Fado: a music translation of the portuguese soul

by Leonor Reis e Sousa

Lisbon Tour Guides®

The word Fado comes from the Latin word “fatum” that means fate or destiny. Classified by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage, Fado is for the Portuguese more than just a song, it is part of our identity and is classified as urban folklore of Lisbon.

There are different theories about the origin of this traditional song, but they are uncertain in time and geography. Some find in Fado the influence of African rhythms.  What is known for sure is that in the 19th century was a song in the popular contexts of marginality. The painting here bellow, called Fado, work of the Portuguese artist Malhoa, represents very well the ambience where fado developed.


In the 20th century the Fado is sang in very popular theatrical plays but it is also sang on the streets, in the popular quarters, freely, very often improvised. This freedom will not be allowed by the nondemocratic regime that ruled in Portugal and censorship will be established. Fado Houses will appear and singers must become professionals with a working permit and must also inform previously the political police of the Fados that will be sung every day and the respective words.


The internationalization of this music genre started in the 1960’s, especially due to Amalia Rodrigues, a national cultural icon and international star, surpassing the cultural and language barriers. She will sing all over the world, will introduce important innovations, will sing erudite poetry and poets will write for her. She will also work with composers and musicians that will take Fado to a different level. Fado songs are usually performed by a solo singer, male or female and will be their capacity of expressing feelings that is the most important for the performance. Traditionally they are accompanied by a Spanish guitar and the Portuguese “guitarra”, an instrument that has 12 strings strung in six courses of two strings.

Songs speak mostly about love, broken heart, jealousy, Lisbon and the river Tagus, popular festivities and traditions of the city. Fado is also about saudade, a feeling that as someone said “is the presence of the absence”. It is a contradictory feeling, at the same time people are sad for the loss of someone or something that was very important to them but also glad that they had the opportunity of having experienced it.

In Lisbon we say that is “Fadista” not only who sings this song but also who is capable of feeling emotion when listening to it.

If you come to Lisbon, even if it is only for 3 days, you should not miss this portuguese experience. We will be very happy to show you our city and the quarters where fado music was born and is performed.

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