Fado: the soul of Portugal found in Lisbon

DMU Journalism in Lisbon: Safiyyah Choudry is entranced by the haunting melodies and raw emotions of fadista Sara Paixão

It’s a little after 6pm on an idyllic, sun-drenched Lisbon evening, but the woman on the stage of a Baixa nightclub couldn’t be more miserable. I am watching a fado performance, seated in the second row with a glass of wine in hand. The venue is Lisboa em Fado, and I am here on a DMU Journalism trip.

Fado is a traditional style of music originating from Lisbon, Portugal. It is known for its emotional lyrics and hauntingly beautiful melodies that tell stories of love, loss, and longing. Passed down through generations since the 18th century, it has become an integral part of Portuguese culture.

As the lights dim, I am immediately captivated by the enchanting sound of a Portuguese guitar and the atmosphere is set for a mesmerising performance.

Just when the melody comes to a standstill, a woman dressed in white walks onto the stage and stares out into the distance as she prepares to perform. Her name is Sara Paixão, and she has the voice of a siren: beautiful yet powerful, and it fills the room with ease. After a couple of songs, a male singer smartly dressed in a suit takes to the stage. Daniel Pinto Coelho’s rich, deep voice is the perfect complement to Sara’s. They begin to duet, and their voices meld together in a beautiful symphony. The set is a mix of classic and modern fado songs, each one a story in itself and evoking a range of emotions from sadness to joy.

Although I do not understand the Portuguese lyrics, the sheer emotion in Sara and Daniel’s voices is enough to communicate the depth of feeling behind each song. The combination of their voices is so rich and emphatic that it is easy to get lost in the music. The emotive melodies of fado are so universal that even without understanding the lyrics, one can’t help but feel the raw emotion behind the music. As they sing, it is as if the music is transporting me to another world where all that matters is the beauty of the moment. The emotion in their voices almost brings tears to my eyes, and I am truly moved by the experience.

After the performance, Sara explains to me that “fado is not like typical music that you learn in school, but rather an oral tradition that is passed down through families.” However, she did not have any family history with the scene. She discovered it by chance, hearing the renowned singer Amália Rodrigues on her MP3 device. She soon ventured on her journey down the fado rabbit hole and began learning about it online at the age of 16. Before she knew it, she was singing in amateur competitions and making her way up through the ranks, ultimately earning a regular show.

Sara explains that she chooses her songs based on her feelings on that particular day. She says she asks herself: “What do you want to pass to the audience? That is how I prepare myself to perform.”

So where does her love for fado come from? “The thing that makes me do this every day is I have the opportunity to express myself,” she says, “a way to express my soul. Sometimes it’s a little hard to express myself through words and talking. But with singing, it’s like I can purge my soul. So it makes me feel free, and that’s why I love it.”

While Sara’s devotion to fado is evident, she also expresses concern about the genre’s future. With pop music from other countries becoming more popular, she fears fado is becoming a fusion. She says: “We have to have more new lyrics from this current time because I’ve sung fado lyrics that are 50 years old and older. So we need new poems and lyrics so the younger generations can understand it better.”

Towards the show’s end, the performance culminates in lively guitar solos by Ricardo Rocha on the Portuguese guitar and Rogério Ferreira on the classical guitar. It is a true masterpiece showcasing the musicians’ extraordinary talents. The intricate melodies and harmonies that flow effortlessly from the strings entrance the audience. Soon after, Sara and Daniel resume singing, this time with the audience joining in. It is a delightful and unforgettable experience that leaves an indelible impression on us all.

If you ever find yourself in Lisbon, I highly recommend attending a fado performance. Its rich history and cultural significance will fully immerse you in the Portuguese experience. It is truly unique and unforgettable—a must-see on the Portugal to-do list.

To experience the enchanting world of fado, check out these five venues in Lisbon:

Adega Machado (restaurant)
Rua do Norte 91, 1200-284 Lisboa, Portugal
O Corrido – Casa de Fado (restaurant)
Campo de Santa Clara 49, 1100-471 Lisboa, Portugal
Clube Lisboa Amigos do Fado (restaurant)
Rua Dr. José Espírito Santo 49c, 1950-094 Lisboa, Portugal
Lisboa em Fado (club)
Rua do Crucifico 84, 1100-184 Baixa Chiado, Lisbon,  Portugal
Tasca do Chico (bar)
Rua do Diário de Notícias 39, 1200-141 Lisboa, Portugal

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