Swooning in the Night to Fado, Portugal’s Native Sound

In our roving retirement travels around the world, we try to not only see the historical sites and taste the food, but we also try to learn about the local culture. Nothing is more quintessentially Portuguese than Fado. So naturally, we wanted to make sure we had a full Fado experience and came away with a better understanding of the Portuguese people through their music.

What is Fado?

Fado is the traditional music of Portugal. It is usually performed by one singer, accompanied by a Portuguese guitar (a 12-stringed instrument), and a Spanish guitar. Only the thumb and forefinger are used to pluck the Portuguese guitar.

Fado means fate, i.e. the songs originated as ballads to describe things related to fate. There are roughly 300 Fado melodies. The lyrics are poems sung to one of these melodies. All of the melodies we heard sounded similar. It would be difficult for a novice to distinguish the nuances between them.

Although Fado may have started in Brazil, what they sing there is not the same as what they sing in Portugal. There is also a story that Fado was borne of mournful fisherman’s wives, but that may have come later. Fado is steeped in tradition and draws passionate followers. This cannot be overstated. There seems to be a tight-knit community that attempts to define and police it, saying “this is Fado, that is not”.

Amália, the GOAT

Amália Rodrigues (1939-1999) is considered to be the greatest Fado singer of all time. Like Bob Dylan with folk music, her talent and esteem were so great that she was able to expand the Fado genre to be more than it originally was. Like Elvis, she is revered and her house has turned into a shrine, with legions of fans coming to see how she lived and pay their respects. Her house is in Lisbon, near one of the primary food markets. I could see another Amália coming along some time, someone who will further expand the style by talent and force of will.

Amália Rodrigues pictured under the neck of the Spanish guitar.

Formal, Informal and Coimbra Fado

Fado is usually sung in a small bar/restaurant called a Fado house. The music and singing are not amplified. Moreover, it is important that the singer annunciates. Since they are singing poems, it is expected they sing clearly enough for the crowd to understand the words. Such performances demand intimate venues.

Formal Fado houses, like O Faia and Adega Machado in the Barrio Alto district of Lisbon, are places where the singer sings alone, i.e. no audience participation. Such locales seem suited to the passionate, soulful ballads that are sung there. Informal Fado houses also have solo songs, but they also have songs where the crowd is encouraged to sing along. After enough wine, everyone sounds good, right?

For most of Portugal, the ballads can be happy or sad. Fado in the city of Coimbra is more specific in tone. It is dark and sad. The players dress in black and the theme is usually about mourning or loss. Tellingly, the Coimbra Fado guitar has a teardrop on top of its neck, whereas guitars from other cities have a coiled neck.

Our Tour and Guide

For our Fado tour, we walked through the Barrio Alto neighborhood of Lisbon and past the tops of two funiculars. We had good light at 8 pm, affording us a nice view of the city at dusk. Christiana, our tour guide, only gives Fado tours and arranges Fado shows for business and other groups. She seems to live and breathe Fado, in addition to singing from time to time.

Christiana sang a set during the show we saw. She was especially happy when one of the guests said one song brought her to tears. Mission accomplished. There is also a Fado Museum in Lisbon, but we didn’t get a chance to visit.

Fado Venues

Our show was at A Tasca do Chico, near Machado, where Amália would sometimes sing.

The house lights are turned off for a set and what remains is a small number of red lights around the performers, making the space more dramatic. During the show, they have to close the door to try to keep out street noise. I still heard music from the bar across the street, which was annoying. It also makes the room a bit stuffy. Frankly, it was not really Covid friendly, since the bar was packed with people singing and had poor ventilation during the show. I’m glad we’ve been vaccinated and Portugal has a high vaccination rate.

On a given night, the tiny spaces fill with guests by 8 pm, reservations are recommended unless you want to stand outside waiting for a long time. The show started at 8:30. Dinner or tapas might be served before the show, but mostly drinks are sold after the singing begins. The food and sangria were OK but not special. Most places serve a potato and collard green soup, which is a kind of Portuguese comfort food. Still, we weren’t there for the food. Happily, there was no cover charge.

The Show

The show is comprised of multiple sets. Each set is exactly 3 Fado songs and lasts about 15 minutes. There is an equally long break between each set. I’m guessing so that the guests can order drinks, stretch their legs, use the loo, stand immediately outside the entrance, and smoke, etc. Each set is one singer and different singers often perform through the evening.

Singers cue the guitar players and the crowd that a stanza is ending by singing louder. Some people (me) prefer male singers, some prefer female singers (Diana), some don’t care.

Shows go on past 1 am, with the scene getting more boisterous as the alcohol flows and the early crowd gets replaced by the usual suspects. We left after the 3rd set at about 10:30 pm. Thankfully, it was only a couple of blocks to a square where we could get a taxi for 6€ back to our apartment in Alfama.


What local music have you discovered in your travels?

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  1. I see you’re in San Sebastian now. Here’s a couple of my favorite pinxtos from there, both on the same block of the old town. My map does not have the name of the street but it is runs roughly east-west along the south side of Saint Mary’s

    First there’s Gandarias Jatexea which serves an item called “solomillo” which I think means “only me”. It is a crostini topped with a nice piece of filet mignon. Yum!
    For dessert go west and on the opposite corner there is a place that serves the most delicious bite of french toast like confection that I’ve ever had. I’m not sure of the name of the bar of the pinxtos, but the place is either Atari Gastroteka or some place adjacent. Made from locally produced bread.
    I need to take better notes next time 🙂

  2. Found a better map and the street is called “Abutzuaren 31”. And Atari is indeed the place with the excellent tiny french toast which is described as:
    FRENCH TOAST WITH VANILLA ICE CREAM……………………………………………………………..5 €
    For the other joint (Gandarias), “solomillo” is pronounced “solo meeyo”.
    Have fun!

  3. You learned a lot more about Fsdo than we did because you took that tour, something that wasn’t available when we were there. We did enjoy it though, and had a good meal of goat that night too. A woman singing, maybe not quite as authentic.

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