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by World Music Network August 06, 2012


The Music Of Portugal: Traditional Riches, Fate & Revolution

Regional Traditions

Social and economic change has removed much of the role for Portugal’s old traditional musical cultures, but there’s a surprising amount that continues in its original content and which also provides a wellspring for new Portuguese musics.


Trás-os-Montes, a mountainous region in the northeast of Portugal, still retains ways of making and hearing music which survive in few other regions of Europe. Neither the gaita-de-foles (Portuguese bagpipes) nor the unaccompanied singers use the equal-temperament scales so common within western music today. The songs, some of which are sung in the old Mirandés language (derived from Low Latin), draw on the oral ballad repertoire which was once widespread across Europe as far back as the Middle Ages. There are also links across the eastern border into some Spanish regions in the occurrence of the dança dos paulitos, a stick dance similar in style to English morris-dance, often accompanied with gaita, snare drum and bass drum.


In the southern province of Alentejo, there is a surviving tradition of polyphonic (usually male) vocal groups. These usually include the positions of a ponto, who sings the first couple of verses, an alto, a second singer who takes over the theme singing it a third above the original pitch. After a few notes, the full chorus joins in at the original pitch while the alto sings an ornamental harmony line. 

Ranchos Folclóricos

Quite a number of villages and towns have folklore ensembles known as ranchos folclóricos. These were encouraged by the dictatorship as exemplars of the happy colourful peasantry, and were therefore somewhat disapproved of by musicians who were opponents of the regime. These ensembles often include accordions, mandolins, various percussion instruments, singers and dancers.



Despite often being defined simply as ‘fate’, the term fado has a deep and complex meaning invested in it by the Portuguese. Similar in some ways to Greek rembétika, it is a song of harsh reality traditionally accompanied by classical guitar (viola) and guitarra Portuguesa.

The Rough Guide to Fado Legends
With its raw passion and elegance, fado is one of the world's great living musical traditions - its melancholic songs about lost love and tragic stories of the sea have a bewitching beauty. Fadois the lifeblood of Portugal's urban folk scene. Its melancholic songs pump thick through Lisbon's cobbled streets and steaming port-side bars, piercing the hearts of listeners with typically mournful lyrics and full-hearted vocal performances. 
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Fado Origins

There are many theories of fado’s origins, including links with Portugal’s maritime history, the the hardships of the criminal and working classes of nineteenth century Lisbon and the Moorish occupation of Portugal in the first millennium. However, many argue that fado contains influences from Portugal’s African and South American colonial empire, with traces of traditional dance music such as the fofa and lundum, and also a strong hint of Portugal’s poetic and literary legacy.

Early Fado: Maria Severa

The most popular (though somewhat mythologized) story concerning early fado concerns Maria Severa, a prostitute who had an affair with a well known count. After the affair ended, due to the disapproval of his family, it is said she began to sing the fado to express her heartache, before dying in her mid-twenties.

Fado of this sort can still be heard in certain parts of Lisbon, but the locations are increasingly hard to find. More often than not these sessions take place away from the usual tourist restaurants and tend to be in the late afternoon/early evening. They do, however, offer a great insight into the function of fado for the average Portuguese person, rather than serving as mere entertainment.

Saudade and Fadistas

There is a Portuguese word, saudade, which has no direct translation in English - the nearest description is a ‘melancholic yearning’. It is this saudadewhich lies at the heart of fado. In the more traditional fado sessions especially, a singer who does not sing with this feeling will often be brought to a halt before the end of his or her performance.

Coimbra Fado

There is another side to the fado story - the fado of Coimbra (a northern Portuguese city) which shares the origins and keeps the basic form, but is recognised by both devotees and critics alike as essentially divorced from the more raw style of Lisbon fado. It has been called a more refined strain of fado, due to its popularity among students and academics, but this empty phrase does not accurately reflect the majesty and emotional summits which a good singer can reach. Rodney Gallop, writing in 1936, succinctly defined the difference: “It is the song of those who retain and cherish their illusuions, not of those who have irretrievably lost them.”

Fado Stars

Fado is not just about star performers, but the music has produced a number of key singers, and none more so than Amália Rodrigues. Born into poverty in 1920 in the Alfama neighbourhood of Lisbon and discovered singing while selling oranges in the street, by the end of her life she had starred in numerous films, toured the world, made countless recordings and changed the way fado was performed. While her later recordings were more innovative and included orchestral accompaniment, her earlier work is intense, heartfelt, and deeply traditional.

New Song and Modern Fusions

In the second half of the twentieth century, and particularly in the years following the fall of the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974, fado combined with other influences such as folk, rock, Latin American music to form a style of ‘new song’.

José Afonso 

The giant of twentieth-century Portuguese Portuguese popular and roots music was José Afonso. During the years to and through the 1974 he was the leading figure in the reinstitution of the ballad - in the sense of a set of artistic, poetic, usually contemporary lyrics set to music. His evolving musical framework drew on regional traditional musics and fado and proved to be a much-needed rallying point for both the development of new music but also for the newly democratised state. It helped songwriters move from protesting under oppression to exploring the needs and possibilities of the new democracy.

Roots Groups 

In the 1970’s, groups began to form which devoted their attention once again to the traditional regional music, or to the construction of new musics with folk roots. This is often seen as an important aspect of self-rediscovery in the new democracy, rather than the quest for ruralism at the heart of other folk-revivals. While the ranchos folclóricos were sometimes seen as leftover from the dictatorship, these new groups were closer to the spirit of nova canção. Today’s leading traditional-roots groups include Brigada Victor Jara (one of the early post-revolution groups), Vai de Roda and Realejo. All have moved on to a more detailed exploration of sounds and the possibilities for development than that which prevailed in the first wave. Other groups and artists remain closer to the spirit of fado, such as the group Madredeus, or bring modern elements to fado, such as Mariza and Dulce Pontes.