Fado: Portugal's Intangible Cultural Heritage

Lynne Booker March 2012

It is impossible not to have a view on fado. People either love it or hate it. The subject raises as much passion as the genre itself. The possible origins of fado include: Arabic from the population remaining in the Mourarias after the Christian reconquest in 1147; Afro-Brazilian from the mixture of the modinhas (soft romantic music of the Portuguese elite in Brazil) and the lundum (Angolan) which came to Portugal with the returning Royal family in the 1820s; maritime from the sailors returning to Lisbon after their voyages of discovery who may have sung sea-songs of nostalgia for Lisbon; medieval from the troubadours with their romantic poetry; sixteenth century from the narrative singing of the C16 romanceros. Other theories suggest a connexion with the Afro-American blues; or a gypsy element from Andalucia; or because the Jewish community was present in Lisbon for years after their forced conversion of 1497, it could be that their secret suffering contributed to the saudade of fado.

Fado comes from the Latin fatum meaning fate. Fate describes the individual´s future and fado bemoans the unchangeable nature of the individual´s destiny and the unforgiving and unchanging nature of the lottery of life. The songs are urban folk songs from four of the poorest districts of Lisbon: Alfama, Bairro Alto, Madragoa and Mouraria. Saudade which has a multiplicity of meanings such as longing, yearning, regrets, homesickness, memories, is the essence of fado. Fado is sung by male or female fadistas with a traditional accompaniment of a melody line from the guitarra portuguesa and the rhythm is provided by the acoustic guitar, which the Portuguese call viola. Sometimes a double bass adds extra bass to the rhythm.

First recognised in Lisbon in the 1820s, fado originated in the taverns and brothels and the first famous exponent was Maria Severa. Her fame rests on a play of 1901 by Júlio Dantas (later made into the first Portuguese talkie A Severa in 1931). From about 1870 the Teatro de Revista began to incorporate fado songs and soon no production was complete without fado.

Many fados are about the city of Lisbon and the city is likened to a girl who is always beautiful and elegant. It is likely that of all the cities in the world, Paris and Buenos Aires included, Lisbon is the city which is the subject of most songs. In the 1890s fado de Coimbra appeared. Sometimes this form is referred to as canção de Coimbra, because it does not belong to the Lisbon tradition of fado. It is usually sung by male students or graduates in the street (preferably on the steps of the Old Cathedral) and is firmly identified with the University of Coimbra, and the performers are always in the black capes which the students wear. Lisbon fado is usually sung by only one person. A woman fadista normally wears a black shawl over her dress signifying mourning for the first fadista, Maria Severa. Men used to dress in suits but now a black polo sweater or an open necked shirt is accepted.

There are different types of fado: menor is sad, slow and melancholic and is sung in a minor key; Mouraria is nostalgic but in a major key and faster; corrido has cheerful and upbeat music but the words do not necessarily reflect that mood; bailado is danceable. Fado canção or fado musicado is more commercial and appeared in the 1930s with Amália Rodrigues its greatest exponent. Fado castiço is the original type of fado and considered the best by the aficionados. It is accompanied by the guitarra portuguesa and viola only. Fado à desgarrada and fado vadio are different from the professional fado found in casas do fado. In these formats, amateurs take turns to sing their emotions. A Portuguese friend tells me that the only proper form is fado vadio; the rest is just for show, para inglês ver!

Because fado was tightly controlled by the Salazar regime, some Portuguese have an ambivalent attitude towards it and its most famous exponent Amália Rodrigues. It was announced by Salazar that he would give the Portuguese three fs to be proud of - fado, Fátima and football. And so, perhaps in spite of themselves, both Eusébio and Amália Rodrigues became apologists for the regime.

After the 1974 revolution, fado became less popular and it was not until the late 1980s that younger artists have realised that fado is greater than the history of the dictatorship. Traditionally most fadistas came from Lisbon but over the last 100 years, Lisbon fado has lost its connexions with Lisbon, bullfighting, the nobility, saudade and fado menor. It is becoming an international genre scarcely distinguishable from other song types. Perhaps the recent recognition by UNESCO of fado as part of Portugal´s intangible cultural heritage will encourage a return to its roots.