emotional commitment to their singing.

If you want to sample some of this traditional music, then the Grand Night of Fado is held every year in Lisbon and Porto. It’s a very special evening that showcases the best new musical talents, an event that helps to launch careers and discover unique voices.

The new Portuguese Soul

They talk about soul; about sentiments that are part of the air; about saudades that are felt. It’s Fado they sing. The old and the new, but always Fado, to be listened to in silence, while you taste a caldo verde and nibble at a slice of chouriço on a chunk of cornbread.

Fado is ancient but not antiquated. Fado is sad, but not unhappy. Fado is dark, but not grey. Grey is a half tone, while Fado speaks of feelings. Feelings are never half tones. This is the tone of Fado: feelings. It’s from Portugal, from Lisboa, and its sounds are truly unique. It fascinates and enchants the whole world. Wherever it goes, it captivates, knows how to show its face, renew itself, add new expressions.

That’s why we say Fado, despite being old, isn’t antiquated. Because, like Lisboa, it knows and knew how to remake itself, keeping alive the traditions of its greatest performers, those that performed beyond the borders.

For all Portuguese - and others too -- Amália Rodrigues remains the great lady of Fado, the reference point, and it will be that way always. The singer died in October 1999, but she remains a living symbol of the peculiar style of singing about sadness and pain of the soul.  During the dictatorship period, Fado became one of the few cultural manifestations of this country. Even today the famous trilogy Fado, Fátima and Football (personified by Amália, Nossa Senhora de Fátima and Eusébio) is a heritage of those times.

Names like Amália, Maria da Fé, Carlos do Carmo, Cidália Moreira and Argentina Santos are still unyielding references of the style.

But Fado is changing. A new generation of excellent performers arose in the 1990s, renovating Fado and making it lighter and more harmonious, often turning to instruments that would have been unthinkable in original Fado. ,

Camané is one such case, one of the “sure things” if the new generation: to traditional Fado, profound and soulful, the singer added modernity, with the sound of the bass.

One of the most adult and erudite voices of the new Fado is Mísia, who in the past two years has sold 20,000 records in 64 countries, and selling out the mythical Olympia, in Paris. Mísia absorbed the roots of Fado - saudade - and joined it to the words of great Portuguese-language writers like José Saramago, Lobo Antunes, Agustina Bessa-Luís and Lídia Jorge, among others.

In the gallery of new performers we also find, in the front row, Mafalda Arnauth and Maria Ana Bobone, two crystalline voices who have dedicated many hours to their work.

Hélder Moutinho, Ana Sofia Varela, and Mariza are others whose new values stand out, proving that Fado never dies.

The Coimbra Fado

"Coimbra is more enchanting when it’s time to bid farewell." This is the most famous line from this city’s Fado. It sums up the romantic spirit of the university students who sing it.

The Fado of Coimbra bears a close instrumental resemblance to the Fado that is sung in Lisbon. Its lyrics, however, have become more erudite and it displays a different spatial quality, with a different type of vocal effect.

The Fado of Coimbra was developed by university students who arrived in the city from Lisbon and Porto, bringing with them their guitars and a different way of singing. They found Fado the ideal vehicle for preserving the memories of student life, singing about unrequited love and nights spent without sleep, or serenading their sweethearts from under the window.

In fact, it is only the males in the student population who sing Fado, dressed in their traditional academic costume of black suits and thick gowns. The best time for listening to them is Queima das Fitas; the traditional festival held in May to mark the end of the academic year. The Noite da Serenata, when serenades are sung outside the entrance to the city’s old cathedral, is also a moment of great local emotion.

But for some Coimbra students, Fado is not just for days of youth. Adriano Correia de Oliveira and José Afonso both became famous singers, while Artur Paredes and Carlos Paredes became well-known guitarists.

Lisbon & the Fado

In Lisbon, the nights begin with Fado.

An accompaniment to the city’s history, Fado grew out of the old quarters of Mouraria, Alfama, Bairro Alto and Madragoa. With themes of fate and conflict, this traditional music was shared by noblemen, vagrants and seafarers alike, frequently being sung in a way that displayed intense suffering.

Fado also has a lighter side, describing the conquests, love affairs and different life experience of each neighborhood, immortalized by the artist José Malhoa in his famous paintings of the Fado.

