Portuguese Fado: The Music of Lisbon

Portuguese fado is especially popular in Lisbon, pictured here.
Fado is especially popular in Lisbon, pictured here. Photo credit: Emma Scornavacchi/Let’s Go!

As emotional as it is beautiful, fado music strummed its way onto the scene in the 1800s and has since then solidified its status as the music of Lisbon. Portuguese fado is characterized by slow, emotional, melancholy lyrics often sung by a revered singer and accompanied by typical Portuguese string instruments. In traditional fado houses where guests can listen to multiple fado performers in between courses, Portuguese locals will not hold back in shushing you as the performance begins.  There is inherent respect in this tradition, and that quiet, respectful observation is expected of locals and tourists alike.

The Origins of Fado Music

Portuguese fado: A street teeming with people in Lisbon.
A street teeming with people in Lisbon. Photo credit: Emma Scornavacchi/Let’s Go!

A feeling often associated with fado music is the feeling of saudade, which has no direct translation in English, but is nonetheless felt in every language—the permanency of longing and loss. As many things are in Lisbon, fado music is tied to the sea and the lyrics describing saudade also in many cases describe lost sailors or the sea as an emotional connection.

The reigning Queen of Fado, Amália Rodrigues, lived from 1920-1999, but locals will tell you there will never be another one. Beautiful, talented, and popular everywhere she went, Amália, as she was known popularly, brought fado music to the global stage. To this day, she is the best-selling Portuguese artist of all time and contemporary artists and fans continue to idolize and channel her famous spirit.

The sun sets over the city.
The sun sets over Lisbon, likely as Portuguese fado is played somewhere in the city. Photo credit: Emma Scornavacchi/Let’s Go!

The thing about Portugeuse fado is that the music doesn’t discriminate. In Lisbon, the same song is sung at the National Theater on an opera night as is piped through the streets in Alfama while families grill bacalhau on a summer night. The oldest of Lisbon’s elites will speak wistfully of Amália fame just as the young kids in the market will begin to understand the pull of her music. Fado translated means “destiny” or “fate,” and it truly is Lisbon’s fate to be intrinsically tied up in the emotions and traditions of this musical genre.

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Written by Emma Scornavacchi, a Let’s Go researcher-writer

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