In search of: Fado in Lisbon

This sorrowful music is best heard in its heartland. Stephanie Debere tells Portugal's story of the blues

Since the stylish vocalist Mariza swept on to the world music scene, winning a BBC Radio 3 award in March, the traditional fado she sings has won a growing number of fans (including Jools Holland, on whose television show Later... she has appeared). Mariza grew up in Lisbon, where fado originates. Often described as the Portuguese blues, its passionate songs overflow with saudade – best translated as "yearning". Lisbon's seafaring past and its earthquake-prone location have provided fado (meaning fate) with the sorrowful themes of despair, loss, betrayal, jealousy and unrequited love.

Since the stylish vocalist Mariza swept on to the world music scene, winning a BBC Radio 3 award in March, the traditional fado she sings has won a growing number of fans (including Jools Holland, on whose television show Later... she has appeared). Mariza grew up in Lisbon, where fado originates. Often described as the Portuguese blues, its passionate songs overflow with saudade – best translated as "yearning". Lisbon's seafaring past and its earthquake-prone location have provided fado (meaning fate) with the sorrowful themes of despair, loss, betrayal, jealousy and unrequited love.

Sounds a bit gloomy to me ...

Paradoxically, a visit to a fado house is distinctly uplifting, thanks to the music's profound expression of human suffering, and the beauty of voice and guitar in such intimate surroundings. "We're born with fado – we're pessimistic," one local told me. "It suits our mood." Yet Lisboans are very warm and the fado houses are welcoming places. Accompanied by a 12-stringed Portuguese guitar and a four-stringed viola (Spanish guitar), the solo fadista voice transcends cultural barriers. "Fado is life," explain Lisboans. It's accessible to all – though it helps to understand the music's background.

So where can I find fado's roots?

Start in the city's oldest quarter, the Moorish Alfama district, a vertiginous network of narrow, twisting alleys that lies between the story-book castle and the River Tagus. Formerly bourgeois, the area was abandoned to the fishing community. It was in early 19th-century Alfama that fado emerged, drawing on the rhythms of African slave dances and traditional oral folklore. Beneath the hills stands the Casa do Fado e da Guitarra Portuguesa, a modern museum and fado centre (Largo do Chafariz de Dentro, 1). The museum traces the music's evolution, reflecting the story of Lisbon itself.

How did this poor man's music become so popular?

Fado's origins lie in poverty, but it was adopted by the gentry thanks to the scandalous affair of the Comte de Vimioso with Maria Severa, a lowly singer from Mouraria, born in 1820. (See the outside of her tiny house on Largo do Severa.) Gradually, fadistas were hired to entertain respectable society and fado exploded in the 20th century through theatre, radio and television. The dictatorship between 1926 and 1974 brought censorship of the often satirical genre and forced artists to turn professional and appear only in fado houses – bar-restaurants that have remained the music's hub. In the 1940s, Amalia Rodrigues (to whom Mariza is often compared) became the ultimate diva, rising from a poor, fruit-selling background to achieve international stardom.

Can I still hear Amalia?

Portugal was devastated by her death in 1999 and in 2001 her 18th-century townhouse opened as a museum (Rua de São Bento, 193). Amalia's spine-tingling voice flows unchallenged around the rooms, confirming that there's no need to understand Portuguese to fall under fado's melancholy spell. Complete with traditional hand-painted frescoes and original tiling, the house is a treasure trove of antiques, costumes, sequinned accessories and trophies. There are also portraits that reveal Amalia's beauty and give an insight into the woman, her music and the traditional Portuguese home.

Where can I find live fado?

There are lots of choices – the Casa do Fado publishes a guide in Portuguese and English (Rateiso de Fado de Lisboa). Alfama is packed with atmospheric fado houses where different fadistas perform three or four songs every 20 minutes or so. At the Clube de Fado (Rua Sao Joao da Praca, 92/94) the music is played beside ancient stone arches, a Moorish well and walls hung with guitars and pictures. Heaps of piquant, traditional food are served as young men and older women sing their songs of saudade. In the candlelight, a glass of fruity Portuguese rosso in hand, you veer between losing yourself in emotion and letting the performers' skill and power bewitch you. In the nearby Parreirinha de Alfama (Beco Espirito Santo, 1), owner-artiste Argentina Santos emerges from her kitchen to sing to guests at communal tables.

Fado's other stronghold is the hilltop Bairro Alto district, above Lisbon's pastel houses and terracotta roofs. A grid of narrow streets cobbled in black and white, below balconies strung with washing, it contains the city's most vibrant nightlife. Cafe Luso (Travessa da Queimada, 10) is one of Lisbon's oldest fado houses, decorated with pictures of former icons while the new generation belts out its fresh anguish. More relaxed is the Adega do Ribatejo (Rua do Diario de Noticias, 23), where managers and kitchen staff sing alongside professionals.

I'm addicted. Can I buy recordings?

Most fado houses sell CDs. The Casa do Fado has a good collection, as does Fnac in the Chiado district (Rua Nova do Almada, 110).

How do I get there?

ITC Classics (01244 355527; www.itcclassics.co.uk) offers weekend breaks to Lisbon from £495 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights and three nights' b&b at the Four Seasons Hotel The Ritz Lisbon (00 351 21 381 1400; www.fourseasons.com). Consult ITC's Concierge Service before departure, for recommendations and reservations at fado houses.

British Airways (0845 773 3377; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow to Lisbon from around £118 return.

For more details about fado visit www.roughguides.com/music or www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/. For further information, contact the Portuguese tourist office (0906 364 0610, calls cost 60p per minute; www.portugalinsite.pt).

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