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Portuguese Fado: The curious case of national melancholy


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This is a Student Travel Writer 2018 competition entry

Fado, in Portuguese literally meaning fate and destiny, is a musical genre originated in Portugal roughly in the 1820s.

It is to this day a very important element in Portuguese culture, in fact in 2011 UNESCO granted it the World Heritage status, as an urban Lisbon song symbolic of the city and the country overall.

According to the Portuguese tourism office, the Portuguese people believe “Fado is Fado, that it is ingrained in the Portuguese soul, with no distinctions to be made.”

I say it’s the curious case of a whole nation’s melancholy, because the genre is fully characterised by very mournful and nostalgic tones, tunes and lyrics. Portuguese people seem to be very deep, romantic people. Think a stool, a black long dress with a shawl, a Portuguese guitar and a heartfelt, heart-wrenching voice.

Fado is a genre that tells the stories of long lost ones, romances split by the distance of over-seas, and the draw-backs in life.

The Portuguese are so invested in this desperate feeling that they have a non-translatable word to capture this feeling: saudade, a term for longing a permanent, irreparable loss and its consequent life-long damage.

It is possible to see Fado performances by singers and small groups in several bars, restaurants and pubs throughout all of Lisbon and the rest of Portugal. Usually at dinner time, or right after dinner for drinks, it was genuinely hard for me to eat while I was so mesmerised by both their skills and their sadness! You can’t stop looking the singers in the eyes as it feels they’ve truthfully lost a loved one that same morning.

Other than being solely sung by singers with a renown repertoire, Fado can also be Fado Vadio, vagabond Fado, sung by an amateur, sometimes even the bartender or restaurant owner himself.

Whilst I listened to Lisbon Fado, the better-known style of Fado, originated amongst sailors and prostitutes, featuring some improvisation, appealing to all social classes… there’s a second and more sectorial type of Fado, the one originated in Coimbra.

The latter style originated at the University of Coimbra and is sung strictly rehearsed, by males in traditional academic clothing. Unlike Lisbon Fado, Coimbra Fado appeals to the upper social classes and touches upon topics of finding Faith in life rather than surrendering to life’s fate.


If you're looking for nice places to go listen to Fado like I did, check out the bars and restaurants O Faia, Tasca Do Chico, Senhor Vinho, Perreirinha De Alfama, Timpanas and Adegas Machado.

In order to provide no entrant with an unfair advantage, Student Travel Writer 2018 competition entries are edited for grammar only - stylistic choices and headlines are solely the work of the writer in question and not of The National Student's editorial staff. 

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