Portugal’s Fado Music: The Lowdown!

If you want to learn about a country’s culture and history, listen to the country’s music.

At the Museu do Fado in the Alfama neighborhood of Lisbon, Portugal, you can learn all about Fado music.

Millions of visitors in Portugal can do that by visiting the Fado Museum (Museu do Fado). It’s located at Largo do Chafariz de Dentro in Lisbon’s Alfama neighborhood. It’s open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10AM to 6pm. It’s closed Mondays.

Museum goers will have the opportunity to see exhibits explaining the history of Fado as well as biographic and artistic portraits of well-known Fado performers.

Andrena de Brito, who works in the Museum’s Education Department, invited me to participate in Visitas Cantadas (Sung Visits). It’s a free program the museum collaborates on with the Santa Maria Mayor Parish. Museum employees lead visitors through Alfama’s winding, hilly cobblestone streets. The purpose of the initiative: to teach Alfama’s history, to explain Fado music’s history and to expose visitors to small Alfama squares (Pracas) where they have the opportunity to listen to Fado musicians perform. You can hear Jaime Dias singing here accompanied by Sergio Costa on the Portuguese Guitar and Ivan Cardoso on the Fado Viola.


According to Ms. De Brito, Arabs settled in what is today called Lisbon. She says the word “Alfama” is an Arabic word meaning “good water.” She says Alfama is a largely working-class neighborhood where Fado music was born.

Fado can be traced to the early 19th century.  De Brito says in the 19th century, most people in Portugal were illiterate so they used music as a means to gossip or spread news.

Still today, there are people in Alfama whose apartments do not have running water. There is a Lavadouro Publico in the neighborhood where people without running water may wash clothes by hand.

A Lavadouro Publico where still today people without running water in the Alfama neighborhood may go to wash their clothes for free.

She says there is also a facility where people in the community may take baths.

“It was a free way for people to communicate,” Ms. De Brito said. “Fado is an oral tradition.”

She described Fado as a working-class music with origins stemming from typical Portuguese music and African cultural influences. Fado is also characterized by improvisation with instrumentalists following the mood or rhythm of the singer (“fadista”). In the music’s early years, Fado lyrics typically dealt with sad stories about sea life, lives of poor people or they were used to share political stories.Between 1926 and 1974, Fado experienced a change. Ms. De Brito says during Portugal’s dictatorship Fado singers and lyrics were controlled and Fado’s socially-conscious messages were suppressed.

Recently Fado has experienced a resurgence. The late actress and singer Amalia Rodrigues has been credited with the 20th Century revival of Fado music around the world. She started gaining popularity in the 1940s. Ms DeBrito says in the 1990s, younger people began to sing Fado. By the time of Rodrigues’s death in 1999, she had reportedly sold 30 million records.

In 2011, Fado became inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

Museum employees say they continue to work with the University of Portugal to learn more about Fado and promote it throughout the world.

If you want to learn more about the Museo do Fado, check out their website: http://www.museudofado.pt

That’s the Lowdown!

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