The word fado derives from the Latinfatum ("fate"), the inexorable destiny that nothing can change. Fado is only one of the many forms of Portuguese folk and popular music, but it is certainly the genre most commonly associated with Portugal. Performed mostly in the port cities of Lisbon and Porto and in the ancient university city of Coimbra, fado has been called the deepest expression of the Portuguese soul. It was popularized throughout the world by the late Amália Rodrigues in the latter half of the 20th century, and in recent years has seen a renaissance with popular singers, such as Dulce Ponce and many younger artists.
All fado is dominated by the sentiment known as saudade. While there is no precise English definition for this word, it may be translated roughly as "yearning" and has its emotional parallel in the Spanish duende. It essentially describes the soul of the music and is the measure of understanding that passes between performer and audience. As with flamenco, the audience is crucial to a live performance of fado and a positive, often rowdy, response at the end of a song is a measure of the fadista's (m. fadisto) success in expressing saudade.
Like Spanish flamenco and Greek rebetiko,fado is the result of cultural symbiosis. Portugal has, since ancient times, been a cultural crossroads. Invaded and settled by Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Vandals, and Moors, it later became home to immigrants from its former colonies in Africa and South America. While it is difficult to be precise about the origins of fado, the melancholic nature of the genre is reminiscent of Moorish and Sephardic song. Arabs and Jews were expelled by decree at various junctures from the 15th to 17th centuries, yet maintained a presence in the vicinity of Lisbon as Moriscos (Christian converts) who gradually became assimilated.
There is little doubt, however, that the greatest influence in the formative years of fado was from Africans and people of mixed race who settled in the Alfama district of Lisbon, particularly after Brazil's independence in 1822. Lisbon's position on the Atlantic Coast of the Iberian Peninsula had long established it as a link between the cultures of the Mediterranean and those of Africa and the Americas. These new immigrants from Portugal's former colonies brought with them both their painful remembrance of slavery, and their dances, notably the fofa and lundum. This latter dance was an erotic, often lewd, song and dance exchange for couples, and was very popular in the bars and cafes of the Alfama district, a neighborhood that to this day is famous for its fado bars.
Two other influences were important in the creation of fado: the modhina and the quatrain (rhyming couplets). The latter is found in rural communities throughout Portugal in the celebration of local festivals, the telling of children's stories, and the passing on of folk wisdom. The modhina is a ballad tradition in which songs of undying love are sung, usually by men. This tradition is particularly linked to the fado of Coimbra.
The two symbols most commonly associated with fado are the black shawl worn by women as they sing their songs of suffering, yearning, and despair; and the guittara or Portuguese guitar, a variant of the cittern that was introduced in the 18th century through the English community in Porto, and was originally known as the "English guitar." The black shawl worn by female fadistas had its origin with Maria Severa, a singer identified with the early years of fado (1830s). Born and raised in the Alfama district, Maria and her mother ran a small tavern where she sang draped dramatically in a black shawl. It was here in 1836 that the Count of Vimioso heard her sing, which led to a tempestuous love affair that scandalized Lisbon society and led to the popularization of fado through the printing of sheet music.
While the fado of Lisbon and Porto is dominated by female singers, the fado of Coimbra tends to be sung mostly by men and often includes a chorus and more guitar accompanists than the conventional Portuguese guitar, Spanish guitar, and bass guitar preferred in Lisbon. The fado of Coimbra originated among students from Lisbon and Porto who brought their guitars to this old university town and, draped in black capes (the uniform of the university), serenaded their loved ones. It was in Coimbra that fado became the music associated with parting—when students left the university or at the end of a semester when they returned home.
Today's fado is often infused with contemporary Brazilian rhythms and elements drawn from jazz, rock, and popular music. While the basic accompanying instruments are still the guitar and Portuguese guitar, one now often finds other string instruments (such as the cello), and even wind instruments (like the clarinet) or keyboards (such as the piano or accordion).
—Robert H. Browning