Fado is no fad. The haunting musical style has permeated the streets and clubs of Lisbon for centuries. ELISE RANA reports.

Alone in the crimson spotlight, black shawl draped around her shoulders, she lifts her head and begins to sing. In the darkness around me, diners and drinkers in the Clube de Fado are hushed as her voice fills the vaulted stone room with beautiful lament. The songs are of love, loss and longing – but you don’t need to understand the lyrics to feel the emotion. By the time the lights go up for a bar break until the next performance, I feel like I’m the one with the broken heart. Fado is powerful stuff – and for a traveller to Lisbon, it’s also pretty inescapable.

The Alfama district is one of the oldest and most atmospheric parts of the city. Sun filters through the laundry strung like bunting between the wrought iron balconies, glints on the dusty blue and white azulejo tiles, and warms the bellies of cats snoozing between the geraniums in the window-boxes. Clube de Fado is one of a number of venues clustered at the bottom of these steep, narrow streets, keeping alive the music that for centuries has defined the character of the city.

When the Portuguese explorers of the 16th century returned from conquering the new world, it’s believed that the sailors’ melancholy shanties of homesickness grew into a folk music of lost love and saudade (the nostalgic yearning for something unreachable). Its influences are many – the plaintive, spiralling vocals from North Africa, the sensuous rhythms from Brazil, the simplicity from the troubadours of Provence – some simply call it the Portuguese blues. The fatalistic themes that run through fado are what makes it Portuguese – its very name comes from fatum, the Latin for fate.

Such flagrant miserablism isn’t for everyone. But if you’ve ever owned a Smiths album or worn a bit too much black as a teenager, chances are you’ll ‘get it’: it’s the tinge of sadness that makes it beautiful. Fado may have chronicled the woes of the poor, but it also seduced the rich – to the point that a word was invented, marialvismo, for the upper classes’ love of slumming it in the fado houses. A common sight on fado house walls is a painting of famed marialva the 18th century Count of Vimioso, with his lover Maria Severa Onofriana, a legendary fadista in whose memory female fado singers to this day wear a black shawl to perform.

Unsurprisingly, the Portuguese people’s love of fado has been co-opted by opportunistic politicians – the authoritarian Salazar regime considered it a part of national identity and, following the 1974 revolution, this association brought about a backlash against fado. A new generation of musicians are reclaiming this distinctive music for themselves, however, reaching a wider audience and re-establishing it as part of Lisbon’s identity as its star as a city break destination continues to rise.

Inevitably, there’s a touristy feel to most of the fado experiences to be had in Lisbon when you’re, well, a tourist. Fado clubs (Casas de Fado or Adegas Tipicas) are mostly concentrated in Alfama and Bairro Alto, and most have a cover charge or minimum consumption – but you often get a mini-museum for the money. The walls of the Clube de Fado are lined with photographs of established and upcoming singers and musicians. Many are of Amália Rodrigues, famed fado diva and superstar whose death in 1999 prompted election campaigning to be suspended for three days of national mourning. When Lisbon’s grandest theatre, the São Luiz, was reopened in 2002 it was with a musical about her life that went on to break box office records.

Anecdotes like this prove that while musical fashions may come and go, fado is too integral to this country for it ever to truly fall out of favour. As the lights go down and another hush falls over a rapt audience, this is clearly not a bad thing at all. The city’s song may be a sad one, but sometimes they’re the best kind.


Hear Fado:

Adega Machado
Rua do Norte 91, Bairro Alto

Arcadas do Faia
Rua da Barroca 54-56, Bairro Alto

Cafe Luso
Travessa da Queimada 10, Bairro Alto

In Alfama
Parreirinha de Alfama
Beco do Espirito Santo, Alfama

Clube de Fado
Rua São da Praça 92-94, Alfama

Learn the history:

Casa do Fado e Guitarra Portuguesa
Edificio do Recinto da Praia, Largo do Chafariz do Dentro 1, Alfama
A newish museum housed in a former warehouse, chronicling the story of fado and selling a selection of recordings.

Pay homage

Amália Rodrigues Casa-Museu
Rua de São Bento 193
The townhouse in which Amália lived until her death at the age of 79 now houses a charitable foundation and museum dedicated to her life and work. Multilingual tours are available.

Cemitério dos Prazeres
Prada dos Prazeres, Campo de Ourique
Turn left at the main gates and look for the candles, messages, photographs, statues and flowers that adorn Amália’s grave, now something of a shrine for her devotees.