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Fado: a Genre of Traditional Portuguese Music

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In this paper, I will be exploring the topic of Portuguese Fado music. I will outline the historical background, culture and traditions, and social contexts while examining the different styles of fado, where they originate and how they are perceived in the modern day. Finally, I will analyze “Uma Casa Portuguesa” a traditional fado song performed by Amália Rodrigues, while examining the musical parameters of this piece.

History and Culture

The Portuguese claim the genre of fado as the most popular type of music known to their culture (Gallop 1933, 201). This genre of music incoproates the history of their country and capital city, Lisbon (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online). Fado came to life in the late 19th century, originating in the less fortunate neighborhoods of Lisbon (Castelo-Branco 1999, 310). There are many descriptions of how fado was born, though the most popular belief states that sailors were the ones who brought fado to surface, singing these songs of saudade to never forget their experience at sea (Gallop 1933, 203). This genre is also largely linked to prostitution, marginalized individuals and environments, and, the alternative life of Lisbon’s historical communities (Castelo-Branco 1999, 310). Fado uses Portugal’s maritime culture of saudade, the notion of yearning and nostalgia from a nonexistent state amongst those at sea, or an absent loved-one, delivering the creativeness for fado’s illustration (Holton 2002, 113).

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This musical genre is categorized into two distinctive traditions, Lisbon fado, and Cancao de Coimbra (Coimbra song), which is fado that flourishes in Coimbra (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online). Coimbra’s genre of fado is understood to be a tradition from the educational life of the primitive university of Coimbra (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online). This type of fado is expressed through the realities of daily life and romantic longings (Gallop 1933, 210). According to Castelo-Branco (Grove Music Online), the fado of Lisbon is Portugal’s most popular tradition and the one that will be discussed through this paper. It is understood that the popular music and dances used in Lisbon during the early 19th century compiled together to result in this Portuguese traditional genre of fado (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online). Lisbon’s fado is often heard in restaurants, large concerts, taverns, and neighborhood gatherings, as well as other Portuguese cities, in the countryside and in many tourist settings across the country (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online).

The growth of this genre is split into many phases, the most notorious known to be proposed by Pinto de Carvalho in 1903, where he used two stages to define the development of fado (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online). The first one being recognized as a ‘popular and spontaneous’ one from 1830-60s, illustrated through fado’s association with marginalized communities and prostitution taking place in Lisbon. The second one being, ‘aristocratic and literary’ from 1868 to 1890s, understood by the social rises of fado to the middle-class population of Lisbon (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online). Only during this second phase of fado, did it become recognized as a musical genre (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online). Later, two more phases surfaced, one illustrated through the social environments, construction, and broadcast of this music, and the other recognized through the professionalization of the genre. During this last phase of professionalization, many artists became established in this new fado considered estado novo, a new state of music1 (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online). Throughout these phases, many fado artists surfaced and became famous for their ability to popularize this Portuguese traditional genre. Amália Rodrigues, being one of the most prominent figures who popularized fado in Lisbon, even bringing this genre outside of Portugal (Castelo-Branco 1999, 312). As Portugal modernizes and evolves, fado remains significant to its culture and is able to thrive through evolution (Castelo-Branco 1999, 311).

Social Construction and Context

The genre of fado has remained part of Portugal’s culture and society for many years, through the different phases it has encountered and through the different functions it has served, the saudade of the genre remains (Castelo-Branco 1999, 311-312 ). At times, fado was seen to fade in activity, though as new artists appeared and generations evolved the popularity of the music grew, as the genre remained distinctive in its features (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online). This music is typically heard and seen during live performances, through the radio, media, or TV (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online).

Generally, fado shows include one vocalist, either a woman or a man that is known as a fadista or artista, and is the focus of the performance, with accompanying musicians and an audience in an open space, using verbal and nonverbal expressions (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online). The repertoire is divided into two categories, fado castiço which is authentic and fado canção which is considered song-fado (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online). The performers use stories to express emotions through their lyrics, melodies, expressions, instrumental dialogue, and vocal tone while singing their songs (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online). The type of performance is determined through the social context and setting, the occasion, the audience and the performer (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online). Performances generally take place in a social context, within communities, for celebrations associated with the church, like festas, feasts and Catholic holidays (Brucher, Grove Music Online).


The instruments that are part of this traditional fado genre consist of a guitarra, and a cavaquinho (Brucher, Grove Music Online). Occasionally a second guitarra or viola baixo are added (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online). The guitarra, being the main instrument frequently used in fado, is a name that represents an instrument with a round soundboard and six double strings (Gallop 1933, 199-200). The guitarra was used as a replacement from a regular five string guitar that initially was the focal instrument of fado. With the guitarra taking its place, it became Portugal’s traditional instrument, popular in the middle-class of Lisbon and accompanying fado even in current time (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online).

