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The vibrant, fascinating history of fado

“You are the messenger and the message itself. Kind of like being above the clouds or under water.” So says renowned contemporary singer Cristina Branco when asked to describe the experience of performing Portugal’s powerful and sui generis folk music fado. 

Fado is one of the most immediate cultural associations with Portugal (a country often excoriated by its own literary and artistic classes as being something of a backwater). Its fame is national and international; fado is also currently in the middle of a resurgence. Performers like Branco and Ana Moura are bringing a modern take to the form and keeping it alive for the current generation. This is something any music lover should be thankful for. Fado is unlike anything else. Its stripped-down arrangements (traditionally only the singer, called the fadista or fadisto, and a guitarist) and its sometimes improvised or spontaneous nature give the form a powerful texture similar to that found in early American blues recordings. The music speaks of longing, of memory, and of lost joy — though it is by no means a vessel solely for expressing the concept of saudade, a hard-to-translate Portuguese word mingling the notions of nostalgia and still-extant love. Branco told us that what really makes it unique is “the language. The visceral emotion that is transverse to the lyrics and music. An inner dance (you don’t dance it!). The emotion it recreates for those who are willing to understand it.” 

That enshroudment in an elusive and hard-to-pin-down mood echoes another mystery involving fado: its origins. They remain unclear, though there are two distinct schools of fado — Lisbon, which is what most listeners think of when thinking of fado, and Coimbra, which has a slightly different set of melodic and lyric conventions. This is surprising, perhaps, given the fact that fado has come to be seen as a definitional element of Portuguese culture. But Michael Colvin, one of the leading American authorities on fado, describes a state of confusion over just where the music comes from. “There are poetic interpretations,” Colvin told us, “that it was sailors going out to sea who created it. Others tell us that it originated among the prostitutes, the prisoners, the knife-wielders. Some say that it has Romani origins.” These, however, are likely not grounded in history. Colvin cited a more plausible origin story: “There are a lot of theories that say that the form originated through an African dance called lundum that popped up in Brazil. The theories argue that when Napoleon was getting ready to invade Lisbon, the royal family took the entire court and decamped for Rio. And it’s believed that when the court came back they brought Brazilian culture with them, and part of it were these Afro-Brazilian dances.” These, in turn, Colvin suggests, may have helped midwife fado. Though, he adds “there are other indicators: when we look at the history of regional Portuguese lyrical poetry in the Middle Ages, we see some really interesting correspondences with fado.”

Whatever the distant historical origins of the form — and Colvin suggested that Arabic and Hebrew influences may have crept into it as well via the long tradition of Galician troubadors — there seems to be little doubt that the music was not a music of the elites (again, the socioeconomic correspondence with American blues is hard to ignore). He pointed out that the world-famous fadisto — called by some the “Sinatra of Fado” — Carlos do Carmo remembers his mother Lucilia do Carmo, a fadista herself, telling him about people who sang fado at the turn of the 20th Century with no instrumentation other than the beating of their hands on their knees. Indeed, as Branco put it, even today she chooses “lyrics about that are meaningful on a daily basis, for common people, about normal life (whatever that means!). I tend to ask outsiders of the fado territory to write for me.”

Unsurprisingly, the relationship of the Portuguese cultural elites with this music was troubled and paradoxical: they could not deny its power but they also regarded it as suspect, if not actually alien (the association with Afro-Brazilian dances doubtlessly emphasized this). Indeed, notes Colvin, “many fado singers of the 1930’s talked about how they were kicked out of pageants because they didn’t have ‘dignified’ voices, but they ended up being the incarnation of the Portuguese spirit later in their careers.” The rise of fado continued through the latter half of the 19th Century and into the first decades of the 20th. In the artistic ferment of the teens and 20’s, followed by the political and economic crises of the 30’s, the place of fado in the national culture would become even more contested. 

The first decade of the century saw the wave of futurism sweep European arts, and Portugal, says Colvin, was no exception. The nation’s first democratic republic had been established and the eyes of everyone — social theorists, politicians, and artists alike — were fixed on what was to come, on the utopia that seemed to be beckoning them and demanding their last reserves of willpower to create. This impulse took a strange turn in Portugal, however: forward-looking artists realized that fado had penetrated the nation to its roots, that they could not be rid of it in favor of some new, heroic art form. “These artists can find fado in villages in the most remote parts of the country, places that haven’t been touched by technology in many ways,” says Colvin. 

