In search of fado

Trams climbing the hill out of the Alfama into Graca, Lisbon

It has been claimed that the μgnome doesn’t know how to enjoy himself and works far too hard. While we won’t attempt to argue the latter point, the μgnome has been known to take a cultural break from time to time. This is the account of a foray into the distant homeland of European Portuguese in search of a form of song heard widely throughout the lusaphone world and called fado.

We started in Lisbon, capital of Portugal. Despite the orderly reconstruction of the Biaxa district after the disasterous earthquake of 1755, much of the surrounding city remained a warren of winding streets, stairs and alleyways.  Consequently this is not a car-friendly place. Fortunately the public transport system provides frequent relief for tired feet and connects the must-see destinations. One early discovery was street vendors offering the latest imprints of contemporary fadistas. Not having enough Portuguese to haggle over the price of CDs left us empty-handed, but that little bit more aware of names we needed to look out for. One in particular kept coming back at us; a woman with a most striking voice and a well-established repertoire called Mariza.

Hidden square (Largo) in old Lisbon

After giving a talk to a group at a local university, we went out for dinner in a well-appointed district peppered with hidden squares and fado restaurants. Our hosts based their choice on a heady combination of good food and song, and kindly provided a sotto voce commentary on the traditions of fado while performers earned their dinner. We were advised that there was an element of tourist kitsch in some of the performances, but the emotion of one singer in particular, accompanied by the 12 string Portuguese guitar, was palpable.

Our investigation took us to the Casa do Fado e da Guitarra Portuguesa across the road from the Largo do Chafariz de Dentro. This museum and exhibition centre devoted to fado is close to the Alfama district where some of the best fadistas are said to be found.

After a lengthy meander through the Casa do Fado, we continued up the winding streets where people were preparing for the Feast of St Anthony, Lisbon’s patron saint. This is a time of year when people stray from their standard diet of salt cod (bacalhau) in its almost infinite number of variations and splash out on barbecued sardines. Bunting was being installed, charcoal braziers were firing up, and strains of fado recordings seeped out of bars and restaurants. We stopped in at one for an early meal before revellers took over the place in force, and were rewarded with service by the owner and his family. His wife still sung fado from time to time, though he expressed a longing for long-gone fadistas of a past era.

The name that kept cropping up was Amalia Rodriguez, who died in 1999. Prolific in her recordings, she dominated fado in the 1960s and 1970s when Portugal made the transition from a reactionary, dwindling European colonial power to a modern democracy. Exhibits in the Casa do Fado show how a song form that could eloquently express longing for better times became a means of communicating the desire for political change. In the current era it has emerged as a mainstream entertainment with a variety of exponents, some of which lack the gravelly voiced saudade the traditionalists listen for. Those younger and lighter voices may, however, bring a thoughtful and sensitive perspective on Portuguese culture to a wider audience whose diet of mainstream Anglophone culture lacks the depths or breadth heard in fado and its lyrics. So Mariza brings a hint of African influence with her version of fado that can lead to interesting musical digressions into a much larger world. Madredeus, a Portuguese group who use elements of fado were in fact the μgnome’s first ever introduction to Portuguese language song. Their Alfama is particularly haunting.

The origins of are obscure. Some claim it grew out of experiences during the moorish invasion of the Iberian peninsula while others assert that it was borne out of the longings of Portuguese sailors far from home on voyages of discovery. It then developed during the difficult period of the Napoleonic Wars, the growing independence of Brazil and the uncertain years of the 19th century.

The sense of what has been lost can’t be grasped from the waterline of a beach on the Algarve. So we started out from the impressive St George’s Castle in old Lisbon and struck out by tram for the Monastery of St Jeronimo. The Monastery is a glimpse of the riches that this once great colonial power brought home to Lisbon, its intricate stonework and complex architecture loudly declaring the opulence of King Manuel’s monarchy. Within a stone mason’s shout is the Torré do Belem; a fortified watch tower Portuguese sailors passed on their way down the Tagus at the start of their great voyages of discovery.

Striking off inland into the Alentejo, we stopped off for a day in Michelin-listed Evora; a town with a concentrated dose of culture that hails back to Roman times. You need to work hard to avoid cultural overload in this UNESCO listed centre. The μgnome took the guide’s advice and knocked on the door of a monastic hostel that was once Vasco da Gama’s house for a look at the murals just inside the entrance. You could be forgiven for thinking one of the beasts in a frieze of fantastic animals resembles a kangaroo. Whether it was da Gama or one of his sailors is open to question, but the exotic wildlife they recorded raises questions about how far they and their explorer colleagues got. Did the Portuguese map the coast of Australia and New Zealand 250 years before Captain Cook?

What they clearly managed to do was get out and about before other European powers had established a secure border. The fortifications can be seen all over the place; evidence of turbulent times. We stayed in an inn in the walls of the fortified town of Monsaraz, ate boar and wild mushrooms with local wine while watching the lights come on in a similarly fortified Spanish village across the border.

We clambered battlements in the austere border outpost of Marvão, and explored the rather quaintly named Convent of Christ in Tomar. Quaintly named because this was the HQ of Knights of Christ; inheritors of the Knight’s Templar’s possessions in Portugal when they were disbanded by Pope Clement in 1314. Their most famous Grand Master was Henry the Navigator, who used the amassed wealth of the Order to finance his voyages of discovery. The Convent contains plenty of architectural evidence of contact with exotic and distant places, and it also contains a model of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem as a solid reminder of the battle to push the Moors out of Portugal. At one point Tomar was at the front line in this violent clash of cultures. The border pushed southwards, in a process known as the Reconquest.

Other fortifications prevent you from forgetting the momentous struggle that went on during this period, such as the castle at Obidos. This magnificent building has crenellations reminiscent of castles in Spain and other parts of the Moorish empire. But the more recent fortifications are less impressive. They were the hastily erected earthworks of the Torre Vedras Line. The occasional redoubt can still be seen, reminding us of the struggle for the Iberian Peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars. This was probably Wellington’s greatest campaign, showing his military potential and possibly overshadowing his achievement at Waterloo (a single battle, even if it was a decisive one). Taken together, these defensive fortifications are the remnants of the ebb and flow of Portugal’s fortunes, starting with the reconquest, peaking with the great age of discovery and then going into a slow decline with the Napoleonic Wars.

So if fado has its origins in this long past golden age, there is much to lament. But in the post-colonial era there is also much to celebrate. Here is the European home of a language spoken by around 120 million people worldwide. As the vernacular language used to describe the first seaborne encounters between Europeans and distant parts of the world, it is a rich source of early modern ideas. The Lusiads by Luis de Camões narrates the voyage of Vasco da Gama as if it was the Odyssey.

The μgnome wonders how Portuguese sailors coped with the exotic infections they experienced. Was it accepted with stoic fatalism, a pragmatic reality of seaborne travel in little caravels, or did they have an assortment of lotions and potions? It takes little imagination to recognise that the Moorish learning that informed their navigation methods and the inventiveness that led to improvements in shipbuilding techniques might also have led them to adopt outlandish remedies. What new learning did these explorers bring home and was it all so secret that it had to be kept under wraps like their navigation maps? How many scientific accounts were destroyed with the loss the the Portuguese national archive during the earthquake and ensuing fire of 1755?

the route taken through the Alentejo, starting in Lisbon

The μgnome has a sad longing for lost knowledge of exotic infections; that is his fado.

μgnome, 21st March.


  1. I found your blog post while searching google. Pretty surprising too, since google tends to show relatively old results but this one is very recent! Anyway, very informative, especially since this is not something many people are able to write about. Take care…

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