Fado is to Portugal what flamenco is to Spain: a cultural symbol. But there, for the most part, the similarities end. While flamenco is energetic and vigorous, equal parts music and dance, fado is soulful.
This native form of music arose as a confluence of several sources: from the Lundum of Brazil, the songs of the Moors, the chants of the slaves from Africa and many others lost in the mists of history. But whatever the origins, fado has come to be identified with Lisbon, pure and simple.
No other form can quite so completely capture both the melancholy and the striving than fado. Arriving relatively late in Portugal’s history, in the early 19th century, it nevertheless represents both the past and present for the country’s locals and tourists alike.
Whether it is the famed Amália Rodrigues (deceased in 1999) and her Black Boat song that laments the harsh travel of the African slaves, or a modern street performer’s croon that echoes American blues ala B.B. King, fado is everywhere in Lisbon.
Visit a small tavern in the Bairro Alto district and you will inevitably hear some of the heart-wrenching sounds of the fadista. Accompanying himself on the medieval-lute like instrument that is part of the performance, he will play a song of longing that defines the Lisboa soul.
Have a fine meal at any of the upscale restaurants along the Rua das Gáveas and you may hear a variation on the style, more uptempo. Step into the Travessa da Queimada, a club converted from 17th century stables, and you will hear echoes of those long-gone horse caretakers. The drink and the food will warm your soul while the singer shreds it with his music.
Sink into the ‘saudade’ (loosely translated as longing) and be prepared for a cathartic musical journey with a woman fadista. Dressed in a black shawl, her words may tell of the death of a loved one. Or, they may speak of the striving for freedom so long denied. But underneath the despair you will also hear the passion for living that embues the Portuguese people.
From the Latin word for fate, fado speaks of the inescapable. But it also tears at the heart which yearns for the future. Few other forms of expression can so skillfully capture sadness and joy and intermingle them so well.
Stroll over to the Alfama neighborhood and you will hear a slightly different style, one informed by the Moors who once dominated the area. Full of artists of all types, this area offers fado more similar to that of the students of Coimbra. Wearing the traditional heavy black cape, the strings are strummed and the song begins. Before long the tears start to flow. They are not just tears of sadness, but of readiness to embrace whatever comes.
Plan ahead and you can even attend a performance by the famed group, Madredeus. They will ensure that you don’t leave without understanding, at least with the heart if not the mind, the music that is Fado.
“Lisbon Fado” by Effervescing Elephant