We get so many questions about Fado that we decided to give you an entire Inside Portugal dedicated to Portugal’s national song.
We will tell you the tortured past of this type of song and its bright future and the best places (we think) to hear it. Grab a shawl, a guitarra portuguesa, and a ginja… this is Fado.
The Song of Fate
A divided Iberian Peninsula emerged into Portugal as an independent kingdom in 1139. The poetry of the day, sung by troubadours, was songs of love, friendship or mockery. These songs were popular in the Portuguese court. Portugal’s’ second king, D. Sancho I, was a poet, and Portugal’s sixth king, D. Dinis, not only wrote poetry, but was the first monarch in Europe to remove Latin as the official court language. He made Portuguese the nation’s official tongue.
What happened next made the Fado more than poetry.
In the 15th century, Portuguese caravels began exploring both sides of the Atlantic and eventually found the sea route to Asia. Hence, the Portuguese sea borne empire reigned for two centuries, becoming the world’s first global trading model. The sailors, of course, were faced with shipwreck, years away from their home and family and constant danger. They took their songs along with them for comfort. Ship records of the day show that sailors always brought their guitars, called banzas, and their songs became nostalgic and full of longing.
The banza, today called the guitarra portuguesa, was a unique evolution of the medieval lute. With 12 strings, it has an amazing ability to sound like a human voice.
Fast-forward to the 1830s and Portugal is emerging from a ruinous Napoleonic War and is in the midst of a Civil War. In Lisbon, these uncertain times brought together gypsies, noblemen, artists and others to sing and listen. One of the great voices and performers of Fado was Maria Severa.
By the 1950s, Fado was well established in its present form, with more than a dozen “Fado houses” becoming late-night meeting places in the Bairro Alto section of Lisbon. Celebrated in film and on records, Fado had arrived.
Numerous “Fadistas” attained fame as Fado jumped from song of the people to song of the ”in” crowd. Amália Rodriques, a young woman with a powerful voice, took Fado to the stages of performance halls across the world for the first time. She was acclaimed for the emotions and sincerity of her song and became Fado’s greatest ambassador.
Lisbon is known has a hotbed of Fado at the moment, but it is not only sung there. The cow herders of the Alentejo and Ribatejo regions sing it, as well as in Porto and across the nation.
In 1974, democracy was restored to Portugal and, with that restoration, Fado seemed to fall away, as belonging to the old regime. But, in the past few years, a new generation has revived its 800-year-old tradition. The song is returning to its roots and being broadcast around the globe through such new “Fadistas” as Mariza, Ana Moura, Cristina Branco and Pedro Moutinho. Past, present, future, that is Fado.
Fado means fate or destiny
The word “Fado” comes from the Latin "fatum," which means “fate” or “destiny.” It is a style of music that it is all about deep feelings: the disappointments of love and the sadness and longing felt for someone who has gone away. Traditionally accompanied by the guitar, there are many ways Fado is sung. It can range from the faster Fado corrido of Mouraria, to the impromptu singing known as desgarrada, or the mournful music presented by the students in the ancient city of Coimbra.
They say that the songs of a sad people are happy, and the songs of a happy nation are the opposite. But the Fado is not sad – it is cathartic. In these verses of suffering, survival, loss and death, there is a gritty sense of hope and survival. A happy nostalgia. When you listen to a Fado, you are transported back in time, to a mythical place that erases the present pain. You listen, tear up, and forget by remembering. That, meus senhores, is the Fado.
Here is a 20th century Fado by Pedro Homem de Mello:
People, that wash in the river
That slice with your hatchet
The boards of my coffin
There will one how will defends you
Who fulfils your consecrated land
But not your life….
Smells of pain and mud
I sleep with them in bed
I had the same condition
People, people, I belong to you
You gave me moments of greatness
But not your life….
You asked me the other day if I know what is Fado
I said I did not know.
You were surprised.
Without knowing what I was saying, I lied to you
And said I did not know, but now will tell you:
Ash and flames
Pain and sin
All this exists
All this is sad
All this is Fado.