Fado is the music of Lisbon. In effect it is the Lisbon equivalent of the blues, but with a uniquely Portuguese quality summed up in the term saudade, a word that doesn’t easily translate as it conveys a notion of yearning and nostalgia for what is lost, whether it be a place, a person or a way of life, and for what will never be attained and is particularly felt by Portuguese émigrés, who feel something more powerful than homesickness for Portugal. In fado music the singer is the conveyor of the message, both through the lyrics and more importantly through the emotion they express in their dramatic performance, often looking wistfully into the distance as Camané does or even bursting into tears mid-song as Mariza has done. The singer is accompanied by two seated musicians, one playing the viola (a six-string Spanish guitar), which acts as the rhythmic accompaniment and one playing the guitarra (Portuguese guitar), a 12-string pear-shaped guitar (based on the citra, which was introduced into Portugal in the eighteenth century, just before the birth of fado) and, with its steel strings, has a resonant melancholy tone.
The Museu do Fado (Fado Museum) is located in the Alfama district in the Edifício do Recinto da Praia, a former water pumping station.
It opened as a museum in 1998 to document the history of fado from its beginnings to the present day through photographs, posters, periodicals, paintings, music scores and lyrics, archive film, audio recordings, instruments and even a scale model of a brothel! The museum has an auditorium where a film of the leading fadistas (fado singers) talking about what fado means to them is shown and a listening room where you can listen to a variety of fado songs. If you like what you hear you can buy a CD in the gift shop!
The origins of fado (which means ‘fate’) are a little vague, but some theories say it originated from African or Brazilian dance forms, which evolved into song, while others say it came from North Africa or even from the sailors’ sea shanties. The truth is probably a mixture of all of them.
It developed in the working-class districts of Alfama and Mouraria, and was mainly performed in insalubrious brothels and bars. The songs told stories of the lives of people on the edge of society and from 1860 some of the songs took on a political theme. The most famous fado painting in the museum’s temporary exhibition, ‘O Fado’ by José Malhoa (1910, on loan from the Museu da Cidade), captures the underbelly of these districts perfectly, as it depicts a poor and dirty prostitute listening with rapture to a man playing the guitarra. In order to get authenticity Malhoa used real people as models, a petty criminal called Amâncio and a prostitute called Adelaide da Facada (named after a scar she had on her left cheek).
In contrast to the seedy setting of this painting, a model of a brothel deceptively made in the style of a doll’s house depicts a rather genteel version of this profession (these types of discrete brothels were tolerated by the Salazar regime until 1962). It was made by the fadista Alfredo Marceneiro (a former cabinet maker) and is named ‘Casa da Mariquinhas’ (‘Mariquinhas’ House’) after a song he recorded in 1961.
The first fadista to gain fame and notoriety was the gypsy singer Maria Severa (1810-36), who led a short but intense life. She was a prostitute who was famous for a love affair she had with a nobleman and who died at the very young age of 26. Not surprisingly, a film of her life was made in 1931 (based on a 1901 play by Júlio Dantes) and she lives on in the memory of female fadistas, many of whom wear a black shawl as homage to her. By the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries fado had started to become popular in mainstream society with theatres hosting fado performances and periodicals dedicated to it, and in the mid-twentieth century it became widely popular due to radio and TV broadcasts and films featuring fado. The spread of its popularity was largely due to the singer and film star Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999), nicknamed ‘The Queen of Fado’, who performed in concerts in Portugal and in many countries abroad and introduced fado to an international audience.
Despite its bohemian origins, fado had so become popular with the masses by the 1920s that the Salazar regime encouraged it, believing that fado, football and Fátima (religion) would keep the working classes quiet. Not surprisingly, from 1927 fado was regulated by the government meaning that lyrics were censored and fado was only allowed to be performed in licensed venues, which included the setting up of fado houses, which still exist today.
After the 1974 revolution fado, and Amália Rodrigues, fell out of favour in the new democracy, as they were associated with the dictatorship. Nevertheless, when Amália died in 1999 there were three days of national mourning and her body is now interred in the National Pantheon in Lisbon. Fado reinvented itself in the 1990s, with a new generation of fado singers, including Mariza, Ana Moura, Carminho, Camané and Hélder Moutinho, many of whom mix traditional fado with other genres and bring in other instruments in addition to the guitarra and viola. Mariza, possibly the most internationally famous fadista, who introduced modern fado to an international audience when she appeared at the WOMAD festival in 2002, acknowledges the influence of Amália Rodrigues and has included songs made famous by Amália on her albums, such as ‘Barco Negro’ (‘Black Boat’), which was recorded by Amália in 1955 and by Mariza on her debut album Fado em Mim in 2002. The song tells the story of a woman on a beach watching as her lover leaves on a boat. The old women on the beach are telling her that he won’t return, but she refuses to believe them. The lyrics were written by the poet David Mourão-Ferreira, who along with other renowned poets, wrote many fado lyrics in the twentieth-century:
‘São loucas! São loucas! Eu sei, meu amor,/Que nem chegaste a partir,/Pois tudo em meu redor,/Me diz qu’estás sempre comigo.’ (‘They’re crazy! They’re crazy! I know, my love,/That you haven’t really left,/For everything around me,/Tells me that you are always with me.’)
In 2011 fado got full international recognition when UNESCO named it an Intangible Cultural Heritage worth protecting, largely helped by the fadista Carlos do Carmo, who acts as an ambassador of fado.
In addition to the permanent exhibits the museum also hosts regular temporary exhibitions associated with fado and we were lucky enough to visit the museum during an exhibition of fado in art, which included the aforementioned ‘O Fado’ by José Malhoa. Other works on display included ‘O Marinheiro’ (‘The Sailor’) by Constantino Fernandes (1913, on lean from the Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea), a triptych which evokes the spirit of saudade through the depiction of a sailor preparing for a voyage, saying goodbye to his family and then, once at sea, listening wistfully to a fellow sailor playing the guitarra.
‘Família’ (‘Family’) by Arnaldo Louro de Almeida (1947) is in the censored material section of the permanent exhibition as it was seized by the PIDE (Salazar’s secret police) presumably for not showing the working class family in the positive way he would have liked (or it may have been the woman breast-feeding a baby that was so offensive).
‘Lisboeta’ (‘Lisboan’) by the surrealist Cândido da Costa Pinto (1952, on loan from the Museu da Cidade) shows Lisbon and fado as inextricably linked through the depiction of a female figure with a tragedy mask for her face and a guitarra for her body.
However, it is the portraits of the fado stars that dominate, from the intimate portraits by Júlio Pomar to the large-scale works by contemporary artist Pedro Guimarães, alongside photographs of the stars of fado, one of which includes all the classic fado musicians (with labels to identify them).
Amália Rodrigues is quoted as saying ‘O fado é um mistério. Nunca ninguém vai conseguir explicá-lo!’ (‘Fado is a mystery. No one will ever be able to explain it!’), and like anything intangible this is true up to a point, but the fado museum goes some way to demystifying it.
Museu do Fado, Largo do Chafariz de Dentro Entrance: €5 (free on Sundays and public holidays) Opening hours: 10am-6pm Tuesday to Sunday (closed 1 January, 1 May, 25 December) The museum runs courses in guitarra and viola playing and fado singing. The museum’s restaurant, A Travessa do Fado, has live fado on some evenings.
Buses: 728, 735, 759, 794; Metro: Santa Apolónia