Fado is currently a world wide known symbol of Portugal, being represented for many years in foreign countries by Amália Rodrigues, and more recently by Dulce Pontes, Mariza and Katia Guerreiro, among others. Throughout the world, to the name of Portugal, there were two things immediately referred: the Fado and soccer. Although taking many forms, as it is sung differently in Porto, Coimbra and Lisbon, the Fado is, by self-earned right, the very expression of the Portuguese soul.
Portugal, since the moment of its birth, emerged in a crossroad of cultures. This makes difficult to point out a precise origin of Fado, but all scholars agree that its origins go back many centuries, maybe even to times before the existence of Portugal as an independent country.
The most commonly accepted explanation, at least when speaking about Lisbon Fado, is that it came from the songs of the Moors, which kept living near Lisbon even after the Christian take-over. The sadness and melancholy of those songs, that are so common in Fado, are a good base to explain the rhythms of Fado.
However, there are those who say that the Fado came to Portugal, once more through Lisbon, under the form of Lundum, the music of the Brazilian slaves. By this explanation, it should have arrived to Portugal with the sailors returning from their long trips, approximately in the year of 1822. Only after a while, Lundum started modifying until it became the Fado. Supporting this belief is the fact that the first musics of the kind were related not only to the sea but also with the lands far beyond them, where the slaves lived. One can look as an example to one of Amália's song, called "The Black Boat", which talks precisely of a senzala (place where the slaves were kept).
Another possibility puts the birth of Fado back to the middle ages, to the time of the minstrels and the jesters. Already in that time one could find the characteristics that even today it conserves. For example, "cantigas de amigo" (friend songs), that were love songs for a woman, have great similarities with diverse subjects of the Fado of Lisbon. The love songs, that were sung by a man to a woman, seem to find kinship in the Fado of Coimbra, where the students intone their songs beneath the window of the loved one (serenades). We still have, in the same time, satire songs, or of disdain that are still today frequent themes for Fado, in social and political critics.
Anyway, Fado seems to have first appeared in Lisbon and Porto, being later taken to Coimbra with the University students (since Coimbra was, during many years, the University city by excellence), and having there acquired different characteristics.
In Lisbon and Porto we can find the sung Fado (Fado Cantado) in the oldest parts of the city, in the taverns or Fado houses. They are small, old, with cold walls, decorated with the symbols of this form of song in these two cities: the black shawl and the portuguese guitar.
The man that sings Fado usually does it in a black suite. He sings his love affairs, his city, the miseries of life, criticizes society and the politicians. He often talks about the bullfighting’s, the horses, the old days and the people already dead, and talks, almost every time, of "saudade" (longing). But where did the word Fado came from? It came from the Latin fatum, which means fate, the inexorable destiny that nothing can change. That is why Fado is usually so melancholic, so sad: as it sings that part of destiny that was opposite to the wishes of its owner. The woman sings always in black, with a mournful voice, and usually with a shawl on her shoulders. She sings the love and death: the death from the loss of love, the love lost to death...
This way of singing shows, in a certain way, the spirit of the Portuguese people: the believe in destiny as something that overwhelms them and to which they can't escape, the domination of the soul and heart over reason, that leads to acts of passion and despair, and reveal such a black and beautiful sorrow.
What about in Coimbra? In Coimbra we find the same sad style, but with different motivations. As it was already said, the ex-libris of Coimbra are its students. Little by little, young people that arrived from Lisbon and Porto took their guitars and the new playing style was appreciated by the students. What could be better to impress their loved one than singing their anguish for not having them, putting in their hands a heart full of sorrows that only they could relieve? What better music could explain the dissatisfaction of leaving behind the best years of the youth, the student bohemian life than Fado? And so, it became the official music for the goodbye songs of each year, and for the students.
In Portugal traditionally students wear a black suite and heavy cape, and this is how Fado is sung in Coimbra. It seems a little gloomy, a black multitude hearing a serenade of Coimbra's Fado, but in truth it's very beautiful. In the silence of the night - because then serenades are always at night - the guitars and voices echoes, in a moan that extends through the multitude of black capes, or that deviates through the corners of the narrow streets and penetrates in the centennial rocks.
Despite Fado being a symbol of the Portuguese nationality, it is not, by all means, the national song. From region to region, Portugal possesses several rich and typical folklores of each geography, which has nothing to do with Fado. Perhaps we can, if you like, say that it is the form of folklore of Lisbon, Porto and Coimbra.
Adapted from: "Fado: the people's soul", by César Silva, Fernando Jorge, Paulo Reis, Sandra Franco and Vítor Carvalho