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Lisbon Fado Music, a Guide and History

Fado is the haunting music that wafts out from the small bars of the Bairro Alto and Alfama districts of Lisbon. Fado comprises of a mournful sounding solo singer accompanied by a classical Portuguese guitar. The word Fado translated into English means fate, but the powerful music style is better described as nostalgia and longing. No visit to Lisbon is complete without experience this traditional and emotional style of music.

Fado street art in Lisbon

Fado street art in Lisbon

Origins of Fado Music in Lisbon

The mournful tunes originate from the sorrow felt, due to the separation of dangerous sea voyages around the globe. Fado has its historical roots within the district of Alfama, and this historically hard and deprived district was where the families of sailors lived. The best Fado restaurants and venues are still located within this district, and for real enthusiasts, there is the Fado Museum.

Portuguese guitar Fado Singer

The traditional Portuguese guitar and black clothes of a Fado Singer

It is very difficult to define a year when Fado became its own distinct style of music and transcended from the songs and tunes which filled the small late sailor bars of Alfama, but it is widely agreed that the first true Fado was heard in Lisbon post-1840. This early style of Fado was sung by solo male singer which probably originated from the sailors of the ships which passed through the busy ports of Lisbon.

Later the lead singer altered to a solo female and the class of the audience increased from the lowly sailors and dock works to the expanding working class of 19th century Lisbon. The lyrics to the Fado songs typically concern the struggles of the sea or the difficult life that the poor experience. The true definition of Fado is based upon the musical structure and not the content of the lyrics but the content rarely strays from the traditional feeling of saudade.

Performances of Fado in Lisbon

There are numerous venues and settings at which Fado can be heard at. The two common settings are during an evening meal or at an internment concert hall. The latter tend to be the less expensive, with tickets starting at €17 for a 50 minutes performance, tickets can be purchased here.

Differences in Fado between Lisbon and Coimbra

There are two district branches of Fado which evolved; one based within Lisbon the other in the university town of Coimbra. Though they are the same music styles the roots and sound is very different. Coimbra Fado is sung by a male singer and was traditional sung by male students to woo the women of Coimbra; it is more up tempo and cheery. Lisbon Fado is sung by a female and reflects the pain and sorrow of a wife whose husband is possibly lost at sea. Lisbon's Fado is emotional, mournful and powerful.

Alfama lisbon

The pretty Alfama district of Lisbon

Maria Severa, the Greatest Fado Singer

Female Fado singers traditionally wear a black shawl across the shoulders; this is a mark of respect to the greatest Fado singer Maria Severa. Maria Severa worked as a prostitute in the deprived area of Alfama, but she was described as tall, gracious with the voice of an angel. Her voice would captivate audiences of rowdy sailors while she sung Fado based upon the hardships she had faced. Maria Severa sweet voice was short lived, as she died just 26 from tuberculosis in 1846. For tourists interested in discovering more about Fado in Lisbon there is the Museum of Fado in Alfama and the Teatro da Trindade in Bairro Alto, which has good daily shows of live Fado.

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