A Country's Fate
Portugal's music genre par excellence, fado is the embodiment of the Portuguese identity
‘Expressing a feeling of nostalgia and longing, saudade, as fado, is a unique trait of the Portuguese identity. ’
ANY SAY that Portuguese culture is defined by a holy trinity: Fátima (as in Our Lady of Fátima, one of the representations of the Virgin Mary), football, and fado. Whilst the first two never ceased to thrive over time, fado had its up and downs, fluctuating according to the country's political and social changes.
Still, fado (which means “fate”) is an undeniable part of the Portuguese heritage and certainly the most defining, as it celebrates the country's language in all its glory, along with a word that is key to understanding what the Portuguese are all about: saudade. Expressing a feeling of nostalgia and longing, saudade, as fado, is a unique trait of the Portuguese identity.
Such a strong link between a country's essence and its musical expression is by no means new – think Brazilian sambaorItalian opera -, but what few achieve is the ability to relate to others, regardless of their language or culture, the way fado does. This unspoken appeal is perhaps the reason why it was considered UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2011, a recognition that came to reinforce its international status.
Whilst some historians believe fado originated from a blending of songs by Portuguese homesick sailors, African slave songs and ancient Moorish ballads, its recent history indicates that fado was born in the 19th century amidst Lisbon's narrow cobbled streets, at community gatherings attended by the lower classes. Not to be confused with Coimbra fado, a genre associated with the traditions of the University of Coimbra, Lisbon's fado praises a bohemian lifestyle, sings of unrequited love and serenades the “woman” of its life: Lisbon.
Fado began to gain a wider audience with the help of teatro de revista, a theatre genre born in Lisbon in 1851 which would often include fado singers in its shows. By the late 19th century, it would also gain a structure, with traditional fado songs comprising four strophes with 10 verses each and highlighting the Portuguese guitar (with six pairs of strings) as its main instrument. In the early 20th century, radio broadcasts brought the musical genre unparalleled success, but the military revolution of 1926 would profoundly affect fado as well as the people's perception of it, smothering its beautiful melodies under a veil of dictatorship.
Due to censorship, fado lost most of its element of improvisation and was mostly confined to casas de fado (fado houses) in the city's historic neighbourhoods, such as Bairro Alto, Alfama and Mouraria, where people could have a meal and enjoy the music. Now very popular with tourists, these houses are a haven for amateurs and professionals alike, and the centre stage of the famous desgarradas, a rather amusing sing-off between fadistas (fado singers) that usually end with cheers of “É fadista!”, the equivalent of “Bravo!” in the fado world.
Whilst the golden years of fado took place in the 1950s and '60s, it was the 1940s that witnessed the rise of a young woman who would change the sound of fado forever, becoming its international ambassador and introducing a whole new audience to the genre. By mixing traditional fado poems with the work of established authors and her own verses, Amália was embraced by both the elite and the Portuguese people, but her overseas success would transform her into the face of the dictatorship, which tried to attach itself to her growing reputation.
When the Carnation Revolution broke in 1974, this unwanted association hurt fado in more ways than one. Held uninterruptedly since 1953, the fado competition Grande Noite do Fado was suspended for two years, and the many mass culture influences now available - music included - stole its airplay on national radios. Carlos do Carmo's 1977 album Um Homem na Cidade (A Man in the City) helped rehabilitate its status to some degree, but it was only in the 1980s and '90s that fado made a comeback and entered the world music circuits.
Singers such as the eccentric Mísia, who modernised fado by developing her own personal style and introducing new instruments such as the accordion and the violin; and the gentle-timbred Cristina Branco helped push fado into the world music scene, particularly in France and The Netherlands, whilst renowned band Madredeus opened doors abroad for traditional (and at the same time, contemporary) Portuguese music. Almost accidentally and despite not singing fado, their nostalgic melodies and the tranquil yet imposing performances delivered by the band's lead singer Teresa Salgueiro - along with her mysterious all black outfits – brought fado reminiscences to everyone's mind.
With the opening of the Fado Museum in Lisbon in 1998, one year before Amália's death, and the contribution of a young generation of fadistas, including Camané, Ana Moura and Mafalda Arnauth, amongst others, fado is now back on track.
But its international renaissance is mostly the work of another great diva, who many compare to Amália. A tall and slender figure with bleached blonde hair, Mariza couldn't be further away from the stereotype of the traditional fadista, but her powerful voice and gentle demeanour are conquering a new legion of international fans in Brazil, The Netherlands and even Japan. Winner of several BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music and a Grammy nominee, Mariza is the new voice of fado, and her song Ó Gente da Minha Terra became an anthem for fado lovers everywhere, who now, sometimes without understanding a single world she's saying, are truly beginning to understand the meaning of the word saudade. “É fadista!”