Anthropology: The History of Fado and the Heart of Portuguese Culture

Fado is the expression of melancholy, the way Portugal breaths the rhythm of emotions and music. Though the proper roots are not certain, Fado appeared somewhere during the 1800s in the restaurants and bars of  Lisbon. Probably the history of fado dates back much earlier as it was transmitted orally. Fado is accompanied by a special 12 string fado guitar.

Fado is the inevitable essence of today’s lifestyle in Lisbon, the spontaneous answer to hard moments and hopefulness. It’s the feeling of loss that symbolizes fado. The most common topics of the songs include the sea or the life of the poor.

The oldest neighborhood of Lisbon Alfama, is known as the cradle of Fado, together with Mouraria and Bairro Alto. These are the places where sailors used to gather at bars and perform fado among other bohemians. Theatre and radio have shaped the existence of fado since the beginning and nowadays, fado can be heard in some theatres. When thinking about the history of Portugal, we should discover Guimarães- the birthplace of Portugal.

History of Fado

The name itself, Fado probably comes from the Latin word fatum (meaning fate). Linking with the word fado comes to be the Scandinavian fata (to compose music) and the French fatist (which means poet).

The existence of fado pulls traces with the different stories. Some of them link it with the medieval songs of a friend or cantigas de amigo, some place it with the Morish influence and the Africans sailing at the sea.

One of the first songs of Fado was a forbidden love story between the gypsy woman Maria Severa and the noble man Count de Vimioso. The Portuguese film A Severa from 1931, as the first Portuguese all-talking sound film, describes this story. Unfortunately, the film didn’t reach the popularity of the other films of the same time.

The oldest form of fado is „fado do marinheiro“, which is broken into different styles like fado castiço, fado aristocrata, fado corrido and fado boémio.

Mouraria quarter in Lisbon- The cradle of Fado

Mouraria neighbourhood in Lisbon is known as the cradle of many fado singers, its street art speaks the story about them. Actually, it’s located just below St. Christopher’s Church. The colourful streets of Mouraria are often decorated with tiles.

Mouraria neighbourhood in Lisbon and its street art of Fado singers including Maria Severa
Mouraria neighbourhood in Lisbon and its street art of Fado singers including Maria Severa- Credit:

This Moorish quarter hosts over 50 nationalities in the streets leading to the castle. The Moors lived here from 1147. to 1497, when they were expelled from Portugal.

The Mouraria neighbourhood was the home of the famous fado singer Maria Severa. One of her faithful followers in fado music was Mariza. Her home is now a place to listen the fado music.

The types of fado

Two main styles of fado bring the two different towns out on the surface: Lisbon and Coimbra. The Lisbon style brings up the popularity gained in the late 18th century. Lisbon’s radio stations can be honoured for this tradition. Bars that gathered sailors and prostitutes were the main stage. This emotive type of fado is usually performed by female singers.

Coimbra fado was developed at the University of Coimbra. It was a tradition of male performers to do a courtship to female students of the university. Coimbra fado tends to be more cheerful, still keeping the traditional dresses during each performance.

The Coimbra city with its white, hilly houses
The Coimbra city with its white, hilly houses- Credit:

Usually it’s performed at night at the stairsteps of Santa Cruz Monastery and the Old Cathedral of Coimbra. Guitarra portuguesa and viola (a type of guitar) are the most common instruments of Coimbra fado. It pretty differs of the guitars of Lisbon.

Fado in theatres and radio

Theatre and radio brought popularity to fado, which was also particularly intertwined with the Portuguese cinema until the 1970s. One of the legendary films depicting fado was O Fado, História de uma Cantadeira from 1947, with Amália Rodrigues in the main role. O Miúdo da Bica with Fernando Farinha is another popular representative.

The poster for the film Fado, historia d'uma cantadeita with Amalia Rodrigues
The poster for the film Fado, historia d’uma cantadeita with Amalia Rodrigues- Credit:

The power of radio and television with regular fado shows scattered the music of fado to thousands of people. That’s how the golden age of fado began between 1940 and the 1960s.

The annual contest Grande Noite do Fado established its existence in 1953, serving today as an important event to promote young singers.

