Fado: An Overview

This section of the website is intended as a resource for those interested in fado. My aim is to provide more detail than the average tourist guide, while avoiding the potential tedium of every single detail and point of contention within the genre. What I do want to do, however, is point towards a number of these issues, and at least raise awareness of the dialogues and various positions relating to these issues.

Fado is a form of urban folk music from Portugal; more specifically, from Lisbon. According to some sources, if you want to be even more specific, it can be traced to three particular neighbourhoods in Lisbon — Alfama, Bairro Alto, and Mouraria. The reason I qualify this statement is that the actual origins of the genre are debated, with two major theories regarding where the music came from, and why it sounds the way it does. Depending on which narrative you buy in to, fado is either a song of homesick sailors on the voyages of discovery with Vasco da Gama and men of his ilk, or it is a song of the lower classes of society, of the poor, the drunks, the criminals, and the prostitutes, lamenting their lot in life, lamenting their fate (a word which, incidentally, is seen as the origin of the term fado).

Within this opening paragraph, there are already a number of contentious claims, such as claiming that fado exclusively belongs to Lisbon and not Coimbra, restricting it to three neighbourhoods, and narrowing the possible origins to only two scenarios, each of which is lacking in detail. Fado is seen by many Portuguese people as more than just a form of art — it is about expression: expression of emotions, expression of self, and expression of nationality. In participating in fado, the performer becomes immersed in powerful raw emotion and sentiment with the music, which in turn becomes the performer’s vehicle. These issues and more will be explored in their own specific articles on this site. My intention in this opening article is simply to provide a very brief glance at fado as a musical genre and a socio-cultural phenomenon. This will, naturally, include some generalisations and some contested opinions, but in order to better understand fado, it is necessary to use these to establish a starting point.

In 2011, an application was made successfully to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to add fado to the list of examples of the “World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage”. The application process involved a wide range of supporters, including singers, instrumentalists, academics and composers. The description below is taken from the nomination form submitted to UNESCO in the section marked ‘Identification and definition of the element’, which requires ‘a clear and complete explanation’:

Fado is a type of song usually performed by a soloistic voice, male or female, accompanied traditionally by a Portuguese guitar and an acoustic guitar, both wire-strung, although in the past few decades this instrumental accompaniment has been often expanded to two Portuguese guitars, a guitar and a bass guitar (or string double bass). The Portuguese guitar, a pear-shaped instrument of the cittern family, with twelve wire strings, which is unique to Portugal, is used particularly for the accompaniment of the voice, in association with an acoustic guitar, but also has an extensive soloistic repertoire. The genre is based on a widespread amateur practice of informal performance from which emerge the majority of its professional practitioners, but there is a permanent interaction between these two circles. Young performers, both singers and players, usually come from an informal, orally transmitted training which takes place in the traditional performance spaces (neighbourhood associations and Fado houses), and often in successive generations in the same families. Informal tuition by older, respected exponents is a key element in this process of transmission and reprocessing. (UNESCO, Nomination File No. 00563 for Inscription on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2011, (Bali: UNESCO, 2011), Section 1: Identification of the Element)

Seventy-five years earlier, the British folklorist Rodney Gallop described a fado performance as centred around a I–V7 harmonic structure, with rhythmic characteristics as follows:

Some account has already been given of the mannerisms of the Lisbon fadista. The most characteristic of these is the flexibility of the rhythm, a free rubato over the steady beat of the accompaniment, which it is extremely difficult to seize or to transcribe, and to which staff-notation imparts a rigidity the lack of which is its principal charm. The five notes unevenly distributed over the four beats of the bar stand to one another in countless slightly differing proportions of time value. These subtle rhythmic inflections vary from verse to verse, and, like plain-song, though in a different way, the tune moulds itself to the plastic form of the words. So closely do these rhythmic mannerisms – together with the easy, intimate manner and the throaty, almost hoarse voice – resemble the style of the authentic jazz singer, that one is tempted to see in them a further negro legacy to fado. (Rodney Gallop, Portugal: A Book of Folk-Ways (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1936; repr. 1961), p. 260–261.)

These two descriptions, much like my opening, cover a broad range of features and issues within fado. However, I chose them because they show the public face of fado, that which is accessible to a wide readership at the time of publication, either by virtue of the prominence of the organisation (UNESCO), or, in the case of Rodney Gallop, the use of the English language and publication by Cambridge University Press. As such, they serve as sufficient for this brief overview although, as this resource continues to grow, it will become clear that all is not quite what it seems, and that fado is a highly nuanced topic, genre, and way of life.