What you need to know about fado music


11th May 2023 Music

What you need to know about fado music

A part of Portuguese culture and a melancholic music style, this is the story of fado 

Fado, commonly remarked as exhibiting the soul of Portuguese culture, was born in 1800s Lisbon. Characterised by its soulful and melancholic melodies, and the use of Portuguese guitar and acoustic guitar, fado is unique in its sound and lyricism, being described as the music of longing, loss and nostalgia. Its emotionally affective lyrics acknowledge the reality of life: there is no joy without pain, nor light without darkness. 

From its origin, fado would be most commonly played in the Portuguese capital’s central Bairro Alto district, where today you’d be unlucky to miss its saudade-inflected sound as it snakes through the city’s winding cobblestone lanes. 

"Fado is unique in its sound and lyricism, being described as the music of longing, loss and nostalgia"

The genre of fado is deeply tied to the Portuguese word saudade, which is not directly translatable to English. The British folklorist Rodney Gallop describes saudade as “...yearning: yearning for something so indefinite as to be indefinable: an unrestrained indulgence in yearning”.  

The unique complexity of fado’s subject matters and lyricism remains one of its most attractive features. For example, one famous fado song “Que Deus Me Perdoe” (which translates as “May God Forgive Me”) laments the existence of lament.  

Fado’s origins

It's believed that the vast majority of fado singers were sex workers

The hazy origin story of fado means that there are a lot of myths that exist about how it began. One especially notable myth is that the mournful music was first sung on ships by homesick Portuguese sailors who wanted to go back home.  

What’s known for sure is that, during its early years in the mid 19th century, fado singers would move, even dance, while singing. The movement was heavily influenced by and resembled Afro-Brazilian folk dance and such movements included the smacking of one’s thighs. It’s believed that the delivery of some songs would be raunchy and that before 1870, the vast majority of fado singers (or fadistas) were sex workers. 

Working-class sex workers and fado

Maria Severa was a sex worker and one of the first Fado singers

In fact, as fado was originally sung by working-class men and women, and people such as sex workers who were cast out from society, the lyrics to fado songs have often been reflective of social injustices and took issue with the governments and political problems of the day. 

One of the first singers of fado was Maria Severa. She was a sex worker from Lisbon who reportedly died in 1846 at just 26 years old from tuberculosis and stroke, which symbolises the true working class history and roots of the genre.  

Fado under Portugal’s dictatorship

During dictator Salazar's reign, a censored version of Fado was more prevalent, pushing a nationalist agenda

After the rise of Portugal’s dictator Salazar, politically-charged fado would disappear, replaced by a censored version that would, however, still mention the depressing conditions of working-class life, such as poverty, hunger and personal tragedy. According to academics, these topics were allowed during the right-wing dictatorship, in order to lessen the ties between misery and social justice. This was in order to show that while undesirable, misery and poverty were unavoidable and something experienced individually rather than collectively. 

"Fado was championed via a nationalistic means to promote Portuguese identity and pacify the population and suppress their political alienation"

In its more dictatorship-friendly outfit, fado was championed via a nationalistic means to promote Portuguese identity and pacify the population and suppress their political alienation. This was part of a strategy called the three F’s: football, fado and and Fatima (Catholicism).  

Amália Rodrigues 

During this time, Amália Rodrigues became perhaps the most famous and widely celebrated Portuguese fado singer ever, and is credited for bringing it to the world’s attention. 

The popularity of her fado renditions were boosted by the fact that her lyrics were written by some of Portugal’s most famous poets, such as Ary dos Santos and David Mourão-Ferreira. 

Popular fado musicians today

Mariza performing in Cambridge in 2004. Photo credit: Bryan Ledgard

Fast forward to today and fado continues to be deeply popular, with a whole host of musicians in the genre selling out concerts. One of those popular fado musicians today is Mariza. Born to a Portuguese father and a Mozambican mother in ex-Portuguese colony Mozambique, Mariza has helped to spread the genre probably further around the world than any other current artist. Her talent has seen her win multiple awards across the globe, such as the Latin Grammy Award for Best Folk Album. Showing the enduring popularity of fado in Portugal, she can boast seven platinum-selling albums in the country. 

"Showing the enduring popularity of fado in Portugal, [Mariza] can boast seven platinum-selling albums in the country"

Another popular present-day fado singer is Ana Moura who has been praised for her emotive performances and powerful voice. She has even worked and collaborated with musicians from a variety of genres, including Prince. 

Meanwhile, representing the men in fado, Camané is a singer who has been performing since the 1990s. He is particularly known and celebrated for his traditional fado style and expressive and heartfelt performances. 

Fado as a part of Portuguese culture 

These examples represent just a few of the very many talented fado musicians that play. Fado today continues to evolve and attract new audiences, while at the same time staying true to its roots and traditional style. 

Today, fado remains an important part of Portuguese culture, and in 2011 it was even  designated by Unesco as an Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Fado continues to be performed in many bars and clubs in Lisbon and Portugal’s towns and cities, and there are also several fado houses that specialise in the music.

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter         


*This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.