The Portuguese are said to be a sad, melancholic, nostalgic nation… They even have a word, untranslatable into any other language, which defines the feeling of sorrow and nostalgia caused by the absence, disappearance, distance or denial of people, eras, places or things that we feel linked to and would like to have again: saudade.
And, if there is a way of conveying the melancholy of being Portuguese, it’s through fado. More than just a musical style, it’s a form of expression both played and sung which is said to come from within the Portuguese soul. Today, we want to introduce you to this art, listed in 2011 as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
A shawl, a Portuguese guitar, a voice and a great deal of feeling are the main components of this symbol of Portugal, which is also world music. The essence of fado lies in feelings, heartbreak, longing for someone who has left, everyday life and seduction. Ultimately, aside from alluding to the Portuguese musical style, the term fado also means “destiny”; in other words, what inevitably must happen, no matter whether it is luck or misfortune.
Despite being one of the most important symbols of Portuguese culture, the origins of fado are still shrouded in mystery and the time and place of its birth are yet to be discovered. Even so, there are a number of theories. Some, based on the characteristic melancholy of fado, suggest that this musical style is drawn from the songs of the Muslim world; others believe that it comes from lundu, the music of Brazilian slaves, or that it was brought to Portugal by sailors around 1820. Another hypothesis points to medieval troubadours, whose songs had characteristics which are preserved in fado music.
What can’t be denied is that, at one point in its history, fado found its home in Lisbon, amongst its most disadvantaged residents in environments where outcasts, sailors and prostitutes could be found. This is how the story was born of a love affair between an aristocrat, the Count of Vimioso, and Maria Severa, a prostitute renowned for her singing skills, who would become one of the great legends in the history of fado, even inspiring several artistic representations in the form of theatre, literature and cinema. In the 20th century, Amália Rodrigues was an ambassador for fado on stages around the world, performing songs such as Povo Que Lavas No Rio, Foi Deus and Vou Dar De Beber À Dor.
Nowadays, you can still watch fado shows in the oldest areas of Lisbon, in typical fado houses in the neighbourhoods of Alfama and Mouraria. The lights are switched off, the room is lit in soft red and mustard-yellow tones, the audience quietens until the whole place is silent, which is essential. The chords of the Portuguese guitar introduce the audience to the tradition, which requires fadistas to wear a skirt and a shawl. These performances, full of feelings and senses, where a chin is raised, eyes are closed and hands are waved, in prayer or in desperation, represent growing emotions which, at times, culminate in a discarded shawl or stamped foot, which call for a final round of applause and the typical, meaningful cry of “Ah, fadista!”.
Interested? Come and discover the authenticity of this art, which expresses the essence of Portuguese culture so well. Click here to find out about our tours around the Portuguese capital and embark on a journey through saudade, melancholy and the past. You’ll be experiencing fado like a local in no time!