A Perspective on Fado, the Urban Popular Song of Portugal

My discovery of Fado, a brief History of the urban popular song of Portugal and the resources to help you understand it and appreciate it when you visit Lisbon.

I had no interest in fado growing up. I thought it was either something old people (like my parents) listened to or something that the right-wing conservative bourgeoisie enjoyed. So my disliking of fado had always been a way of rebelling against the status quo. Until last year.

I knew the importance it had 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, the profoundness of it just wasn’t there. In the Summer of 2014, before we moved to Portugal, Dhanish and I were talking about local music and I wanted to show him what a “guitarra Portuguesa” (Portuguese guitar in English) sounded like. I thought it was appropriated to show him Carlos Paredes’ “Verdes Anos”, something I actually enjoyed listening to (despite it being labeled as fado). Carlos was a Portuguese guitar virtuoso and a perfect fit for the topic. When I started playing the video, I was floored. With every single chord, I had tears in my eyes, and there it was the profoundness without a single word; for the first time I got it and for the first time I didn’t know how to explain it. It could have something to do with the fact that I was eight thousand 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 Burgeois Favorite, To World Music Hit

Fado is one of the most offbeat music genres in the country, in the sense that it is marginal. It started spontaneously, records say, in the bars and the streets of 19th Century Lisbon, sung by drunken sailors, thieves, and prostitutes; the scum of the capital city in the 1800’s. There was nothing intellectual about it, planned, created; it was simply a way for them to express their daily routines, their concerns, their sorrows. I’ve always thought of music as a way to exorcise your demons, it’s a different part of you at work, one that 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 bourgeoisie. I thought it was overly patriotic and subversive; I hadn’t learned then that there can be a difference between being a patriot and being a Nationalist. When you are part of the post-revolution generation, like I am, anything that reminds you of that state of censorship that truncated freedom of speech and that used what’s “typically Portuguese” to convey its political propaganda, is bound to be banned from your tastes.

Amalia Rodrigues was caught in this whirlwind at one point. On one hand, she was the great Fado diva who had 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 regardless of social status. She had a characteristic languishing way of singing that will be forever associated with Fado. And ultimately she was the one who took Fado to the status of World Music hit in the 1990’s.

"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, Fado was inscribed in the list of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. There was no need to put Fado on the map, but there was a need to define the music genre as something idiosyncratic, despite allegations of it being an appropriation of other cultures instead of a genuine creation.

Claiming something to be exclusive of one place is to completely dismiss the fact that most cultures influence one another. Fado, as we know it, is typically Portuguese, but it is also a beautiful combination of different influences, and that is what makes it unique. Assuming that Fado had an Arabic origin was controversial a few years ago; people thought of “influenced” as a way of others meaning that “this isn’t really yours”. The question of National identity is always susceptible when some of us are territorial beings.

I think the definition on the UNESCO website is perfect and beautifully sums up what a cultural melting pot Portugal is and how it’s wonderfully expressed by Fado: “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 still doubt that Fado can be contemporary and represented through different art forms, the Portuguese urban street artist Alexandre Farto (aka Vhils) created something beautiful in Alfama. He is known for working with stone (often in abandoned buildings), and this time, he is pairing two traditions in his new piece: Fado and Portuguese “calçada” (he calls this kind of pavement the oldest Portuguese street art).

He joined forces with the “calceteiros” of Lisbon (“pavers” could be an accurate translation to English, but what they do transcends the skill of laying black and white stones on sidewalks) to create a portrait of Amalia Rodrigues in Portuguese “calçada”. I couldn’t think of a better way to make a statement and to pay tribute to Fado. At the time I’m writing this, the piece hasn’t been unveiled yet (it will be later today), but I’ll share a photo on our Instagram feed soon.

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

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

Resources to Explore Fado in Lisbon

To start, I suggest a visit to the Fado Museum and if you have the time add a guided tour of the Amalia Rodrigues house in Sao Bento street. It will give you the historical background to the genre and it will improve your experience of listening to live Fado music in one of the many “casas de fado” in the city – these “houses of fado” (in English) are small restaurants or taverns (“tascas”) with regular concerts performed by amateurs (what is called “fado vadio”) and by 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 very aware of the genre’s roots and they 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 Caixa Alfama. It’s completely dedicated to Fado and the venues are spread around Alfama, the historical quarter of the city that is most associated with this urban song.

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