FADO, THE PORTUGUESE LIFE SOUNDTRACK, MORE ALIVE THAN EVER

In the last few decades there has been a revival of the traditional genre. Fado has incorporated different instruments and mixed styles to renovate itself and track younger audiences. Singers have beenrecognized around the world and their fame is expanding. In a city like Lisbon, visitors know what fado is and rave about it.

Largo do Chafariz de dentro, one of the main streets in Alfama. Source: Aina Errando.

When you walk through the streets of Alfama, the most famous fado neighbourhood in Lisbon, this genre can be listened as the sun goes down and the night is approaching. It is usually performed in restaurants or bars called Houses of Fado (Casas do Fado). We enter one of the most famous ones, Pàteo de Alfama

The main hall is ready to welcome the diners. The dark wooden chairs, the squared tables and the white tablecloth reflect neatness and elegance. The waiters, wearing their black and white uniforms, are receiving the guests who are looking at the stage. Three fado singers, known as fadistas in Portuguese, will perform tonight.

In the background of the stage, a white-painted wall, two red and brown wooden doors and a small window recreate an old typical Portuguese façade.

Once we are seated, the lights of the main hall go down. Everything is dark but the centre of the black stage lit with a direct spotlight and three musicians go up tothe platform. They sit down on their chairs and just after them, tonight’s main fado singer, Teresa Tapadas, starts the performance.

That’s the chorus of one of the most famous songs of this typical Portuguese genre: Fado, recognized as World Intangible Heritage by UNESCO in 2011. The word itself means “fate” in English and it is the urban and popular song of Lisbon born around the 19thcentury. It symbolizes the core, spirit and history of the city.

Everyone in the Fado house knows this song and they hum along with the artist. Groups of friends, families and some tourists are part of tonight’s audience. They look delighted and joyful, some of them even slightly move on their chairs. The singer has achieved her main aim: to transmit the essence of the song to the audience. When the musicians start playing the next song, everyone is silent. Next song sounds more melancholic, deep and passionate.

In 1910, the First Portuguese Republic was established after a Republican revolution but in 1933 it ended in a nationalist military dictatorship ruled by A. Salazar. Portugal, a land of fishermen, remained a colonial power so the Portuguese had to fight for their country.

On April 25th1974, the peaceful Carnation revolution took place. A revolution where almost no shots were fired. Salazar’s dictatorship broke down leading to the current democratic republic and from then on, artists unleashed their potential.

“It has overcome all the cultural, geographical and ideological barriers it has found and sings about every topic and situation in life. It has an extraordinary capacity to absorb and incorporate new technologies because it goes hand by hand with the evolution of history,” Sara Pereira, the director of the Fado museum, explains.

The lyrics can be about anything. This includes heartfelt poems, the happiness produced by certain moments or jealousy between couples. There are also songs about Portuguese traditions such as fishing, bullfighting or horse riding. Furthermore, society and politics are also part of the repertoire with labour, republican or monarchic songs but longing and nostalgia are the main topics.

Teresa T. performing in Pàteo de Alfama, a Fado house in Alfama. Source: Aina E.

Fadistas mainly sing for “saudade”. “It is a Portuguese word with no exact translation but its meaning is basically to miss something or someone,” Teresa Tapadas, one of the main fadistas, states. “It is not only about our own feelings but also the feeling of a whole nation: Portuguese historical events, our traditions and the people,” she adds. Some other songs are about love affairs, their miseries and hard moments in life or their routine in a town or city.

Amàlia Rodrigues, the Queen of fado, is considered as the main representative singer who popularized the traditional genre all around the world. She is the main inspiration for contemporary and modern fado as she displayed eagerness to experiment with other music genres such as blues.

During the last decades, it has evolved and includes updates to adapt not only the sound with electric guitars or other instruments but also new topics like the Internet, for example.

Fado has been living, with no doubt, a moment of dynamism in the last 15 years. It has managed to overcome all the barriers that were traditionally subjected to it, especially from the post-war, becoming an object of scientific study with a bigger presence in an international music market,” the director of the museum claims. The genre survived to Salazar dictatorship and after it, the understanding of fado became the central pillar of the Portuguese identity.

Today’s artists are touring not only around Europe but also the USA or Canada. They are also collaborating with other artists. Having sold over 1 million records worldwide, Mariza, 44, sang with Sting -the frontman of The Police- for the Olympic Games in Athens 2004.

In addition, Cuca Roseta, 36, or Carminho, important voices of the new generation, worked together with famous Spanish pop singers such as David Bisbal or Pablo Alborán.

Carminho singing “Si aún te quieres quedar” (“If you still want to stay”) together with Pablo Alborán. Source: Dial awards.

Museu do Fado is essential for its promotion

With its candidacy as part of the UNESCO World Intangible Heritage in 2011, Museu do Fado was a centrepiece to promote fado and it still is. It has an important role on its preservation with the ongoing initiative “Há Fado no Cais” (Fado on the Waterfront), a famous regular fado programme in partnership with Centro Cultural de Bèlem, a cultural centre where all kind of activities are hosted. Renowned and new artists perform in different auditoriums of this cultural space which are equipped with up to 1400 seats.

The museum combines all the big masterpieces related to this field and testimonials that were spread around either in hands of the artistic community that were willing to maintain fado alive or in other collections. It tries to document the history of the genre (discs, repertories, folklore costumes, prizes, instruments…) so it represents Portuguese DNA and its society.

One of the rooms of the Fado museum where you can listen to the greatest hits. Source: Aina Errando.

