Fado is a deeply emotional musical style, stemming right from the singer’s soul. It is one of the most important Portugal symbols and recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.

It’s Lisbon’s urban melody and something totally mandatory for someone who is visiting the city. I recommend visiting Museu do Fado, the Amália Rodrigues House-Museum and attend a show at one of the many Fado houses scattered throughout Lisbon. The best neighborhoods to find fado houses are Alfama, Mouraria, Bairro Alto and Madragoa.

I actually visited Museu do Fado and had the chance to recall all the history of this national symbol. It was my 2nd Lisbon Passport stamp!

1 – The fado dance in Brazil 

Historical records indicate that there was a dance in Brazil known as fado. So it is possible to assume that the 1st fado reference as a means of artistic expression (and not related to ‘fate’) has to do with dance.

Some time after, and given the slave trady during that period, fado also became a dance genre in Portugal, embraced by every class. The fado was lustfully danced, something depicted in a picture found in Museu do Fado (see below), focused on how the Portuguese used to live.

The reference to fado as a Lisbon music genre appeared posteriorly. Fado, as the musical expression we are acquainted with, emerged 200 years ago.

A.P.D.G.,“Begging for the Festival of N. S. D’Atalaya”. In Sketches of Portuguese Life…, Londres: Geoffrey B. Whitaker, 1826 (réplica) (in Museu do Fado), Lisbon, Portugal
A.P.D.G.,“Begging for the Festival of N. S. D’Atalaya”. In Sketches of Portuguese Life…, Londres: Geoffrey B. Whitaker, 1826 (réplica) (in Museu do Fado)

2 – It was born in Lisbon’s folk context

As a musical expression, fado was born in the leisure and social interaction moments of the 19th-century Lisbon. During that period, fado was spontaneously sung, in the streets and environments attended by sailors, prostitutes and other figures also considered to be outcasts. The themes sung were related with everyday life, neighborhood events, longingness and love.

The typical portrait of a fadista was a crook, who normally had a knife and several tattoos, something negatively viewed by the then society. For this reason, the intellectual Portuguese class despised fado.

3 – It was the subject of the 1st Portuguese sound film

When fado was sung in the streets by the so-called outcasts, there was a prostitute named Maria Severa Onofriana, known as Severa. Several of her lovers were well-known, including the Count of Vimioso. She sang, played and danced fado in Bairro Alto and Mouraria and, under the influence of her lover, she also appeared in some aristocratic events.

Her history became a fado myth, for having managed to join deeply different social classes around fado, while also introducing a melancholic style anchored on the guitar. A couple of years after her death, Júlio Dantas wrote a novel called “Severa”. The novel was so successful that it was adapted to theater and then to a film, becoming the first sound Portuguese sound film (directed by Leitão de Barros). It debuted at 18 June 1931 and it was screened for more than half a year.

If you are curious, check Severa’s house and take the opportunity to know the typical Mouraria neighborhood. It’s right next to Largo Martim Moniz.

Sculpture with the Portuguese guitar, in the old Capelão street
Sculpture with the Portuguese guitar, in the old Capelão street
Old house of Severa, in Largo with its name, Lisbon, Portugal
Old house of Severa, in Largo with its name

4 – The censorship (almost) ended improvised fado

The censorship in Portugal totally curbed the freedom of expression in cultural activities. In 1927, this particular activity was licensed and regulated, so a fadista had to carry a professional card, and the folkish fado sung in the streets was almost extinct.

The ritual of listening to professional fado in houses devoted to it, the so-called fado houses, emerged as a response. The first was Solar da Alegria, in the center of Lisbon, which opened its doors in 1928. Immediately afterwards, in the city’s historic quarters, there were many other houses where amateurs sang fado vadio (improvised). Improvisation is still the dominant force in these inns, nowadays. As far as I’m concerned, a visit to one of these places is nothing but mandatory.

My recommendation is to do it at night in Bairro Alto or Mouraria. As you walk through their streets, you will see and hear many fado houses. Choose the ones you feel more connected to, don’t mind those lists you see around… Fado is the soul of the Portuguese people, even if you don’t understand the language you will love the atmosphere and the feeling.

