Learn about Portugal’s most expressive music inside the ‘Museum of Fado’

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Music, Sound, World Environment
Fado, painting by José Malhoa (1910).

Fado, painting by José Malhoa (1910)

The painting above depicts a woman relaxed, smoking and alluring over a rugged handsome portuguese guitar player while they both enjoy a drink.  This painting titled ‘Fado’ by José Malhoa hangs in the ‘Museu Do Fado‘ (museum of Fado) located in the district of Alfama, Lisbon, Portugal.

The ‘Museu Do Fado’ explains the passion and evolution of Portugal’s most expressive music known as ‘Fado‘. The museum demonstrates the evolutuion through various audio recordings, pictures, paintings, Instruments (the famous portuguese guitar) quotations and stories about the famous ‘Fado’ houses.

The word ‘Fado’ comes from the latin word ‘fatum’ which means destiny and fate.  The origins and roots of this music genre can be traced back to the early 1800s in Portugal, right in the heart of Lisbon’s oldest district, Alfama. The word Fado is related to the Music itself and has also been labeled the Portugese Blues. A Fado performance ties music and poetry and is based on human emotions.

In 2011 ‘Fado’ was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural heritage lists.  This list aims to prove better protection of important cultural heritages worldwide and give awareness to their signifiance.


Fadistas – a term given to Fado players.

View of Alfama, home to many Fado bars and restaurants.

View of Alfama from Miradouro de Santa Luzia, home to many Fado bars and restaurants.

A ‘Fado’ performance consists of a singer, Portuguese guitarist and a Viola caipira (correct term Violão which is a term used in Brazil). The portuguese guitarrra is a flat back shaped instrument, like a mandolin with eight, ten or twelve strings.  The sound of a portuguese guitarra is an essential ingredient of ‘Fado’ as it echoes and enhances the singer’s melody line.

The portuguese guitarist plays the main melody line while the violão provides the rhythm. During a live performance the portuguese guitarist would also play a solo instrumental composition which captivates the audience through its fast tempo and quick skilled finger style plucking.  You will notice a woman singing ‘Fado’ will wear the colour black as a tribute and representation of Maria Severa, the first ‘Fado’ singer to have risen to fame.

Portuguese Guitarra.

Portuguese Guitarra.

Museum displays early inventions of Portuguese Guitarra (Two sound holes)

Museum displays early inventions of Portuguese Guitarra (Two sound holes)

‘Fado’ was originally played by poor people in the district of Alfama in the early 1800s. People who played this music genre were known as Fadistas.  Fadistas expressed their mournful emotions through this art form.

Fado was said to be played in brothels, back street alleyways, cafes and Fado houses by the poor rebels of the city who simply yearned to express their pain, suffering and story through the music.  For a long time it remained ‘ouside the walls‘ of Lisbon.

In some quarters it has been claimed that ‘Fado’ and ‘Tango‘ share a birth.  They both share similar history, known in the backstreet alleyways, cafes and brothels,  before being adopted and accepted by the middleclass and eventually living out a remarkable existance.

Read below a written account from 1903 on the body art style of a ‘Fadista’.  (Today it is quite normal and acceptable for people to have these kind of tattoos but over 100 years ago society would had a different outlook on this style)

FADO blob

Fado De La Goya.

Fado De La Goya.

As previously mentioned Maria Severa was the first ‘Fado’ singer to have risen to fame. She was a gypsy who played the portuguese guittarra and lived in the ghettos of Lisbon. Her fame came to light when a portuguese novelist known as Júlio Dantas wrote a book entitled ‘A Severa’. This book was soon adapted to a play and then film.  In 1931 portuguese director José Leitão de Barros created A Severa‘, the first portuguese film to feature sound.

A Severa, first portuguese film to feature sound.

A Severa, first portuguese film to feature sound.

It is without a doubt Amália Rodrigues lifted the veil on the profound ‘Fado’, popularised it and brought it to the attention of the World.  Amália Rodrigues was born in Lisbon in 1920. She is considered “a rainha do fado” {the queen of ‘Fado’}.  ‘Fado’ immortalised Amália and vice versa. Her life was a whirlwind fully lived – her passions, friendships, moments of depression, finding fame and carrying ‘Fado’ far beyond anybody’s expectations.  During her life she was adored by all but mostly by the Portuguese people.

Amália Rodrigues.

Amália Rodrigues.

Writing BLOB

Amália Rodrigues brought ‘Fado’ to the world stage during the time of a dictatorship in Portugal – the Salazar regime. António de Oliveira Salazar was a portuguese politician who served as Prime Minister of Portugal for 36 years, from 1932 to 1968.  He founded and led the Estado Novo (New State). Although he died in 1970, Marcelo Caetano led the party and continued to rule until 1974. It has been often considered the Salazar regime was fascist.

