“Fado” must be heard, felt, experienced not described…. but I’ll do my best.
The Portuguese word saudade, not translatable into English, would roughly be “nostalgia” or “homesickness,” implying a bittersweet longing. Saudade is the basis of the lyrical content of fado music.
Sadness is the general tone of song and music. They tell tales of lost or unrequited love, death, longing for the homeland, or a past that will never return.
Fado represents the spirit of the Portuguese people and their belief in an overwhelming destiny from which there is no escape. It is the soul and the heart dominating over reason, which leads to acts of passion, despair, and reveals a black and beautiful sorrow. Some experts define fado as the oldest urban folk music in the world.
Amalia Rodrigues, the most celebrated fado singer (1940-1999) explained it in a 1994 interview: “The Portuguese invented fado because we have a lot to complain about; on one side we have Spain with their swords, on the other side there’s the sea, which was unknown and fearful. When people set sail, we were waiting and suffering, so fado is a complaint.” She was the diva of fado, worshipped at home and celebrated abroad as the most famous representative of this Portuguese musical genre. Such is the hold of fado over the people of Portugal, that when she died, the prime minister declared three days of national mourning.
There are two main styles of fado: Lisbon’s traditionally performed by a female vocalist (called fadista) accompanied by two or three male guitarists and Coimbra’s (university city) performed by male soloists who sing and play the guitar. In both, the guitar is a Portuguese 12-string instrument called “guitarra” and the bass guitar is the “viola”.
Many aficionados prefer the raw emotion of the female fadista. Dressed in black, with a shawl draped over her shoulder. She stands in front of the musicians and communicates through gestures and facial expressions. The hand moves, the body is stationary. When done correctly, it’s a solemn and majestic performance.
Whatever the origins, fado themes have remained constant through the years: destiny, betrayal in love, death and despair. A typical lyric goes like this: “Why did you leave me, where did you go? I walk the streets looking at every place we were together, except you’re not there.” Because it is such sad music, a fado performance is not successful unless the audience, literally, is moved to tears. Audiences in Lisbon and Coimbra are very knowledgeable, very demanding and if they do not feel the fadista is up to form, they will stop a performance.
To show their appreciation, audiences in Lisbon will clap their hands while in Coimbra they will cough as if clearing their throats.