Lisbon wall depicting Maria Severa, the first famous Fado singer

Fado: love it or hate it?

“Thank you, Peter, for changing my mind about Fado. The only Fado I had heard before was of the dirge kind and, like you, I was frustrated because I couldn’t make out a word.”

This was one response to Peter’s presentation to the Algarve History Association meeting on Friday, January 14.

In his talk, Peter described the origin of Fado, and illustrated his points by playing Fados on disc, and simultaneously showing the translations to English of those Fados by projection on to a screen. He maintains that for the non-Portuguese, Fado means little unless the words themselves are available in translation. For us, foreigners in Portugal, translation is essential to understand the nature of this essentially Portuguese phenomenon. Even Portuguese-speaking Brazilians apparently have difficulty in understanding traditional Fado.

Fado has a special place in the heart of Portugal. There are more songs about Lisbon than about any other city in the world. Many of these songs are not traditional Fados but songs from shows or films. But because they are sung by fadistas with traditional Fado accompaniment, they become Fados. Many Fados use the word “saudade”, which describes a longing, yearning and nostalgia in the lottery of life, and is characteristic of Fado.

Dr Salazar used to boast that he would give to Portugal three “F’s” to be proud of – Fado Fátima and Football. Fado was, in fact, hijacked by Salazar as a means of propaganda, and as a means to control the expression of sentiment by the working classes.

From the time of the military dictatorship, Fado could be sung only in premises licensed for the purpose; fadistas had to be licensed; and each Fado passed by the censor. It is a strange fact that the popular Fado houses of today owe their existence to the desire of the authoritarian Estado Novo to force fadistas out of the bars and brothels and into an environment which was easier to control. The Fado houses still carry some connotation of the dictatorship.

Fado originated in four of the poorer districts of Lisbon: Alfama, Bairro Alto, Madragoa and Mouraria.
The word “Fado” comes from the Latin fatum meaning fate, although it has other connotations, such as destiny, luck, fortune and fatalism. At bottom, Fado bemoans the fate which ineluctably faces us. From its roots in Lisbon, Fado became first nationalised through radio in the 1930s, then internationalised from the 1940s as fadistas travelled abroad to perform.

The origin of Fado is uncertain, and argument about its origin has become dogmatic. Some maintain that it has Arab origins from the population remaining in the Mouraria after the Christian re-conquest in 1147. Others insist it is Afro-Brazilian in origin from the music and dance of the modinha and Angolan lundu, which returned to Portugal with the Royal Family in the 1820s. Others argue that Fado was a kind of sea shanty sung by sailors returning home to port in Lisbon; some say that it originated with the medieval troubadours who travelled the country reciting poetry; yet others that it is a descendant of the romancero or narrative singing in 16th century Portugal.

Other suggestions include a connection with the Afro-American blues, which is, itself, a product of the slave society; or with the Gypsy songs from Andalusia; or even with the Jewish community which was forcibly converted in 1497 and whose secret suffering contributed to the “saudade” of Fado.

Whatever the origins of Fado, it was, in November 2011, added to the UNESCO list of World Intangible Cultural Heritage, where it is described as the “urban popular song of Portugal”. UNESCO recognition depended on a description of its multicultural heritage based in an Afro-Brazilian origin and internal immigration within Portugal.

The first famous singer of Fado, Maria Severa, was born in Madragoa. Her parents were tavern keepers, and Maria sang Fado in taverns where she also played the Portuguese guitar. She was involved in prostitution, and also had a tempestuous affair with Francisco de Paula de Portugal e Castro, 13th Count of Vimioso. Fado became more socially acceptable at least in part because of her association with him.

Fado became an art form which allowed the social classes to mix, since aristocrats and lowlifes could frequent the same bars for the same reason. The Church, of course, disapproved of Fado and condemned the new art form because of its low and immoral origins.

From about 1870, the Teatro de Revista began to incorporate Fado songs in its shows and, at this time too, the Portuguese guitar became recognised as the definitive accompaniment.

By the 1880s, Fado was being performed in aristocratic salons and the lyrics became more sophisticated. The famous painting by José Malhoa of a fadista with his amour was completed in 1910 after meticulous research in the bars of Lisbon. In this painting, he captures the sleaziness of the Fado milieu of that time.

Originally, Fado was accompanied by one or more Portuguese guitars (in Portuguese, “guitarras”), together with one or more acoustic guitars (in Portuguese, “violas”), and sometimes also with a double bass (“contrabaixo”). The guitarra is descended from the lute and zither and, like them, has 12 metal strings in six courses of two; these strings give a characteristic melodic sound, while the viola provides the rhythm. It is this specialised accompaniment which traditionally distinguishes Fado from other song types. Nowadays, sometimes even orchestras accompany the fadista.

In the 1890s, ‘Fado de Coimbra’ appeared with Augusto Hilário da Costa Alves (known simply as Hilário) as the central figure. Coimbra Fado is sung only by male university students or graduates, and usually in the street and preferably on the steps of the Old Cathedral.

Coimbra Fado is accompanied by the Coimbra version of the guitarra, which is a bit longer and with a lower tone than the Lisbon version. The Coimbra type of Fado is low, slow and mournful, and definitely requires a refined taste, which I find difficult to share. Unlike the Lisbon version, Coimbra Fado has managed to retain its links with the past and also with the university.

Within the Lisbon tradition, there are different types of Fado: Fado Menor, which is slow and melancholic and in a minor key; Fado Mouraria is nostalgic but in a major key and faster; Fado Corrido has cheerful and upbeat music, but the words do not necessarily reflect that mood; Fado Bailado is danceable. Fado Canção is more commercial and Amália Rodrigues was a great exponent of this genre. Fado Castiço (pure Fado) is the original type of Fado and is considered by aficionados to be the only true type. Fado Vadio is impromptu and usually sung by amateurs. Portuguese whom we have consulted say that this is the only genuine form of Fado (probably because it does not carry the stigma of Salazar’s censorship).

It is regrettable that over the last century, as Lisbon Fado has developed, it has lost its connection with Lisbon; with bullfighting; with the nobility; with the king; with saudade; with Fado Menor. This song form has become just another international song, another traditional folk song. I find this increasing homogeneity sad, because Fado is losing its essential link with Lisbon.

In Tavira, the Fado Museum ‘Fado com História’ gives an introductory talk about Fado followed by a live performance. It is the only such museum south of Lisbon and gives an experience not to be missed!

966 620 877

By Lynne Booker
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Lynne Booker, along with her husband Peter, founded the Algarve History Association. [email protected]

Guitarra de Lisboa
Guitarra de Coimbra
Famous fadistas in the background and Portuguese guitars and violas in the foreground / Photo: Fado Museum
Lisbon wall depicting Maria Severa, the first famous Fado singer