“We gathered all of the important documents and lots of poets, artists and composers gave their heritage to the museum so as to preserve the tradition,” Pereira remarks. The museum transmits the values to the young generation and has a very important role regarding promotion, not only within the borders of the country but also from an international perspective. For instance, they have worked together with worldwide known artists to build up the strategy, develop the candidacy and achieve the recognition of UNESCO with talks, performances and concerts around the globe.

In 2010, they received around 40.000 visitors. Now, with the promotion of concerts in and out Portugal, they have 170.000 international visitors per year and the number keeps rising. They get visitors from all around the world especially France and, surprisingly, Japan, a country located more than 10.000 km away from the Iberian Peninsula.

Not only “lisboetas” listen to fado, tourists also want to live a fado night.

Tourists visiting Lisbon are often curious about fado because they don’t know what it is exactly.

In Adega Machado, for example, they give the possibility to live the whole experience every day from five to six in the evening. “The fado night can sometimes be long, enduring and expensive. We offer an intense and pedagogic experience where the singers and musicians can talk to the audience in a small space enjoying the show for an hour,” Jorge David, the Communication & Marketing Director, states. A fado night experience can be emotionally intense, last from 8pm until 2am and cost around forty to fifty euros.

Moreover, “some of the tourists that want to enjoy this kind of show are cruise passengers that have a programme to follow and can’t stay overnight in the city,” he explains. Adega Machado has 81 years of history and they try to preserve tradition whilst taking into account the future.

“Not everybody can sing fado but everyone can feel it. It is not about age or nationality, is about deep feelings and how receptive the audience is. The singers have to feel the words and sound truthful, otherwise fado is not authentic,” Mauricio Cordeiro, one of the youngest singers in Adega Machado, argues.

The creation of emotions caused by the fadosinger is as noticeable as seeing a person physically crying or laughing. The artists sing fast happy pace songs or slow sad melodies so they put the effort on engaging the audience and transmitting the different messages: joy, affection, sadness, passion, romance or simply everyday issues.

International perspective 

Fado international festivals are promoted all around world (Argentina, Lima, Rio de Janeiro, New York, Barcelona or even Japan and Morocco). Fado is not only about the language but also about the audience feeling and empathising with the singer depending on how and what the fadista sings. It is an intense and expressive style, so it breaks the language barrier and gets to the heart of the audience.

Some people might say that its lyrics are pure, sad and the voices should be broken and hoarse but that is not important anymore. They are more optimistic now and the rise of emotions is still the main pillar. “What really matters today is to transmit the feelings and emotions with your voice. A singer can have a low or high pitched voice but the audience should get, without understanding the words, when he or she is trying to show happiness or melancholy,” the fadista Teresa Tapadas clarifies.

One of the fadistas in Pàteo de Alfama emotionally sings on the stage. Source: Aina Errando.

According to Sara Pereira, “our music attracts a huge diversity of people, but the credit of attracting the audience belongs to the artists.” Artistically speaking, fado is no longer associated with old generations because there are young composers, artists and guitarists with the capacity of self-assertion. They innovate and experiment with the ways of singing and their instruments. “We live in a moment of big dynamism,” she points out.

The typical music accompaniment consists of the classical guitar (known as viola), the bass guitar (viola-baixo) and the Portuguese guitar (guitarra). However, nowadays, there are new artists that include hints of other types of music to rejuvenate the genre. Some of the songs can include a piano, saxophone, drums or an electric guitar. For example, Ana Moura one of the most famous fadistas, featured with The Rolling Stones or Prince. Definitely, a new generation full of talent is developing, each one with their own and well-defined style.

“There’s a new generation that used to sing but wasn’t recognized at the end of the 20th century and now, in the 21st century, they have progressively gained more importance,” Pereira concludes.  She refers to well-known artists such as Mariza, Ana Moura, Carminho, Raquel Tavares or Joana Almeida whose fame is exponentially increasing.

Mariza, with more than 83.000 subscribers in her You Tube channel and Ana Moura, with more than 100.000 monthly listeners in Spotify, were the first ones to perform in the opening act of the Eurovision contest that took place this year in the city of Lisbon.

New generations are already pushing hard

Portugal is much more than football. The city of Lisbon is the land of flavours, the land of tiles and the land of music inspiring new generations. Young people have interest for these artists and they search for more.

“Youngsters are not ashamed of saying that they like this genre and they enjoy coming to the shows,” Tapadas clarifies. What’s more, she has even seen boys and girls celebrating their 18th birthdays in fado houses.

“I like listening to fado, especially Carminho for example. I also like Gisela Joao because I saw some videos of Joss Stone singing with artists from different countries and here, in Portugal, she sang with Gisela. Their style was simple, you just need to be quiet, relax and listen to it. It sounds catchy,” says Catarina Gomes, a 23-year-old girl while she comments with her friends the Eurovision contest.

“Cuca Roseta turns fado into something modern. Cuca or Gisela managed to combine our traditional genre with trendy music produced in our country, too. They both bring fado to everyone by collaborating with other international artists which create modern tunes without forgetting their roots and our fadoqueen: Amàlia Rodrigues,” André Rodrigues, 26, adds.

The city of the Tagus river is becoming a more cosmopolitan European capital and, just like fado, it combines history and tradition with modernity and innovation as new modern areas are emerging and developing. However, no matter where, there is always a traditional Portuguese guitar and a fadista ready to sing in the Lisbon nights.

Plan view of the city of Lisbon with St. George Castle on the horizon. Source: Aina Errando.