Fado: singing the blues


Portuguese fado (tr: “fate”) is one of those distinctive forms of music that is easy to recognise but hard to understand unless you know the language, which I don’t.

But on a visit to the Museu do Fado in Lisbon recently, I learnt enough to make some sense of it. The Portuguese word that’s associated with fado is saudade, one of those more-or-less untranslatable words that means – inexactly – something like “longing,” one of those emotions that resonates through cultures where people have migrated through choice or through necessity.

As the Dutch anthropologist Mattijs van der Port writes in his fascinating essay (on JSTOR, if you have access) on fado‘s greatest star, Amália:

[T]he fadistas favor themes such as the unpredictable whims of fate, the transience of youth, the deceitfulness of love and the disenchantment that comes with the loss of illusions. They mourn the lost glories of the Portuguese empire, yearn for the good old days in the poverty stricken neighborhoods of Lisbon, and try to reconcile themselves with the ‘realization that any mortal desire or plan is at risk of destruction by powers beyond individual control.’

In terms of the music’s early history, it seems to be most similar to the blues. It was brought to Portugal from Brazil in the early 19th century, when Brazil was still a colony and important enough to host the Portuguese royal family’s exile during Napoleon’s Iberian campaigns.

The Salazar years

During the course of the 19th century, it became associated with Portugal’s developing working class, especially in Lisbon, Much performance was informal, and a lot was improvised, The words, according to the museum, were often “transgressive” (although it didn’t provide examples). Even the lyric form seems to have a bit of a resemblance to the blues, at least from some of the the sub-titled songs I watched: two lines repeated at the start of the verse, for example:

When I can’t see you, it makes me cry (x2)

When I see you again, I still cry (x2).

Then, of course, came the dictatorship of Salazar, the longest in 20th century Europe. Rather than try to stamp out fado he chose to co-opt it. Under the decrees of 1927, performers and venues had to be licensed, and lyrics cleared in advance by the censor. No more improvisation. In one particular way, public recognition helped. Amália, the most influential of fado singers, popularise the music globally, touring widely to places as far afield as the USSR, Japan, Israel, and South Africa, as well as the United States.

The result was that fado became identified with Salazar’s Portugal and Salazar’s regime – so much so that it was banned for two years after the “Carnation” revolution in 1974. Although it survived this, there followed a period when fado went into cultural decline, perhaps because it was associated with older people, an older inward-looking Portugal, and perhaps also the old regime. It took the emergence of Mariza, fado‘s second global star, to refresh the music, modernising it and taking it to new younger audiences.

Two guitars

But at its core, fado – at least the Lisbon version – remains simple to perform: a singer, male or female, backed by two guitarists, one playing a European acoustic guitar (apparently brought to Portugal by English expats in 19th century Lisbon and  Porto) and one playing a lute-like instrument derived from the Moors, who have a history in Portugal. This is the version you’ll hear in the clubs and restaurants which play the music in Lisbon.

Digital StillCamera

We listened to some live fado in Maria da Fonte’s small fado restaurant off the Largo do Chafariz de Dentro, with three singers performing during the meal. There are miserable reviews on Tripadvisor, which I’m not going to link to here, since they seem to be written by Americans complaining that (although they were clearly in a fado restaurant in Lisbon’s fado district) they were expected to be quiet when the singers were performing. I’ll skip the obvious point about checking on the rules when you’re in someone else’s culture, but one of the things I hate most about Tripadvisor is that the niggly reviews always float to the top, no matter how unrepresentative they are of the experience. We had a decent meal at a reasonable price, and the music we heard was good. And fado is, at heart, an intimate experience and a live one.

National mourning

Amália, for her part, lived long enough for her cultural role to be remembered and honoured. When she died in 1999, there were three days of national mourning. Mattijs van der Port, quoted above, jumped on a plane to Lisbon the moment he heard the news of her death. He notes:

It is not without significance that in the course I took to master the Portuguese language, fado is somehow the final destination: after you have struggled your way through all the many tenses, the last exercise of the book is the translation of a fado, as if to show to yourself just how deeply you have penetrated the Portuguese sense of Being. At the time of her death, Amália was an icon of this Portugal. The queen of fado is hailed as ‘the link between the soul of Portugal and the hearts of all the Portuguese’ (a ligagao entre a alma de Portugal e o coragao de todos os Portugueses), ‘national unanimity’ (unanimidade national) or ‘the complete symbol of a country and a city’ (um simbolo máximo de umpais e de uma cidade).

At the same time, though, this also explains the ambivalence about the music among many younger Portuguese:

This equation of Amalia with fado, and fado with the alleged melancholy and fatalism of the Portuguese nation may help to explain the resentment the singer provokes among young aspiring cosmopolitans such as my friends in the Portuguese capital. … They prefer a more up-beat spirit to guide their actions – the spirit of the Portuguese discoverers, that was the main inspiration for the 1998 world exhibition, rather than Amália’s sighs – and feel hindered by the ‘master fiction’ that portrays the Portuguese as a sad and fatalist people. ‘The thing that shocked me most about the death of Amalia,’ said Paulo, ‘is the fact that so many people found the time to go to the funeral. Don’t they have to work or what?’

The images are Creative Commons images courtesy of Wikimedia.



  1. My former colleague Henry Archer sent me an interesting email on this, which I’m re-posting part of here with his permission:

    “Of course there’s the co-option of a cultural artefact by an ascendant regime (although this is maybe more Walter Benjamin – no element of the past will be safe from the victors etc…). However, I think there’s something else interesting. It’s about what the fado voice, which is really striking, might be doing for the people. And I’m thinking particularly of its use in the 19th century, when you say it may have been a working class vehicle and even possibly ‘transgressive’.

    Zizek, following Lacan, talks about remaining passive through the other. … In fact, this is at times how Zizek describes the whole structure of belief in the West – through the notional figure of the True Believer. So, paid mourners may do people’s weeping for them at a funeral, canned laughter might laugh for us during a sitcom. All this, of course, freeing us up to continue with our (politically) false day-to-day non-revolutionary activity (eg washing the dog maybe, or campaigning against something irrelevant). The fado voice, partly I think because of its strange, distant, mournful quality, struck me as maybe doing this – the fado voice sings for the people, doing their longing for them. Which therefore really makes it useless to the working classes, politically (and maybe, perversely, more effective for Salazar). This is probably what all art does, to some extent, but there’s something in the fado voice that seems especially disempowering…”

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