My favourite word from the Portuguese language (or, in fact, any language) is 'Saudade'. Although there is no direct translation to English, it can be described as 'a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one cares for and/or loves but will probably never get back'.

I would describe Fado as being the musical equivalent of this word.

With performers singing mournful melodies about love, pain, loss and the injustice of society. Fado started to become prominent in Lisbon in the early 19th century, particularly in the poorer neighbourhoods of Alfama, Mouraria and Bairro Alto (although it is thought to have much earlier Afro-Brazilian origins).

There are two main styles of Fado - Lisbon and Coimbra - and distinct differences between them. Lisbon Fado is the original and more well-known version. Originating from contexts of marginality and transgression, it was associated with those from lower social and economic classes and generally performed in pubs, cafes, and brothels by either a male or female solo vocalist accompanied by a portuguese guitarist. Performances often featured improvisation, with lyrics describing the harsh realities of daily life and little hope for better times.

Coimbra Fado is associated with the academic traditions of the University of Coimbra, and historically appeals to the more privileged classes. It is sung only by males who wear the traditional academic wardrobe consisting of dark robes, capes, and leggings. They routinely rehearse before each performance and usually sing on the streets or in the city square at night, with song content generally featuring themes of finding hope in the face of adversity

Maria Severa, a tavern singer from Lisbon's Alfama district, became the first famous Fadista (singer of fado) in the 1830s and is credited with increasing the popularity of the genre. Singing of real-life struggles in the mournful manner that was typical of Lisbon-style Fado, she wore a dark shawl during her performances which many future generations of female fadistas adopted.

In the early 20th century, Fado was then brought to the World stage by Amalia Rodrigues who was dubbed the 'Rainha do Fado' (Queen of Fado) and 'The Voice of Portugal'. She became the main inspiration for contemporary and modern Fado, receiving over 40 honours and awards for her music and playing for various Monarchs and World leaders. When she died in 1999, Portugal observed three days of official mourning and she was given a state funeral, with her remains being interred in Lisbon's National Pantheon.

Fado is felt,

not understood,

nor explained.


The growth of the sound-recording industry in the mid 20th century contributed to the genre becoming more 'polished' and, as a result, it lost many of its improvisational elements. During this time Fado's popularity began to wane a little, however the past two decades have seen a renewed interest with modern artists expanding the traditional guitar accompaniment to include various other instruments such as piano, violin, and accordion, while also exploring new ways to blend Fado with other genres.

In 2011, UNESCO recognised Fado in its 'Cultural Heritage of Humanity' list due to its representation of Portuguese culture, describing it as 'A symbol of identity that represents a distinctly Portuguese multicultural synthesis of Afro-Brazilian music, local genres of song and dance, rural music, and urban song patterns of the early nineteenth century.'

Today, many small Fado houses and restaurants across Portugal provide 'Fado experiences' for visitors. Another interesting place to learn more about the history of the music is the Museu do Fado, a museum dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of Fado. It is located in the Alfama district, considered the place where the genre was first recognised. The museum documents the development and evolution of Fado music from the first quarter of the 19th century to modern times through its unique collection of artifacts that includes photographs, posters, scores, musical instruments, phonograms, costumes and props, trophies, medals, and the stories of hundreds of authors, composers, musicians, instrument builders, scholars and researchers. The Museum also has a program of activities including seminars and workshops, and evening Fado performances.

When I arrived for my visit, I was issued with a set of headphones and a handset that would allow me to hear more about each exhibit. Upon entering the gallery, I was confronted with a whole wall covered with the faces of various Fado singers from across the decades. Each had a number next to them and, when I typed this number into the handset, I could listen to a short clip of that particular performer. I stood for a while listening to various Fadistas sing their heart wrenching tales of loss and misfortune before I moved on to the next level of the museum.

Here I found a section dedicated to guitars - particularly the Portuguese guitar, a pear shaped instrument that was the traditional accompaniment for Fadistas during Fado performances. Another room documented the rise of the recording industry and its impact on traditional Fado. Heading downstairs, I entered the basement, of which a large area is dedicated to José Pracana, a widely renowned figure in the history of Fado. There is a reconstruction of a cellar that he often used as a Fado performance area, and also original sheet music and handwritten lyrics. Throughout the museum, there are multimedia sections with recordings and biographic information of all the major Fado singers and composers who have contributed to the development of the genre over the years.

As someone who was fairly unfamiliar with Fado music, I really enjoyed my visit to the Museu do Fado and found it to be a great introduction to, not only the music itself, but also the influence it had on Portuguese culture and history.

Location: Largo do Chafariz de Dentro 1, 1100-139, Lisbon