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Fado: Song of the Portuguese

“You asked me once…

if I knew what fado is

I told you I didn’t know

You got surprised…

without knowing what to say

I lied at that moment.

I told you I didn’t know.

But now I’m going to tell you…”

-Tudo isso é fado, Amalia Rodrigues

The second act is about to begin. As people settle in their seats, a solitary spotlight slowly  illuminates a small stage.  Around, the tavern is lit softly by candles and on each table, a cardboard sign says: O Fado e uma cancao que nasce do Silencio.  Por favor evite o ruido.  (Fado:  this song is born (sic)  from Silence.  Please avoid any noise.)

They say one cannot leave Portugal without watching a live Fado performance.  So I asked my Portuguese friend to bring me to one.  Here is where we ended up– a place  called Restaurante Timpanas tucked in one of the rustic back streets of Lisbon.

An unlikely pair–a generously proportioned woman dressed in black and a thin man with a guitar–go up the stage silently. The man takes his seat on a stool and the woman stands beside him.  As silence falls within the tavern, the man starts to pluck his guitar strings– tentatively at first, and then later,  with a passionate adeptness only true artists possess. The woman joins him;  her voice a soft caress that climaxes into a powerful yearning.  I do not understand her words but her voice says it all. She seems to be singing of  a sadness that is deeply rooted in her being.

Fado, which is Portuguese for fate, is an urban folk music genre that traces its roots in Portugal in the 1820s. Unrequited love, the longing for home, death and melancholia… these are its common themes said to have been sung by sailors and those whom they have left behind. It is usually performed by a woman called a fadista accompanied by a classical guitarist.

“Fado” by Jose Malhoa, 1910

Fado songs resonate with saudade— a word so innately Portuguese it does not have a counterpart in English.  People have suggested “melancholy”,  “nostalgia” or “loss”. But these English words hardly come close.  In Portugal, talking about saudade is almost a matter of national pride; as if only the Portuguese can have such a profound experience and therefore, the word itself loses its ‘Portuguese-ness’ when translated.

“(Fado is…)

Defeated souls,

Lost nights,

Bizarre shadows,

At Mouraria,…

the pounce sings,

the guitars cry.

Love, jealousy

Ash and light

Pain and sin

All this exists

All this is sad

All this is the fado.”

Fado was brought to international attention by the Rhaina do Fado (Queen of Fado) Amalia Rodriguez in the 1950s.  Today, her successor, Mariza, has made the genre more popular than ever, infusing her performances with a more theatrical flair.

Recently, Fado has been included in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists alongside Spain’s Flamenco, Japan’s Kabuki Theatre, China’s Beijing Opera,  and  the Philippines’ Ifugao Hudhud Chants.

*Fado performance .  Please excuse the poor quality of this video.  I’ve recorded it to be heard and not seen.:(

The fadista pauses seductively, as if entreating the audience for a kiss .  The tavern is suddenly filled with a collective  tsssuuup,  tssssuuuup as we  pucker up to shower her with our imaginary kisses.

She then finishes her song with flourish.  The applause is deafening.  Much to my disappointment, it is the last song of the night. Reluctantly, I leave Timpanas but not with a heavy heart. Watching a Fado performance is indeed a moving experience… one that has let me take a rare peek into the Portuguese soul.

“E o fado é o meu castigo

Só nasceu pr’a me perder

O fado é tudo o que digo

Mais o que eu não sei dizer.

Fado is my punishment…

Fado was born just to make me feel lost

Fado is in all that my words say…

and also in what they don’t.”


*Restaurante Timpanas is located at Rua Gilberto Rola, 22-24  (Alcântara – Docks Area) 1350-155  LISBOA – PORTUGAL.

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  1. I became a Fado Enthusiast just last year, August 2011. I started listening to French Pop through buying CDs abroad by known Francophone artists such as Celine DIon, Lara Fabian, Isabell Boulay, etc. But before that, I used to listen to Spanish Pop with the likes of Edith Marquez, Jaci Velasquez & Ednita Nazario. Then browsing through the amazon pages looking for a new addition to refresh my music library, i happened to stumble into the CD entitled “Ulisses” by Cristina Branco. I said to myself, this is Portuguese, what the heck, took out samples, and started playing it in my iPOD. As being a music lover and naturally accustomed to modern pop, I have not appreciated first the plucky gutars, expressive singing but the crystalline voice of Cristina Branco really got into me. I played it the second time and then all of a sudden, I found myself listening to this wonderful album, over and over. It was like I was taken back to when my love for music started when I bought my very first cassette tape of Mariah Carey’s Daydream back in ’95. The idea is to have Branco to lineup as one of my favorite artist of all time but i never got contented as the beauty of the Portuguese language, emotional interpretation of Branco, beautiful rhythm and the heart wrenching plucky guitars of Custodio Castelo led me to research and discover Fado. At the moment, a day without fado for me is like a year without rain. Never mind if I don’t speak Portuguese but the Saudade that you will feel from the music will get into you. (I am considering other musical genres at the moment the least of my priorities) I am very glad that I became introduced (and well, acquainted) o wonderful Portuguese Fado musicians such as Mafalda Arnauth, Mariza, Joana Amendoeira, Luis Guerreiro, Ana Moura, Ana Lains, Helena Sarmento, Custodio Castelo, Aldina Duarte, Katia Guerreiro, Antonio Zambujo, etc. Wow, I thought being the weird 29 year old guy that I am, I am the only Filipino who has the ability to appreciate Fado.

    Thank you,


    1. PinayTraveller says:

      Hi Mark! Wow! Your Fado knowledge is extensive (and impressive).:) I’m glad you dropped by. Have you seen a live Fado performance? If not, I really hope for you to be able to see one someday. It is truly a wonderful experience, especially if you see one in Lisbon. I also thought I’m the only Filipino who knows about / appreciates Fado. Hahaha. Glad to have met you!:)

      1. MARK says:

        Hello. I have never been to Lisboa so no, I don’t get to see a live Fado performance. I am dying to watch one though. So far, all my reference are from the internet, youtube, fado sites, etc. Perhaps I could consider at the moment Fado as one of my favorite things and can consider the best thing that ever happened to me. Apart from the fact that Portugal, even though too far away, it is too close to my heart, my love for the country grew up inside of me when I was still a kid, its a different story though. Fado just… I could say just colored my interest in Portugal as I, myself is already a music lover. Well, have you been travelling to Portugal every now and then?

        1. PinayTraveller says:

          Hi Mark, I have been to Portugal thrice but was only able to watch a live Fado performance on my last visit. Lisboa remains to be my most favorite European city so far (despite the fact that I was terribly lonely when I was there last. but that’s another story). Portugal is also one of the cheapest destinations in Europe. Not to mention the friendliest. The locals are very accommodating and kind to estrangeiros.:)

    2. catarina says:

      what about Amalia? She is the premiere fadista of all time. Please do yourself a favour and listen to her and rent or buy the movie: the Art of Amalia.. very enlightening.
      I saw Amalia live when I was quite young. I have also seen Mariza and Madredeus live. It is quite an experience.
      I am happy that you are discovering this wonderful, majestic, earthy and emotional music.

  2. […] Halos magwa-walong taon na nang huli akong mapadpad sa Portugal. Pero ang huling bisitang ito ay nananatiling sariwa sa aking isipan. Hindi kalabisan kung sabihing “parang kahapon lang.” Totoo. Parang kahapon lang nang maglakad ako sa Rossio Square, nang kumain ako ng napakasarap na Pasteis de Belem, at nang una kong napakinggan ang musikang Portuges na fado. […]

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