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Fado, Portugal’s piercing lament, is—despite up-tempo moments—perhaps the most unrelentingly and penetratingly sad of art forms. It is said to embody the melancholic Portuguese soul and to express the angst, fatalism and longing a guarded people keep discretely within.
Perhaps understanding the role fado plays in the life of the Portuguese brings us closer to understanding the allure for us of sadness. Says up-and-coming fado singer Ana Moura, when asked simply why she sings fado, “It’s cleansing. It’s redemptive.”
Born nearly 200 years ago in Lisbon’s Alfama district, fado’s history has been divided between the capital, where women prevail (the first great diva being courtesan Maria Severa, upon whose death fadistas donned the black they wear to this day), and the northern university city of Coimbra, where men hold sway in more bel canto-esque tradition. They are usually back by a small acoustic string band that includes Portuguese guitar, standard guitar and bass. Though it’s popular across Europe, the music is earning an audience here in the States in the last decade. This is due in large part to the beguiling vocals and magnetic performances of divas such as Mariza, Cristina Branco and Ana Moura.
“Everybody in Portugal has something to say about fado,” asserts aficionado Eduardo Rafael, assistant to the Consul General of Portugal in New York the music’s origins, influences and history are all subject to broad interpretation and embellishment. All agree that fado has been informed by Moorish music: its minor key signatures and modulated vocals are given as proof. Nearly all will admit African influence.
“Imagine you’re a sailor out in the middle of the Atlantic,” Rafael says. “You’ve left your family behind, you don’t know whether you’ll ever reach land or return home again. And you miss your music. You finally land on African shores and you hear the drums. Isn’t it natural that you will take some of this home with you?” Others add Sephardic Portuguese music, the nascent brilliance of Brazilian strains, even—perish the thought— of Spanish lyrics and flamenco music, all funneling into newly urbanized and refined Portuguese folkloric melodies.
Fado means “fate,” and fado is a lament of the misfortunes one’s been dealt in life, be they romantic, economic, or for values vanishing in a changing society. At the same time, much is made of a different, also defining emotion, “saudade.” Explains Rafael, “Saudade is about longing. It can be longing for what you’ve had and lost, or longing for what you know you’ll never have, or longing for something you may some day be able to have.”
Fado reigned in the early part of the last century in the fado houses of Coimbra and Lisbon and, while still in ascendance, was identified with the António de Oliveira Salazar dictatorship. In 1974, upon the overthrow of the regime, fado fell out of favor with the young and progressive. Don Cohen, who has written a book about fado (Fado Portugues: Songs From The Soul Of Portugal), says any association with fascism was due more to the unfortunate coincidence of time than ideology. Since the ’90s, fado has seen a revival, forefronted by those too young to remember the Salazar years. As Portugal becomes more European and outward looking, the young generation of fadistas has remained true to its essence while broadening the music’s repertoire and appeal.
Ana Moura is prime amongst the filhoas, or godchildren of fado. Her fado is quintessential—deeply emotional without being maudlin, it’s elegant and polished yet honest and spare. Her delivery is contemporary and nostalgic, her rapport with her audience is intimate a