Listening to Fado, the Soul of Lisbon, Portugal

For a second there, I thought he had a crush on me. Then I realized that his entranced gaze was not for me—it was for his guitar and the music he was playing.

I was in a fado club deep in the heart of Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood. When I was first seated at the small table flanked by two empty chairs, I thought I’d gotten my reservation wrong. Was I only going to get a high-priced dinner? I sat resigned during the first course…a mood that changed to jubilation when the fado musicians walked in, straight to those empty chairs beside me.

I had the best seat in the house—just a foot or so from the strumming fingers of the man on the Portuguese guitar.

Fado is a quintessential symbol of Portugal, and especially of Lisbon. The distinctive, often-mournful tones of this haunting music have brought it fans world-wide—in 2011 UNESCO even inscribed fado on its list of “intangible cultural heritage” treasures of humanity.

Fado today comes in two styles: the Coimbra style, based in the Portuguese university city of Coimbra, and the more popular Lisbon style. In both styles of fado there are three performers: a singer and two guitarists, one on a Spanish guitar (the guitar most people know) and one on the rounded Portuguese guitar, which looks similar to a mandolin or a lute. In my book, no visit to either Coimbra or Lisbon would be complete without hearing a fado performance.

Many fado songs are sad and can bring tears to your eyes as you listen to them. But even cheerful fado has a mournful undercurrent. In part that’s because fado is in a minor key, like Middle Eastern music and Spanish flamenco. If you’re familiar with these you’ll hear the similarities.

But you don’t need to know fado’s origins to enjoy it. This music speaks to the heart.

There are many places to hear fado all over the Lisbon area. I went to the Clube do Fado, which is recommended by many as a good place to start. It’s a dinner-and-fado place, with traditional Portuguese cooking, but there is no set dinner price beyond the €12.50 (about $16.75) fee for appetizers and fado performance; for instance, the two women across the room from me ordered just soup—and a bottle of good Portuguese wine. The fado trio performed after each course, with a different singer each time. Over the course of the evening I heard four singers, three women and one man, and all were very different.

 

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