Analysis of the Musical Characteristics of Fado

The general musical characteristics of this genre meet criteria of musical and poetic structures that are represented into the two repertoires spoken of previously (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online). Fado focuses on the vocalist with the instrumentals backing up their tone and rhythm (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online). More specifically, Fado castiço, which is known to be traditional or classical fado is the oldest repertory known to this musical genre, usually played in rotating verse-chorus structures (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online). In the development of this phase of fado composed in the 1960s, the features of the genre consisted of cultural poetry and complex harmonies that made this phase unique from the others (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online). Even though fado consists of many different phases, they all tend to follow a set rhythmic and harmonic structure (I-V) and fixed instrumental patterns of a melodic theme that is continually repeated, with small occasional variations (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online). With these patterns in mind, it is understood that the melody is either composed or improvised. The most common meter seen in fado songs is a regular 4/4 (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online).

Fado corrido is usually performed in a major key, with a faster tempo and related patterns, whereas fado menor is played in the minor, performed at a slower tempo (Castelo-Branco, Grove Music Online). The vocalist uses a tone that is similar to that of a jazz singer, where the rhythm is free with a suspension of recurrent beats giving the songs a tone (Gallop 1933, 200). It is understood that the majority of authentic fado is sung in minor, giving the genre a characteristic of heavy emotions and sadness (Gallop 1933, 200). The vocalists control their voice to construct dramatic pulls that illuminate the emotions of fado (Holton 2002, 114-115).

Analyzing the Musical Parameters of “Uma Casa Portuguesa”

The central figure of fado music, Amália Rodrigues is very well known in the Portuguese community and all over the world for her unique yet traditional production of fado. The piece to be examined, “Uma Casa Portuguesa”, was released in 1956, consisting of her vocals and a guitarra.

“Uma Casa Portuguesa” runs at 2 minutes and 53 seconds long with a consistent pattern noted in the instrumentation and vocals of the piece, and a fast yet constant tempo of 134 beats per minute. The form of this song is best described as verse-chorus, with two distinct verses and the chorus repeated twice. There are distinctive melodies perceived, in the form of ABABA//CC then back to ABAB. The C is noticed in the middle of the chorus where the song begins to slow down, to then pick back up to A at the end of the chorus and repeat this pattern. The melody in this style of music has a wave-like contour, where the notes do not range largely, though the artist does incorporate high notes, displaying her vocal range. The vocalist carries her notes out at the end of each section, which tends to slow down during the chorus and pick back up right before the beginning of a new verse. Generally, the ornamentation of Amália’s voice displays vibratos causing this fluctuation from high to low, though glissandos are also heard at the end of phrases where she slides into notes.

The voices heard in this piece are a female voice and the guittarra, the guitarra is first heard in the introduction of the song, presenting the melody of the piece while leading the vocalist into the song. This establishes the texture of this song as homophony, the vocalist is accompanied by about 2 guitarras, playing simultaneously. This musical piece is metered, it is a divisive meter being easy to divide into equal parts, in the duple meter of 4/4, expected with the typical musical characteristics of fado. The meter is steady throughout with a recurring pattern, the guitarra emphasizing the meter. At the end of each C form, there is a free rhythmic section before the ending of the chorus, this is where Amália leads without any instrumental assistance and the tonality turns from major to minor very quickly. The guitarra then follows her vocals back into the recurring ABAB pattern, returning back into more of a major tone. There are parts in the song where the dynamics of the vocals are louder than other times, though for the most part, they remain true to type. The various timbres heard in this piece consist of the vocalists, and the guitarra’s. The vocals heard are resonant, clear and crispy. You can also hear the vocalist using her chest voice to make a heavier sound in some parts of the song. The instrumental timbres heard are the richness and brightness of the guitarras, both timbres complementing each other.

The lyrics of this song, similar to many traditional fado pieces, consists of that emotional mellow-dramatic tone that describes a type of saudade. Amália word paints with her vocal tone, where she emphasizes certain lyrics to bring out greater emotions. The lyrics are expressing the Portuguese lifestyle, and how the home is always ready to welcome someone in1. These lyrics describe that no matter what an individual’s situation may be, poverty or riches, a Portuguese home will always welcome you in with open arms, wine, and food, waiting on the table1.

Overall, “Uma Casa Portuguesa” meets the general characteristics of the notorious Fado castiço. The piece uses a vocalist and the traditional guitarra, is noted to be in a regular 4/4 meter. The melody of the song is consistent and repeated throughout the piece, as expected in this genre, while Amália is able to control her vocal range to express the emotions of the lyrics in her tone.


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