During this dictatorship their was a primary focus on what is now known as the three F’s – Football, Fatima and Fado.  Benfica FC and Eusébio had a Golden era through the 1960s which was the best decade in the entire clubs history. Our Lady of Fátima is another title for the Virgin Mary. The name comes from three appariations reported to have been seen in the town of Fatima, Portugal.  And finally the relationship with Portugal’s best loved music, ‘Fado‘.

Fado, The Spirit of Lisboa.

Fado, The Spirit of Lisboa.

It was during the dictatorship that ‘Fado’ became a musical national identity of Portugal.  ‘Fado’ went through many changes during the Salazar regime.  It has been reported by historians that when António Salazar became Prime Minister of Portugal he was not a fan of ‘Fado’, he titled it “lower-class unsuitable music”.  Portugal choose to be neutral during World War 2, the war had ended and ‘Fado’ still remained the most popular music in the country, the government had no other option but to support it. The ‘Fado’ subject matter changed during this time as the government drew in and focused in on it. Songs once sang by poor people in Lisbon started to change, the songs became more traditional – about wine, woman, song, family and church.

Misia (Misterios Do Fado) by Manuel Paulo / João Monge.

Misia (Misterios Do Fado) by Manuel Paulo / João Monge.

Amália Rodrigues adapted poems by iconic portuguese poets into ‘Fado’ songs.  She projected Portugal to the world during one of the longest dictatorships in Europe. Some argue that the Salazar’s regime used Amália Rodrigues and ‘Fado’ as a national identity. Although Amália was mixing with the regime she still managed to stay close to the heart of ‘Fado’ by singing often radical lyrics. She sang subversive songs with lyrics by poets such as Ary dos Santos, Manuel Alegre, Alexandre O’Neill and David Mourao Ferreira. All these poets were been left-wing and supported the Carnation Revolution.

The Carnation revolution took place on the 25th April 1974.  Today, the 25th April is a national holiday in Portugal and is known as ‘Freedom day’.  Amália Rodrigues was not political although she did get falsely accused for being an agent for Salazar after his regime collapsed.

Before Amália took her talent far beyond the shores of Portugal to BrazilMexicoUSA, all over Europe  (performing ‘Fado’ in the 1979 Eurovision in Germany) and the rest of the world she was simply a young girl singing in the cafes in Lisbon.  During her long international career she established herself as a fine actress and appeared in many films, sometimes singing ‘Fado’. She won Portugal’s Film Award for Best Actress for ‘Fado’ in 1947 and also won the award for Portugal’s Best Film Actress in 1965.

It was around the late 1980s and 1990s when Amália’s voice developed an illness. Her last all-new studio recording, Lágrima, was released in 1983.  She still continued to record music as her last album of original recordings (titled ‘Obsessão’) was released in 1990. In December 1994 the Rainha do Fado (“Queen of Fado”) gave her final live performance which took place in Lisbon. She did continue to make the occasional appearance on television.  She released a book of poems in 1997 titled ‘Segredo’ but in her final years she stayed at home in her house in Lisbon.

On October 6, 1999, Amália Rodrigues died at the age of 79 in her home in Lisbon. The Fado finally stopped.  The news swept through the streets of Alfama and Lisbon, to the shores of Portugal and outwards towards Europe and the rest of the World.  The Portugal government declared three days of national mourning.  The portuguese people had to come to terms with losing a much loved National Icon. They weeped but together they could partake in Saudade.  

The Rainha do Fado (“Queen of Fado”) was given a state funeral and is now rested in the National Pantheon in Lisbon. Amália Rodrigues is the only woman buried in the National Pantheon as it is very male dominated.  Other famous portuguese personalities that are buried here are footballer Eusébio and explorer Vasco De Gama

The National Pantheon, Lisbon, Portugal.

The National Pantheon, Lisbon, Portugal.

For my ears...

Gifts from the Museu Do Fado gift shop, for my ears…

Museu do Fado, Alfama, Lisbon. Portugal.

Museu do Fado, Alfama, Lisbon. Portugal.

Fernando Pessoa. Portuguese poet, writer, publisher and philosopher. Important literary figure of the 20th century literature and also one of the greatest poets in the Portuguese language.

Fernando Pessoa: Portuguese poet, writer, publisher and philosopher.  He was one of the greatest poets in the Portuguese language.

To truly understand ‘Fado’ we must understand the portuguese expression known as Saudade. It is an interesting word without any direct english translation.  It is the spirit of the land of Portugal. It is a deep longing for an absent love, a feeling that may never return. It is an emotional state of nostalgia. It is between absence and presence. It is like sadness and happiness at the same time mixed through experience and lost. It is the feeling of longing for something lost but at the same time a sense of happiness that you experienced it. Fado and Saudade are key important factors in Portuguese culture.

Fernando Pessoa: 'Saudade is the poetry of Fado'

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