Where did it all begin? It’s always hard to say where one genre, style, or tradition ends and another begins.
Empiricism may have no place here but, if forced to pick a single point, one would not be alone in suggesting
it all started in the early to mid 1800’s with a woman named Maria Severa. Maria Severa was a Gypsy in love
with a noble, the Count de Vimioso. Together they had an affair that was forbidden and, as with most r
elationships of its kind, hopeless.
Maria would find comfort in belting out her sorrows in the bars and clubs of Lisbon’s Barrio Alto,
while strumming along on her guitarra Portuguesa (a twelve-string, mandolin-like instrument, possibly of
Moorish origin). She started a tradition with her simple chord progressions and heartfelt cries and moans.
People began to call this music “fado.” Literally, “fado” means fate but, as with many other Portuguese words,
it implies so much more. Life, love, death, sorrow, betrayal, revenge, friendship--the very nature of life and
those things that evoke “saudade,” another word that defies direct translation.
"Saudade" implies longing, passion,
hopelessness, and futility.
Of course, not all fado is sad. There are uplifting, inspiring, and even humorous songs but you won't hear
much about them here. Most listeners would agree that fado’s soul lies in lament and tragedy. Even more would
agree that fado’s soul lies in Lisbon.
Lisbon is the birthplace of fado. It started there, in the clubs of the Barrio Alto and Alfama districts.
It was sung by the down and out, the bar crowds, the prostitutes, the smokers, the alcoholics. It was a
tradition born out of desperation and sadness.
Before long, the aristocracy adopted fado for itself, spreading it as far as the city of Coimbra.
In this university town in northern Portugal, doctors and students created a more paced and
restrained style of fado. As beautiful as it was, it fails to capture the saudade of Lisbon fado.
The Coimbra tradition also included, and still does to this day, an element of intolerance. Women are
discouraged, if not forbidden, from singing it. Ironic, considering the origin of this tradition. It
is also surprising that Portugal has never seen a rivalry between Lisbon and Coimbra a la East Coast
vs. West Coast hip-hop.
Regardless of the potential for factions, nearly all fadistas (fado musicians) can come to agreement as to
who is their queen: Amalia Rodrigues. She lived from 1920 to 1999, in which time she toured the world,
recorded an incredible volume of work, and kept the tradition of fado alive. The country of Portugal was
officially in mourning for three days after her death. Though so highly renowned, she struggled with depression
her entire life. But what would one expect from the Queen of Fado?
Despite the national acknowledgement after Amalia’s death, the Portuguese government was not always fond of fado.
Under the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, from 1928 to 1968, fado existed as a form of protest.
Fadistas would perform songs that overtly criticized the government. When the powers that be caught on to this
subversion, fadistas were required to submit their lyrics to censors for approval. The subversion continued,
however, and fadistas began writing two sets of lyrics for every song. One set was delivered to the censors
and the other was saved for performing in the presence of friendly and interested audiences.
So, where does it all begin? The tradition of fado continues with artists such as Mariza, Madredeus, and Cristina Branco,
either through overt reference or stylistic infusion. The need for open protest still exists. The desire of regimes
to hide dissent is ever-present. Maybe a better question is, "Where will it all end?"
--Chris DaRosa (Judith and Holofernes)