Fado: Portugal's Soul

Fado, as any Portuguese will tell you, is the sound of the soul of Portugal in song.
By: Gretchen Kelly


Photo by: Carlos alberto Loff fonseca

Carlos alberto Loff fonseca


Fado (Portuguese), from the Latin  fatum, meaning destiny or fate.


The club is dark, except for the glow of the candles on the tables. The clientele is sipping wine, finishing their dinner and craning their necks toward the corner of the room, where a dark-haired woman of about 25, draped in a black shawl, is getting ready to sing.


Her musicians arrange their instruments, and a hush falls over the room. She begins to sing, her voice throbbing with sadness, a little cry that seems to come from the deepest part of her soul. She stands perfectly still, the only part that moves are her hands, white and expressive, before her black dress. There is a collective shiver of delight from the audience. They feel the sadness but delight in it, too. Is it a love song? A song about a tragic loss that will never heal?


She's singing fado.


Fado, as any Portuguese will tell you, is the sound of the soul of Portugal in song. It is sung by solo singers to the accompaniment of a Portuguese guitar - a pear-shaped instrument that looks a bit like an Elizabethan lute (it is said they were brought by the English during the heyday of the port trade).


The plaintive sound of fado is said to have been developed in the 19th century by fishermen, sailors and students - itinerant travelers who were far away from home and who poured their sadness and longing (  saudade in Portuguese) into music.


Today fado is a major tourist attraction in Portugal. You can't come to Lisbon or Coimbra (the 2 cities most closely associated with fado) without seeing a fado show. It's like tango in Buenos Aires or flamenco in Seville. Except that in Portugal, the "national" form of song has not yet attained the total tourist-trap status of its Spanish and Argentine sisters.


There are still many clubs in both cities that cater to native listeners, and the music still speaks to the hearts of the people themselves, many of whom can remember live performances of the great  fadista of the 20th century, Amalia Rodrigues. The beloved singer attained popularity during the harsh years of the Salazar regime (1926-74). Her plaintive voice and expressive style have defined fado for several generations.


Lisbon's fado is sung by both men and women. Clubs in the winding, originally Arabic district of Alfama offer authenticity as well as atmosphere. Check out the Casa do Fado on the edge of the Alfama district. At this informative small museum, non-Portuguese speakers can get a good background on the themes and history of the art form before attending a show.


Coimbra fado is sung by male students (traditionally to women, who listened from their windows as their paramours serenaded them from the streets). The songs talk about the life of the student (the heart pulse of this ancient university town), the loneliness of being far away from family and friends, and of course, the impossibility of love - a cherished fado theme.


One of Coimbra's finest fado clubs is    A Capella, a fado club installed in a 14th-century church. The fado group Quintelo de Coimbra sings here almost every night - the men's voices and the sad call of the strings floating up around the ancient vaulted ceiling as waiters fill glasses with good Portuguese wine.


You can even sit over the Plexiglas grave of the church's benefactress, who was buried here in medieval times after funding the building. Music at A capella tends to last long into the night. The singers often jam with each other after the last customers have drained their glasses and left, so plan to linger over that last glass of port.

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