The music’s fame was gradually built up in the Fado houses, where only those with a professional license could sing. Amália was the most charismatic of these early Fado singers and the first to take the music overseas. Possessing a great stage presence and being a natural entertainer, Amália left us with the classical image of the traditional Fado singer in a black dress and shawl. Her former home is now a museum that is well worth a visit.

The intimacy of a restaurant or Fado house is still the best way of enjoying this music. A night spent listening to Fado by candlelight is a unique and unforgettable experience.

Casa-Museu do Fado e da Guitarra Portuguesa

A series of different atmospheres have been recreated here through the use of audiovisual media and the museum's extremely valuable store of documents, consisting of collections of records, photographs, films, theatrical props, instruments and sundry objects, invites visitors to learn more about the history of Fado. The museum has a documentation centre, an auditorium, a specialist shop and a cafeteria.

Fado – the song of Lisboa

Fado is, par excellence, the song of Lisboa. Born of unique sentiment, of a soul that can’t be explained but only felt, Fado today is the most noble and genuine product of Portuguese popular culture. And because it is so singular, it is always a surprise for the tourists who visit Lisboa.

Fado is Fado and there are no ways to divide it. It’s music that comes from inside the Portuguese soul. Even so, there are those who try to see divisions between professional Fado and amateur Fado.

The former is sung by people who make their voice their way of life, people of talent and hard work, who give their best, elevating the prestige of Portuguese song in the outside world.

The second, amateur Fado, or Fado vadio as it is known, has other characteristics, though the saudosista nature is the same. In the vadio Fado houses, which now breathe again in the Alfama and other popular bairros like the Bairro Alto, the fadista is never invited … he invites himself.

Here there is no established program. You eat a grilled chouriço, drink a few glasses of wine, turn out the lights and the magic of these spaces comes to life. Whoever wants to can sing, giving wing to their sentiments.

The spirit of a Fado vadio house is necessarily different from the atmosphere of a professional Fado house: here, there is ritual and ceremony, over there is a party of desire and sensation.


On the Fado streets

Accompanied by the guitar, the Fado tells a story of the sea, around which the whole Portuguese nation is rallied. The words of each song sing the soul of that people, intermingled with the yearning for those who have gone away, and the anguish of those left behind who, in Lisboa’s port, awaited the arrival of the ships which did not always return.

Let us imagine the visitor to Lisboa in the Praça do Príncipe Real. He watches the dusk slowly descending over the city from the direction of the river. In the western sky there is still a strip of light that illuminates the Tagus bar. The traveler muses to himself that the sun, before disappearing below the sea, still wants to guide him to the safety of the port. He then recalls the many Portuguese sailors who, down the centuries, left the same river mouth for the high seas, and this led him to think of the Fado, in whose words is felt the force of the sea and the adversities of a people of fishermen and sailors. It is that same people who, having returned to the alleys and lanes of Lisboa, tell tales of misfortunes and longing, before embarking once more.

The visitor needs to muse no more; he gets up and makes his way to the Bairro Alto, to hear the Fado being sung.

The Fado district

He enters the Bairro via the Rua da Rosa and begins to comprehend the roots of the Fado, which came from the lanes and narrow alleyways of the Bairro Alto, fed by the laments that could be heard there, coming from the mouths of people for whom life was tough and love unrequited. The visitor comes across the first Fado-house; before entering the typical restaurant O Forcado, he notices, depicted in a stained-glass window, a minstrel nostalgically recalling bygone times. He also sees the photos of Fado-singers and guitarists who used to perform there.

The visitor’s curiosity is aroused and he wants to get to know other Fado-houses, so he decides to walk along Travessa da Boa Hora. Turning right, he finds himself in Rua do Diário de Notícias, where he makes his way to nº 107. On the building’s façade is written Adega Mesquita; this is the oldest of the Fado-houses. Inside he can sense the world of Fado and of bulls. The warm velvety light emanating from the lanterns on the ceiling is conducive to having a good cod-fish meal.

They tell him that Fado is sung there all night long; seeing a bull’s head over the mantlepiece, the visitor senses how these two traits of the Portuguese soul – Fado and bull-fighting – are interwined. From between the Fado-house walls, on which can be seen verses printed on the tiles, appears the Fado-singer Maria de Fátima, and the Adega Mesquita is soon filled with the sound of her voice.

