What you need to know about Lisbon Fado

What you need to know about Lisbon Fado

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I had no interest in fado growing up. I thought it was either something older people (like my parents) listened to. Or something that the right-wing conservative upper-middle-class enjoyed. 

I knew about its importance in the Portuguese music scene. I knew how much it was appreciated abroad as a world music gem. But it didn’t click with me. 

That feeling everyone talked about just wasn’t there for me. 

Then, in the Summer of 2014, before we moved to Portugal, Dhanish and I talked about local music. I wanted to show him what a guitarra Portuguesa (Portuguese guitar) sounded like.

I chose a video of Carlos Paredes playing “Verdes Anos,” something I actually enjoyed listening to (despite it being identified as fado). 

Carlos was a Portuguese guitar musician and a perfect fit for the topic. When I started playing the video, I was floored. 

I had tears in my eyes with every single chord. For the first time, I got it, and for the first time, I didn’t know how to explain it. 

It could be because I was 8,000 miles away from my home country, but I’d rather believe it was because it finally made sense to me.

From sleazy bars in Mouraria to upper-class' favorite, to World Music hit

Fado is one of the most offbeat music genres in the country. 

It started spontaneously, records say, in the bars streets of 19th Century Lisbon, sung by drunken sailors, thieves, and prostitutes. The scum of the capital city in the 1800s.

There was nothing intellectual about it. It wasn’t planned or created. It was simply a way for them to express their daily routines, concerns, and sorrows. 

Music is a way to exorcise your demons, and it’s a different part of you at work. You can bend some rules, adopt a new personality. 

However, I had never thought of Fado in this way, but that’s because I only knew half of the story.

The Fado I knew was the established art form: commercial, intellectual, loved by the wealthy upper-class. I thought it was overly patriotic and subversive. 

I’m part of the so-called post-revolution generation. Anything that reminds me of that time of censorship when the “typically Portuguese” was used as political propaganda, doesn’t sit right with me.

Amalia Rodrigues was caught in this whirlwind at one point. On the one hand, she was the great Fado diva who made the genre famous abroad. On the other hand, she was seen as a symbol of the former dictatorship and what the regime stood for. 

Despite her star quality, she was adored by everyone. She had a distinctive languishing way of singing that will be forever associated with Fado. And ultimately, she was the one who elevated Fado to the status of World Music hit in the 1990s.

"Guitarra na Proa", by Domingos de Oliveira (2000) - Tribute to Fado, Amalia and Lisbon
"Guitarra na Proa", by Domingos de Oliveira (2000) - Tribute to Fado, Amalia and Lisbon

UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

In 2011, the list of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity included Fado for the first time.

There was no need to put Fado on the map. Still, there was a need to define that music genre as something distinctive, despite cultural appropriation allegations. Assuming that Fado had an Arabic origin was controversial then.

Fado, as we know it, is typically Portuguese. Still, it’s also a beautiful combination of different influences, making it unique. 

I think the definition on the UNESCO website is perfect and beautifully sums up what a cultural melting pot Portugal is and how Fado wonderfully expresses it: “a Portuguese multicultural synthesis of Afro-Brazilian sung dances, local traditional genres of song and dance, musical traditions from rural areas of the country brought by successive waves of internal immigration, and the cosmopolitan urban song patterns of the early nineteenth century.

Fado is urban Lisbon

For those who doubt that Fado can be hip and modern, the Portuguese urban street artist Alexandre Farto (aka Vhils) created something beautiful in Alfama. 

He is known for creating stone carvings, often in abandoned buildings. This time, he paired two traditions in a new piece: Fado and Portuguese calçada. He called the cobblestone pavement the oldest Portuguese street art.

Working together with Lisbon’s calceteiros (pavers), he created Amalia Rodrigues’ portrait in Portuguese calçada. I couldn’t think of a better way to make a statement and to pay tribute to Fado.

"Tasca do Chico" in Bairro Alto advertises Fado Vadio (amateur fado)
"Tasca do Chico" in Bairro Alto advertises Fado Vadio (amateur fado)

Resources to know more about Fado in Lisbon

I suggest you start with a visit to the Fado Museum. If you have the time, add a guided tour of the Amalia Rodrigues house in Sao Bento street

You’ll learn about the background of the genre and improve your listening experience to live Fado music in one of the many Casas de fados in the city

These Fado houses are small restaurants or taverns (tascas) with regular concerts performed by amateurs (singing fado vadio) and professionals.

Fado is not a music genre stuck in the past. It continues to grow and to evolve through the new generation of fadistas. They are aware of the genre’s roots and introduce new interpretations organically. It’s more about continuity (and evolution) than disruptiveness.

The genre is so important in Lisbon’s culture that it even has its own dedicated festival in September called Santa Casa Alfama

It’s entirely dedicated to Fado. The venues are spread around Alfama, the historical quarter of the city most associated with this urban song.

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