Fado is a music of yearning. It is, arguably, the national music genre of Portugal, and it’s fitting that it translates into English as “fate.” If you’ve ever heard fado’s characteristically warm guitar notes, evocative vocals, and often heartbreaking lyrics, you’ll know that there’s no simple way to describe or capture it in words. But, well, here goes.

Fado is a largely improvised form of song that is most often performed by a solo singer, accompanied by a guitarra or two. It can be performed in formal or informal settings, by amateurs or professionals. I’ve always thought of it as the Portuguese equivalent of French chanson. Turns out I was wrong. So where did this music of longing and desire come from? To get the answer, I reached out to Professor Ellen Gray at Dickinson College. She’s the author of “Fado Resounding,” a deep-dive into the social context of this much-loved art form. One thing that Gray impresses upon me swiftly during the beginning of our conversation is that people are passionate—about this form of music, about its origins, its past, its future, its canon—basically its everything.

Is there an origin story of fado?

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I’m imagining some small tasca (tavern or bar), maybe in Lisbon, where an old woman in a cloud of cigarette smoke suddenly starts to sing. Someone has a guitarra, bottles of red wine dot the tables, and—No. Gray says, “There’s a lot we still don’t know. It’s also very, very hard with a lot of popular musical forms to speak about an origin or a point of origin. I do think Lisbon’s status as a port city has everything to do with how the genre emerged, due to multiple influences coming from diverse places and sounds.”

The long seafaring, colonial history of Portugal brought sounds and cultures from the wide world into a relatively small country. “This colonial history is there,” Gray explains. “There are still a number of fados that are sung today that have colonial-era kind of lyrics—which celebrate colonialism—just as there are some that critique colonialism. So the colonial past is very present in how Portugal remembers and presents itself.”

Gray offers a litany of origin stories that she has heard over the years. She writes in the introduction of her book, “But almost always, Fado is from Lisbon; fado is sung with a Portuguese soul (alma); fado is ours and is about the longing of saudade, expressing what is lost and might never be found, what has been but might be.”

Why is fado still so powerful today?

“I think the most important thing, something that people keep on pointing back to, is that the power of fado is its ability to mean so many different things to so many different people. That there are so many different kinds—there’s fado that emerged in the brothels and the jails and the social outskirts of society in the early 1800s, and there’s a more noble fado, the fado of the upper classes. There are these different lines of fado in relationship to class; there’s a little bit of that that continues,” says Gray.

Intangible Cultural Heritage and the future of fado

When UNESCO included fado on its list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, it brought a sense of pride and perhaps some new energy to the genre. Gray notes the emergence of excellent young guitarists, and of children who take fado lessons much as we might send our children to piano class in the U.S. She mentions a band, Deolinda, that is highly influenced by fado but doesn’t practice it in a classical sense. Their song “Parva Que Sou” became an unofficial anthem during the financial crisis and protests of 2011. The band’s music has helped define a genre aptly named “neofado.” This new genre fits snugly with one of the last things that Gray observes, “I think the extraordinary thing is that fado is so rich that it’s able somehow to encompass so many different kinds of possibilities, and even to this day people will still use fado as a form of social critique.”

Terms you should know

As I am quickly learning through my research, the myriad origin stories and forms, artists, and social implications of fado are so complex, you really need to read a book to understand it fully. To tide you over until you can get yourself one, Professor Gray has graciously provided some key terms and information about the national treasure. So next time you’re in Porto or Lisbon, you can speak with a bit more confidence and maybe even try to sing yourself.

Estado Novo

The long dictatorship in Portugal (1926–74) had an undeniable impact on fado. “During the dictatorship, the government made the singers pass an audition and carry a card in order to sing,” Gray says. “It was also a way for the state to control the repertoire and who was singing.” Before the codification of the form under the Estado Novo, there existed a form of fado called fado anarquista, which was, Gray says, “working-class activist fado that had to do with unionization and was very politically powerful.” Even today many people still associate fado with the Estado Novo. To some it was the official musical genre of the regime.

Casas de fado

Literally “house of fado,” these are, as one would guess, a place where fado is sung and played. “Those highly touristic casas de fado, where a fixed group of fadistas sing every single night—that is a vestige that goes back to the early part of the Estado Novo,” says Gray. One can also hear fado in less formal tascas and bars. There you are likely to hear fado amador, or amateur fado singing.

Fado cançao

“Fado cançao, or, as it’s also called, ‘fado song,’ is very intimately related to a form of musical theater that emerged in Portugal in the late 1800s called the Teatro de revista,” Gray explains. “Those are fado songs that in musical terms would be ‘through-composed,’ which means they’re not the traditional fados.” These songs do not feature the rich improvisation for which more traditional forms of fado are known. She continues, “Fado song will oftentimes be sung straight through.” Unlike for its more unwieldy counterpart, there were musical scores for these songs.

Fado tradicional

The numbers of types of traditional fado vary widely, but, Gray says, “Researchers say or have different ideas about how many traditional fado forms there are. They probably number in the hundreds, even though the common practice is around 50 to 100. Those are the ones circulating in the oral tradition. You can find some music in traditional books of fado that are spelled out in musical notation, but when I look at those things, they seem to have very little to do with the songs. I mean, the chord structure and the bass line, they usually get that right, but all of the improvisation is spelled out, and a fadista might do something completely different with the rhythm.”

Amálianos

Even if you, like me, have only a passing knowledge of fado, you will have heard of Amália Rodrigues, the famous fado diva. She lived an incredibly long life, had a storied career, and she was honored with a state funeral. Her fans identify themselves with this term.

Estilar

The word translates roughly as “style” and refers primarily to the improvisation of the guitarra or the vocal line—a key element in fado.

Fadista

This term applies to those who sing or play fado. Perhaps more important—and more interesting—it also applies to those who listen to fado. Gray notes, “It’s important to remember that the term also refers to one who knows how to listen well and in silence. There is that emphasis on listening that is so important; you can’t have fado without a listener. Listening is done in a certain way. Fado listening is a very deep form of listening and also a very social form of listening, where a lot of people are all together having this very interior kind of experience, but they’re all doing it in the same place.”

Voltinha

“This is a vocal term,” Gray says, “a form of vocal ornamentation.” She explains that the term is used much in the way we might use a term such as melisma to describe multiple pitches in the same syllable. “Vocal ornaments are sometimes distinct to different singers, but there are also conventions that are shared. When they are used, they might be used in moments where the singer wants to convey heightened emotion to the listener.”