Nowadays, the most elegant place to listen to fado is Chiado theatre in Lisbon. It brings the best performers from Portugal accompanied by the motion pictures in the background.

The most famous fado singers

While there are numerous successful fado singers, starting from Maria Severa as the first diva of fado, I will describe in detail some of the most famous singers.

Certainly, the others shouldn’t be forgotten like Ana Moura, Carminho, Kátia Guerreiro, Dulce Pontes, Raquel Tavares. In the 1930s, fado spread towards the African continent and Brazil with the honour of Amalia Rodrigues.

Amália Rodrigues

Amália Rodrigues, with fair justice, can be considered the queen of fado. She is the most famous singer of fado who helped this music genre reach the world-known status. This child of Alfama quarter in Lisbon was even the first woman on the American television.

The portrait of Amalia Rodrigues, the queen of Fado
The portrait of Amalia Rodrigues, the queen of Fado- Credit:

Her songs were mostly interpretations of the classical poets of Portugal. Amalia became a professional singer in 1939, and after 1945, gained extreme success in Brazil. The song Coimbra or April in Portugal is her recognizable sign, which became truly popular after her performance in Paris in 1950.

The film Lovers from Lisbon (1954) crowned Amalia with even more success. She became an international star, having concerts all over the globe from the United States to Japan.

After her death in 1999, this day became the Portuguese day of grief. Her house is nowadays a museum.


Camané is the greatest male fado singer, the most known of the new generation. The doors of his success opened in 1979, after winning the ‘Grande Noite do Fado’ (Great Fado Night). Following many concert tours and fado clubs in Lisbon, Camané recorded his first album in 1995 (Uma Noite de Fados). His six albums reached the worldly audience and made millions of sales.


Mariza is the newest successful fado singer born in Portuguese Mozambique but raised in the Alfama quarter of Lisbon. From a young age, she performed in various gospel, soul and jazz musical styles.

Mariza and the profile image of her album Mund
Mariza and the profile image of her album Mundo- Credit:

Mariza started to perform fado music upon the request to a broadcast tribute dedicated to the memory of Amalia Rodriguez. That’s why she’s considered the new Amalia. In 2001, her first album was released leading to millions of copies. Her following albums were a combination of fado with sounds of jazz and flamenco.

Carlos do Carmo

Carlos do Carmo is a legendary fadista born in 1939, considered as the king of Portuguese fado music. His career started in 1969. and soon he performed in Royal Opera House in London and the Parisian Olympia. Simultaneously, he’s helping with the family fado house.

His mother Lucilia do Carmo is also was successful fado singer of the 1920s. The most famous album by Carlos is the compilation of poems about Lisbon- Um Homem na Cidade (A Man In The City). The greatest influences of Carlos were Frank Sinatra and Jaques Brel.

Alfredo Marceneiro

Alfredo Marceneiro was born in 1891 and established himself as a special fado singer though he made a career as a woodworker. Fado came into his heart and life through street festivities named cegadas. His first cegada was inspired by the poet Henrique Lageosa.

Different charity events and fado houses like „Caliça”, “Bacalhau”, “José dos Pacatos”, woved the meaning into his name. In 1940, he founded his own fado house named Solar do Marceneiro. Also popular at the theatre shows Alfredo Marceneiro never performed abroad.

Some of the fado songs he composed gained a legendary status in the world of fado and included: „Fado Laranjeira”, “Lembro-me de ti”, “Fado Bailarico”, “Fado Cabaré”.

Fado in the 20th century

At the beginning of the 20th century we note the first discographic records of fado, which evolved from expensive to affordable prices. Radio stations became quite rewarding in popularizing the fado.

Fado houses became like the hives of fado, especially in historic neighbourhoods like Bairro Alto, starting from 1930. In this way, the improvisation was lowened intertwined with original and spontaneous content.

The colourful houses of Bairro Alto and amazing views
The colourful houses of Bairro Alto and amazing views- Credit:

After the theatre and radio, film became the next medium which promoted fado faithfully. The annual contest Grande Noite do Fado was born in 1953, and became a significant motivation to young artists.

