The Sounds of Portugal

With less than a week left in Portugal it would be remiss of me not to mention the music here. Fado is a genre of music that is synonymous with Portuguese culture. Fado to the Portuguese is like Flamenco to the Spanish, Pasta to the Italians, Baguettes to the French. Fado literally translates to mean ‘fate or destiny’. It is linked to the Portuguese word ‘saudade’ which kind of means loss, yearning or to miss something or someone, so a lot of fado sounds mournful and sad but very beautiful.

Fado is said to have originated around the 1830’s in the heart of Lisbon in the districts of Alfama and Bairro Alto. The singers or fadistas were mainly working class or sailors and were accompanied by the 12 string pear-shaped Portuguese guitar and a classical guitar. Around the 1950’s fado began incorporating the words of great Portuguese poets into the music. Amateurs, male or female, sing impromptu-style throughout fado houses and restaurants throughout the old neighbourhoods of Lisbon and it’s flourishing still today and getting more and more popular.

Some fadistas have achieved nationwide and worldwide recognition. One of the most famous fado singers was Amália Rodrigues whose career spanned over 50 years and she was known as the Rainha do Fado or ‘Queen of Fado’. Click below to see video of her singing Estranha forma de Vida (A Strange Kind of Life) from the 1960’s.

Amália Rodrigues – Estranha forma de Vida (Video)

She is probably Portugal’s most famous fado singer. She took fado to the rest of the world and by the time she died in 1999 she had received awards and honours from all over the world for her singing. Poets had started writing specifically for her to sing. She became an icon to the Portuguese people. Much of the street art around Lisbon is still devoted to her. When she died she was aged 79 and the government declared three days of national mourning. She is buried in the National Pantheon in Lisbon along side other famous Portuguese such as explorers, Vasco da Gama and Henry the Navigator.


Late last year, fado was added to the UNESCO list of the world’s intangible cultural heritage, forever recognised in international history.

The first time I heard fado was when Filipa gave me a CD by Mariza, who is a popular modern fadista today in Lisbon. This was the first song I heard and it’s one of my favourites – click on the link below if you want a more modern take on fado. The song is called Gente Da Minha Terra (‘People of My Land’) and you can feel the emotion and literally see her emotion towards the end of the song when she has to stop singing due to tears. It’s hard not to be moved by this music, even if you don’t understand Portuguese.

Mariza – Gente Da Minha Terra (live)

As I mentioned before, the 12-string pear-shaped lute or guitar (guitarra portuguesa) always accompanies the fadista with an acoustic guitar as well. Carlos Paredes is one of Portugal’s most notable Portuguese guitar players. This is a short video of him playing the Portuguese guitar, a beautiful song called Verdes Anos (Green Years).

Carlos Paredes – Verdes Anos (Video)

The music here has really grown on me, particularly as my Portuguese improves because the lyrics are so beautiful. One thing about the Portuguese is they really know how to put a sentence together and turn an ordinary statement in to something truly beautiful and poetic. They really value their poets and many of them have icon status here in Portugal. It got me thinking about my own country and our poets of old like Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson and Dorothea Mackellar. It has inspired me to re-read some of our old poets when I return home. I don’t think I’ve read an Australian poem since high school since we were made to memorise Dorothea Mackellar’s “My Country”….. I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains. I love her far horizons, I love her jewel sea, her beauty and her terror – the wide brown land for me. Shame on me!