Portugal's doleful fado seeks place on UN heritage list

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When night falls, the doleful sounds of "fado" echo across Lisbon's oldest quarter where this folk music was born nearly two centuries ago and lives on - even thrives - as a symbol of Portugal.

The songs that inhabit Alfama, with its steep roads, tiny passageways, narrow staircases and high windows strung with laundry, grew into a cherished national heritage that Portugal now wants honoured with UN recognition.

Lisbon has applied to the UN cultural organisation, UNESCO, to have fado included on its world list of "intangible heritage" - cultural and traditional arts and practices.

The bid, lodged in July, hopes to "obtain world recognition of the importance of fado," said the country's representative to UNESCO, Manuel Carrilho.

If accepted, this music will join a UN list of 166 other examples of intangible heritage, including the tango, Chinese paper cutting, Croatian lace, Bolivia's Oruro carnival and sand drawings in the Pacific island of Vanuatu.

UNESCO is to make a decision in November 2011, said Sara Pereira, director of a museum on fado and part of the official Portuguese committee backing the application.

Though born in Lisbon in the 19th century, the history of this music melding nostalgia and melancholy is that of the Portuguese people.

Portugal's great "Age of Discovery" in the 15th to 17th centuries when explorers set out from its shores to discover unknown lands and map trade routes enabled the small European country to establish itself as a colonial empire spanning three continents.

Afterwards, many Portuguese "stayed in Brazil or in Africa. Others died at sea. And in Portugal there reigned an atmosphere of sadness," said Mario Pacheco who owns one of the most prestigious fado venues in Alfama that attracts locals and tourists alike.

"The fado was born from this melancholy," he said.

"In our fado, there is a lot of pain. There is the 'saudade', a word so difficult to translate that expresses intense longing, the longing for country, longing for our women, longing for our roots," said Pacheco, a guitarist himself who accompanies "fadistas", as the singers are known, every night.

It was not until the 1950s that fado was propelled outside Portugal and across the globe thanks to the "Queen of Fado" Amalia Rodrigues. The legendary diva, whose fame and intensity spawned a whole new generation of contemporary "fadistas" before she died in 1999, is credited with imposing the music as a symbol of Portuguese culture.

A UNESCO listing "will allow fado to be recognised by a greater number of people and help it to evolve even more," said Cristina Branco, one of today's "fadistas" exploring new expressions of the traditional song.

"The fado is a music that tells the story of a people and so evolves along with society" she said.

But other artists, including guitarist Pacheco, fear inclusion on the prestigious list will see fado "slip away a little bit more from the city where it was born and lose some of its mystery."