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Fado – The Soul of Portuguese Culture

Updated: Feb 9

When you walk around the historical neighborhoods in Lisbon, it’s common to see signs in front of several Restaurants saying Fado presentation tonight.

Some visitors are familiar with the national music of Portugal but most people never heard about it. We’ve decided to make a post to explain a little bit about this music style which is considered the Soul of Portuguese Culture.

Mural inspired in the painting "O Fado"

The earliest accounts of the existence of Fado in Lisbon are linked to the neighborhoods of Alfama and Mouraria, in the lowest layers of society still in the first half of the 19th century.

Those were the areas where the sailors and fishermen used to live and normally, their trips were very long. The wives, lovers and mothers, missing their men, started singing about this feeling and the nostalgia of the better days.

Fado still has a strong connection with Alfama and Mouraria

Fado means fate, destiny, but often speaking of Fado is also speaking of longing. “Saudade” is a word that exists just in Portuguese and that, in some aspects, defines what is to be Portuguese. It’s something that resembles melancholy and nostalgia.

The singer, called Fadista can be either a woman or a man. Each Fado house has several voices in the cast. The guitarists are usually always the same and, according to tradition, only two: a classical guitar, to make the harmony, and a Portuguese guitar – an instrument with 12 strings and acute sonority, that has its own technique.

The essence of Fado is a little bit more than a hundred melodies that end up being altered by the lyrics and the interpretations of the Fadista. It is this restricted number of melodies that allows the instrumentalists to accompany any fado singer at any time, even in the Fado Vadio (interpreted spontaneously by amateurs).

Portuguese guitar

At the beginning, the higher classes and intellectuals showed great prejudice towards Fado, considering it mediocre and confining it to the lower classes. But over time, it started to win supporters from all classes.

With the proliferation of radio and gramophone records and turntables, Fado became very popular and extended to all Portugal.

Throughout the ages, the lyrics of fados served different purposes. At first, they were a vehicle for telling everyday stories, a kind of oral and popular newscast, about crimes, rumors, and social scandals.

The first famous Fado singer was Maria Severa, still in the 19th century. She was a local prostitute from Mouraria with an amazing voice, who had an affair with a count and became famous after that.

The twentieth century saw the appearance of great fado singers, with very diverse styles. Besides Amália Rodrigues, who was the most famous Fadista and is considered the Queen of Fado, it’s worth highlighting names like Maria Alice, Hermínia Silva, Fernando Maurício, Celeste Rodrigues, Argentina Santos and Carlos do Carmo. It’s possible to find recordings from all of them.

Street Art honoring Amália Rodrigues are common in Alfama and Mouraria.

Fado has been a part of Portuguese culture ever since. During the First Republic, anarchists and syndicalist fado songs were composed to mobilize the working class. During the dictatorship, Fado was used by the regime, serving, many times, as a flag to promote Portugal. At the time, Salazar used to say Portugal was the country of the three “F’s” – Football, Fado and Fátima.

After the fall of the regime, there was a little prejudice against fado precisely because it was connoted to the old regime but with time, Fado freed itself from this stigma and great names were born from the 90’s onwards that even today leave their mark in Portuguese music. Camané, Mariza, Ana Moura, Cristina Branco, Mafalda Arnauth, António Zambujo, Helder Moutinho, Katia Guerreio, Carminho, Gisela João, among others.

This movement had its maximum recognition when Unesco elected fado as Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2011.

On you next visit to Lisbon, make sure you join one of our fantastic walking tours around Alfama and Mouraria, the oldest neighborhoods in Lisbon and discover a bit more about the origin of this fascinating music style and learn where you should go to experience Fado, the soul of the Portuguese Culture.


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