By the 1930’s, after Antonio Salazar came to power, this national preoccupation with fado had revealed a somewhat sinister side. The Salazar government realized that the form might be used to advance its own cause. Colvin cites Portugal’s first talkie as an example of this: “The protagonist may or may not have had gypsy origins but we only know for sure is that she was courted by royalty, by a count. He fell in love with her. We tell this romantic story as if she died in his arms while singing the fado. But we find out she’s buried in an unknown grave; she was abused and sold to this count when she was 12 years old by her mother, who had been the count’s lover. It’s a really dark story; the protagonist is a Cinderella figure who died of tuberculosis. It’s this bridging of class that comes out because they need the lower classes to participate in the regime. It’s used as a seduction for them, but there’s still a sense that the elites don’t want this in their culture. That’s why the music starts to adapt to be more Hollywood-like (even though American films are disdained for what values they bring in).”

Ask anyone about this new style of fado, about their favorite 20th-Century fadistas, and one name will come up again and again: Amália Rodrigues. Cristina Branco discovered fado by “by listening to an LP of Amália Rodrigues that my grandfather gave me on my 18th birthday.” She recommends “any album” by Rodrigues as an essential intro to the genre. Indeed, Amália Rodrigues has become so closely identified with the form that she is often simply referred to as Amália — no last name necessary. Her career stretched from the mid-1930’s until the mid-1980’s, a period in which she sold tens of millions of records. Her voice is unforgettable. “She goes from a mezzo-soprano to a contralto when she’s singing; a profound voice that’s a little bit smokey,” as Colvin put it. He also closely connects her own professional development with the aesthetic changes in fado: “We start to see an orchestration of fado where it’s no longer percussive, it’s no longer just the Spanish guitar or the Portuguese guitar. It actually starts to include orchestra strings. We see a move into a really operatic fado.” 

Amália was also, some argue, closely identified with the Salazar regime and part of its effort to use fado as a cultural prop for its power. She was, in fact, called out publicly on a talk show for being a tool of Salazar’s. Yet the story of her political commitments is more complicated than it might appear. She is best known for working closely with songwriter Alain Oulman. His composition “Abandono” is a song, Colvin says, quite clearly about Salazar’s prison camps — one of the lines runs, in English, “for your first thought, they took you far away in the middle of the night, so far that I could never find you” — and the longing for a lover lost to them. For this Oulmain was, unsurprisingly, put in prison himself. 

Afterwards, Colvin noted, Amália went on a talk show defending her right to sing Portugal’s national poet Luis Vaz de Camões “in a nation where the intellectuals are saying, in effect, how dare a woman from the streets sing the words of our poet laureate? They then ask her a question about Oulman, whom they call a ‘French’ composer, and she says very beautifully, ‘The last time I checked, the place he was born was right down the street from me, not in France.’ She’s really challenging this notion that to be Portuguese, you have to fall in line with the aesthetics and the racial/ethnic and national qualities of the regime.”  

Amália’s artistic reputation has, deservedly, survived these political entanglements: after her death in 1999, the Portuguese government moved her remains to lie in the National Pantheon alongside those of Camões and Vasco da Gama. And fado itself was declared a part of Portugal’s cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2000. As noted, there is a resurgence in the genre as well, seemingly ensuring its posterity — Branco is 46, Ana Moura 39; both have years left in their career and a fan base big enough, it is to be hoped, to inspire still younger people to take up fado. In an age of increasing cultural homogeneity in music, movies, and everything else, old forms receiving new life is a powerful and positive sign. 


Curious about fado? Here few key recordings where you can start listening.

Alfredo Marceneiro — Cabelo branco é saudade
Lucília do Carmo — Trindade Popular
Fernando Farinha — Fado Corrido ao Vivo
Hermínia Silva — Fado do Retiro (Aldeia da Roupa Branca)
Amalia Rodrigues — Solidao