With the album Um Homem na Cidade by Carlos do Carmos, fado framed another wave of popularity. In the 1990s, new names of fado singers ornated the scene like Mísia, Cristina Branco, Camané, Raquel Tavares- to name the few. In November of 2011. fado gained the status of Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.

Fado music in Lisbon today

The Fado experience in Lisbon offers the authentic soul of the city, the inseparable part of its culture. It’s easy to find the clubs where fado is performed, there are signs at every step. Many of these elegant places differ by experiences though mostly the dinner is included. Besides the various restaurants, some places organize the free shows for young singers, like The Grupo Desportivo da Mouraria.

Places to listen Fado for free in Lisbon

Though it’s even possible to listen Fado for free in Lisbon, the most authentic experience deserves your attention and some money. Fado opens its doors even for budget travellers, as Fado gives the vibe of authentic Lisbon.

  1. Tasca do Chico

Tasca do Chico is the most popular place of fado gathering where it’s enough to order a drink or petiscos snack. The performers change every evening, so it’s always a surprise.

Tasca Do Chico, a popular fado club
Tasca Do Chico, a popular fado club- Credit:
  1. Tasca do Jaime

In the Graca neighbourhood, fado events occur every weekend in the afternoon, gathering locals and amateur singers.

  1. Solido

This popular restaurant in Bairro Alto is a family tradition where every night the free fado show starts around 8 pm.

  1. Associação do Fado Casto

This place is a vibrant fado location where the famous Pedro de Castro shows his skills. With a few pesticks, people can enjoy the free fado show.

The sensual experience of Fado

Fado enchants with the emotions it brings. It captures life as it is whether sadness or joy reveals the moment. Fado cannot be explained, it’s the melancholy that keeps the heart alive. Most often it’s the feeling of loss expressed by the Portuguese word Saudade or longing.

Fado concert accompanied by two guitars
Fado concert accompanied by two guitars- Credit:

During the 1970s, Fado experienced censorship but never disappeared. The power of fado and its emotions replaced the poor neighbourhoods with the elegant places of the intellectuals.

Fado reveals the hidden corners of the soul that Portuguese people recognized as their own. Fado is pain and love, it’s the power of feeling. The heartbreaking songs of fado were born out of improvisation in the company of guitars. Fado is a world of its own as it brings shelter to the life of the soul.

The most popular songs of Fado dedicated to Lisbon

Lisbon engraved its name into the music of fado and some of the songs that represent this city are:

„Cheira Bem Cheira a Lisboa“, Amalia Rodrigues, 1972

This picturesque song evokes all senses and fragnaces of mediterrean plants. The floral throne belongs to Lisbon as the flowers come from Lisbon.

The album cover of Amalia Rodrigues Chiera a LIsboa
The album cover of Amalia Rodrigues Chiera a LIsboa- Credit:

„Grandola, Vila Morena“, Zeca Alfonso, 1972

Zeca Alfonso established himself at the University town of Coimbra and his songs are mostly political folk songs. This song speaks about the struggle of the workers of Grandola, a town south of Lisbon.

„Desfado“, Ana Moura, 2012

Ana Moura is one of the youngest fado singers renowned as the winner of the Edison Award. This song is the reflection of the modern meaning of fado.

„Apocalipsiio“, DJ Nigga Fox, 2015

This song represents the ghetto sound of Lisbon and fusion of the Afro-Portuguese styles which are based in the former Portuguese colonies of Angola, Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe.

Conclusion- Fado as the soul of Portuguese music

Fado belongs to the heart of Portugal just like the Flamenco belongs to Spain, even more. Fado touches every core of soul- describes the love for the city, loss of the loved person, the joy of existence. Fado is more than music, it’s the way of being that flows with the Portuguese soul. It’s something that everyone can identify with, fado is strugle with the political values and with one’s own identity.

Fado shows not only sentimental but also social impact of the music in the world. The way Fado scattered around the world though it appeared only in the 19th century brings the cultural gift that only Portugal can understand. Fado is longing, the constant nostalgy hidden from the world with the desire to get back to the world.

Fado is a desire that doesn’t want to be forgotten, it’s an expression of the soul in thousand colours.

Leave a Reply