Fado: Cries Of Despair & Callings For Connection

The secrets of the timeless Portuguese folk music.

Mesa de Frades fado
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One Melody, Two Sadnesses

Mãe Preta” meaning “Black mother,” tells a story of a female Black slave. She cares for a baby of a white family while her own child is getting beaten somewhere else. The melody is simple, such that one feels like listening to a story rather than to a song. Yet, the flux of complex emotions is unmistakable: a happy couple of repetitions before a sudden dark turn, or a quiet resolution after a long wail of despair. Her love for her child is etched in every corner of the music, but love can’t withstand fate.

Fearing the power of “Mãe Preta,” the Portuguese dictatorship (1932-1974) censored it by overlaying a new set of lyrics on the original melody. This new song was called “O Barco Negro” (“The Black Boat”) and it told a story of a woman grieving over her lost husband. She reminisces about the first time they made love by the sea; incidentally, her lover was later swallowed by it and died.

Because of these two storylines laid across the same melody, this piece is described as “one melody, two sadnesses” (uma melodia, duas tristezas.) “What was being censored was empathy,” says Elaine Avila, a Canadian playwright studying Fado. So powerful was the original music that the government felt it necessary to twist its meaning, lest people would rebel against slave society.

Singing About Sadness

You can’t miss Fado on a trip to Portugal. The Portuguese folk music threads through the narrow, hilly streets of Lisbon, effortlessly tugging pedestrians into its cozy pubs and restaurants. Fado is at once light-hearted and indescribably heavy; upbeat guitar strumming as counterpoint against melancholic sung emotions.

You don’t have to be a professional singer to perform Fado. You can work in the kitchens and, during break, slip into the space between the tables to pour your heart out in a quick five-minute piece. “Soul,” in fact, is used as a defining term for a Fado song and artist. You don’t have to be a good singer to belt with full-blown, self-revealing soul, but if you can’t sing with soul, you aren’t good at Fado.

Fado, Portuguese for “fate,” is a genre of singing that has been around in Portugal since the 1820s. Curiously, the precise origin of Fado is shrouded beneath layers upon layers of myths. One common tale is that it originated from poor sailors and prostitutes — perhaps women that lost their husbands at sea and had to survive through selling their bodies. Other tales of origin include Fado rising from the Moors (Muslim community,) or the working class, African slaves in Brazil, gypsies and migrants and rural Portuguese. Funnily enough, such stories of origin all indicate one unfortunate minority demographic or another — and one permeating element across the whole of Fado music may explain why.

Saudade is a word that points to an emotion that can’t, according to the Portuguese, be translated into another language. Saudade is a uniquely Portuguese term, one that unites every Portuguese person under a national umbrella of common experience and empathy. It’s something that the Portuguese hold close to heart, an emotion they commit to feeling in Fado music as well as in all other aspects of life.

This feeling? In English, is closest to what we call nostalgia or melancholy. One key difference between saudade and nostalgia, however, is that the English conception of nostalgia is primarily a negative emotion which encompasses sadness, regret, and longing for an irrecoverable past. While there is a positive aspect to nostalgia, it is “I’m happy it happened” at best. Saudade, while a bitter emotion, is a positive acceptance of feeling nostalgic in the present: “I’m happy that I can feel sad.” Reminiscence isn’t for escaping the present, but for one to relish in sadness.

amalia rodrigues fado
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A Communal Music

Given how emotionally charged Fado is, it’s not uncommon to witness singers (fadistas) misting up in the middle of their music. But don’t mistake tears for a sign of uncontrolled emotion. In Fado, tears are a clever extra layer in the music. It is controlled and designed; a form of communicating the depth and authenticity of what’s being sung, indicating, “See, I really mean what I am singing.” While crying is a personal emotional experience, the act of letting out tears turns the music into a social experience. The audience receives the tears and feels them burning in their own eyes.

Think about how much strength it would take to cry in front of an audience. I can barely feel comfortable enough crying in front of two people I know. It’s a lot of courage, choosing to sing with such raw emotion and vulnerability. And this, perhaps, could be how Fado affects its audience so deeply. You likely do not know who’s singing, but you appreciate their strength, their willingness to be sincere, their invitation for you to be your most empathic self.

This is music where you give yourself,” fadista Cuca Roseta confides. “It’s a gift of your emotions and it’s very intimate.

The architecture of “silences” is also noteworthy in Fado. “Silence can evaluatively mark the quality of the venue,” writes Lila Ellen Gray, a researcher in ethnomusicology. A high-quality venue is where its audience knows how to be silent, to feel the music just as the fadista feels it. By keeping the silence, the audience signals that the music is being received.

On the other hand, breaking the silence is also a common behavior found in Fado. It is appropriate in certain stylistically designated spaces for the audience to cry out in encouragement or passion, for example, after a particularly impressive passage of improvisation. As such, the audience sways between silence and breaking silence in tandem with the movements of the music, as well as by reading the emotive signs on the fadista’s vocal and facial expressions.

Fado, then, isn’t merely a music in which one expresses how they’re feeling. It is a two-way street, in which emotional expression is given and received within clever musical architectures. It helps that saudade, the characteristic emotion embedded in Fado music, is so universal: longing, colorful memories, a present so gray in comparison. Loss makes us huddle together, in a way that triumph can’t. It’s in our incompleteness that we scrabble to find missing pieces in other people.

The process of coming to accept a bitter fate comes in as many different versions as there are people. Yet we’ve all felt it, intimately, in our own souls. And if we’ve felt it, we feel the music.

Lyon Nishizawa


Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

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