The visitor then goes on to the Café Luso, famous since the thirties. The Cafe Luso today occupies the old coach-houses and cellars of the S. Roque Palace, one of the buildings that withstood the 1755 earthquake. The original vaults, dating from the XVIIth century, are still there. The Café Luso is also a cultural space, where shows that combine Fado and theatre have already been performed. In hearing Fado sung at the Café Luso, one can understand how the tradition has been carried on in the voices of the younger Fado-singers. Curiously, it was at the Café Luso where one of the idiomatic expressions used by the Portuguese – “the rope crowd” – was born. The expression “the rope crowd” refers to the sort of people known for their preference for going unnoticed. When the expression was coined, it referred to the Fado devotees of the Café Luso, who did not have sufficient money to be able to sit at the tables: they remained at the back of the room, behind a rope that demarcated the space they could occupy. It was these people, who wanted to hear Fado but who could not occupy the tables closest to the Fado-singers, who were known as “the rope crowd”.

The Bairro Alto offers still more opportunities to listen to Fado, like the Adega Machado, the typical restaurant Faia and the Severa. But our visitor decides to leave Bairro Alto, walking on down towards Alcântara, on his way to the well-known typical restaurant Timpanas.

Where Fado is also sung:

Located at number 22 in Rua Gilberto Rola, Timpanas invites the visitor to enter into a typical Lisboa courtyard. He passes through a gate with iron railings and notices the floor paved in the Portuguese way. The fresh fish on display is irresistible, as is the wine-cellar.

When he leaves Timpanas, the visitor decides to continue his night of Fado through the streets of the Alfama. It is already quite late when the visitor arrives there and finds the Taverna d’el Rei in the square right in front of the Casa do Fado. As soon as he enters, he sees the Fado-singer dressed in white, with the combination of dignity and boldness that marks her gait, in the middle of the room. The Fado-singer’s name is Maria Jô-Jô; when the lights are dimmed, she covers herself with a long shawl É and silence, the prelude to Fado. The singer closes her eyes. With head inclined, she seems to reach down to the very depths of her soul. The visitor also closes his eyes. Suddenly, her voice bursts forth, filling the whole room with her song. At that moment, in which the Fado-singer sings a song of love and longing, the visitor feels what Fado truly is. It cannot be explained in words; one has to listen to Fado in order to understand the pain of the parting and the misfortune of the adventurous life of sailors returning from distant ports. Fado is, first and foremost, a folk song that has journeyed by sea; it was through the port of Lisboa that Fado really entered.

A Baiuca:  (is a tiny, fun-loving restaurant serves up spirited Fado with traditional home-cooking. The menu and wine list is straightforward, but the pre-dinner munchies are costly — turn them away. The English-speaking manager, Henrique, welcomes Fado enthusiasts who just want a drink (€12 meals, Fado Thu-Mon 20:00-24:00; in the heart of the Alfama, just off Rua São Pedro up the hill from House of Fado, at Rua de São Miguel 20, tel. 218-867-284). This intimate place is a neighborhood affair as grandma dances with a bottle on her head and the cooks gaze out of their steamy hole in the wall to catch the musical action. It’s surround sound as everyone seems to get into the music. Information obtained at www.ricksteves.com

Calling the owner directly he told me that the singers start at 8pm (and lasts 4 hours until 12am) and a meal there runs around 25 Euros (max) and includes Entradas (bread, butter, olives, cheese), soup, main course (meat/veal chop or fish/Cod Fish) Desert and drinks (wine, water or juice - excludes spiritual drinks)

Tasca do Chico:  No meal is required but visitors can eat the tradicional petiscos such as Chouriço Assado/Grilled Portuguese Sausage (5 Euros) or a Bifana (1,75 Euros pig steak in a sandwich)or drink a small glass of Sangria or wine (1Euro) or Ginja/Port/Moscatel for 2,5 Euros. The singers (amateurs since is the Fado Vadio) start at 10 pm until 2am only on Mondays and Wednesdays every week. Rua Diário de Notícias, Nº 39 - 1200-141 Lisboa

Tel. +351 96 505 9670 (Mr. Francisco Goncalves) www.tascadochico.com

For more suggestions also visit the official website of the Lisbon Tourism Office