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Fado Route

Visit typical fado neighbourhoods and discover unforgettable places.

Attempting to explain fado is pointless. Those who have tried, have tangled themselves up in contradictory references and dates and lost the trail completely. Some say its origins lie in the songs of the Moors, the people who founded the Mouraria quarter in Lisbon after the Christian reconquest. Others believe that it replaced the medieval chanson de geste, while others speculate whether it evolved out of modinha, a popular form of song in the 18th and 19th centuries and the result of a fusion with Angolan lundu.

But does its origin really matter? Why, if its mystique is so appealing? Listen to it, and preferably in its local habitat, the streets of Lisbon’s traditional quarters, and lose yourself in the improvised guitar playing. That’s how you find it.

The word "fado" comes from the Latin for fate. Having something as serious and sobering as fate at its root has marked its character. That is why strong emotions, love and heartbreak, betrayal, jealousy, revenge and tragedy are such frequent themes in its lyrics. But despite what people may say, fado is not always melancholic. Frequently brazen and bohemian, no other music so perfectly depicts the qualities of the people who inspired it: the varinas (fishwives), the sailors, the bohemians, the young girls – all the hubbub of Lisbon, in other words.

The only thing known for sure about the origins of fado is that it emerged in the heart of this city, the product of a cultural melting pot where the Moors mixed with seafarers. And this thus gave rise to the enamoured hold the ancient quarters and their Moorish-style alleyways running down to the riverside continue to have over it.

Though traditionally the music of the people, Lisbon’s fado has also seduced the bohemian aristocracy. Its history includes the myth of the amorous involvement of an aristocrat, the Count of Vimioso, with Maria Severa Onofriana (1820-1846), a prostitute hailed for her talents as a singer. The legend is the source of many fado songs and it has even been the inspiration behind a novel.

The oldest form of fado is "fado do marinheiro", or "mariner’s fado", which formed the basis of all the others. From it, this form of music branched off into various styles, some of which are fado castiço, fado aristocrata, fado corrido and fado boémio.

Until the habit of listening to fado in specific establishments became the norm, it was sung when and wherever its amateur singers took the urge. Only from the 1930s onwards did the casas de fado, or fado houses, rise up in force, above all in Bairro Alto. With this development, some of its improvisation was lost, but not enough to see the tasquinhas, where spontaneous performances take place inspired by the mood of the moment, vanish for good.

The first records produced in Portugal date from the dawn of the 20th century, but the local market at the time was still in its early stages while international listeners were completely unaware of Lisbon’s strange and hypnotic music.

Fado’s golden age began in the 1940s. From that point until the 1960s the number of talented performers multiplied and acknowledged stars, such as Amália, appeared who finally carried fado to every corner of the world and established its place in the pantheons of world music.

More recently, a new generation of fado singers, or fadistas, and instrumentalists have introduced new sounds, creating a fusion that has given it surprising facets without changing its character. In November 2011, fado was added to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage by Unesco. And, of course, the history of fado doesn’t end here...