5 – Fado was a protagonist in the revue

During the regulation of 1927, fado started to be sung on stage, assuming a key role in the revue (a popular theatrical form of entertainment which appeared in 1851). The line-ups and performance programs were checked by the General Inspection of Theaters, to avoid any matters banned by the government of the time.

Due to everything required by censorship, such as a professional card, copyrights, obligation to make the program available to the authorities beforehand, fado endured major changes. The improvisation, once a key feature of this musical expression, came to an end, and the performers, musicians and composers were now professionalized.

All these events, along with the appearance of radio in 1935, and then television in 1957, introduced fado to a wider audience. This musical genre was now reaching every Portuguese, not just those who lived in the capital.

6 – Amália Rodrigues started to sing classical poetry

The first fado lyrics were anonymous and orally transmitted between singers. But popular poets emerged in the 20s, who were interested in writing songs for singers.

And then one of the most famous Portuguese fado singers, Amália Rodrigues, began to sing classical poetry, from authors considered untouchable. She sang Luís de Camões, Alexander O’Neill, Pedro Homem de Mello and David Mourão Ferreira, among others. And this totally altered the perception of fado.

Amália was also extremely important in this musical style’s internalization. This was a major stepping stone for fado, which was now reaching more people than ever, even those who couldn’t understand the language.

Amália Rodrigues, in the old Capelão street, Lisbon, Portugal
Amália Rodrigues, in the old Capelão street

7 – The Carnation Revolution threatened fado

The Carnation Revolution deposed Salazar’s authoritarian regime. A movement conducted by the military finally put freedom back into people’s hands. But during that dark period of Portuguese history, when fascism was the rule, fado was regarded as one of society’s cornerstones. There were three of them in the eyes of Salazar: football, fado and Fátima.

Therefore, when the revolution occurred, fado had a negative connotation, being attached to a period that now came to an end. Nevertheless, the regime was not fond of fado itself, but the message of resignation, theological determinism and traditionalism that was typical of this music genre.

That was the background when Carlos do Carmo, already acknowledged at the time as a great fado singer, performed in Festival da Canção, releasing in the following year the album entitled “Um homem na cidade”. This album, entirely dedicated to poems by Ary dos Santos, was remarkable in the history of fado and the singer’s magnum opus.

Fado managed to conserve its habitat and, since then, several singers have emerged, some internationally known.

8 – The word fado means fate

The word fado derives from the Latin “fatum”, which means fate. The epic poem The Lusiads of Luís de Camões mentions the word fado several times, connected to a meaning related to fatality, fate. There was no connection with a musical genre.

The word fado started to be associated with the folklore melody of the Portuguese soul only in the 19th century.

9 – The Portuguese guitar already existed before fado

The Portuguese guitar, as a musical expression, may have appeared before fado. But it was only associated with the genre by the end of the 19th century. It has a deeply important role as well, because the guitarist is the singer’s beacon, introducing the verses and signaling the transition from one sentence to another.

In recent years, the fadista’s support has changed a little, one may find several instruments or even an orchestra.

There is a special feature that immediately differentiates the Lisbon’s Portuguese guitar Lisbon from the Coimbra’s. The Lisbon one has a neck that ends with a snail-like shape, whereas the Coimbra neck resembles a tear. Coimbra’s fado is only sung by men, in the squares and streets of the city. Since this is a student city, the main themes are the daily academic life and the city’s beauty.

10 – A black shawl is used in fado houses

The codes of conduct and presentation of male and female singers in fado houses were subjected to a standardization effort in order to dignify this musical genre. Besides the clothing requirements, in which men typically use a dark suit and women opt for a shawl, silence and dim light are mandatory when fado is sung and performed.

The contemporary fado singers have their own style, using colors and accessories with a very personal trait. Despite this change of style, the intimate atmosphere associated with fado remains completely unaffected.

Contemporary fadistas (mural of the Fado Museum), Lisbon, Portugal
Contemporary fadistas (mural of the Fado Museum)

When visiting Portugal, go listen to fado. You will hear the song of the Portuguese soul.

Stamp #2 in Lisboa Passport! Challenge accomplished 😉

Lisbon Passport with the stamp of the Fado Museum, Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon Passport with the stamp of the Fado Museum

Don’t forget to take your Lisboa Passport and stamp it in the museum’s shop! Now that I have this passport, once a month I will visit one of Lisbon’s attractions and write about them. Museu do Fado was the 2nd stamp!