Secret History: The Roots of Portuguese Fado in Militant, Working-Class Lisbon Were Airbrushed by a Fascist Regime, Writes Simon Broughton

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The international success of the fado singer Mariza has brought a new audience to Portugal's most distinctive music. In Lisbon, the clubs in the historic fado districts are flourishing, frequented by locals and visitors alike. Traditionally, the melancholic sound of fado is said to be associated with saudade, or longing (the word fado literally means "fate"). Amalia Rodrigues, the most celebrated fado singer of them all, said in 1994: "The Portuguese invented fado because we have a lot to complain about. On one side we have the Spanish with their swords; on the other side there's the sea, which was unknown and fearful. When people set sail we were waiting and suffering, so fado is a complaint."

It came as a surprise, therefore, to find a political side to the music, as I did while making a BBC documentary about the history of fado, going out later this month. Take these lyrics from an anonymous anarchist fado from around 1920: "The world shall behold/The poor free from oppression/Smashing the butchers/Of the ruling bourgeoisie." I found out that the militant roots of fado had been airbrushed from history, only to be rediscovered in recent years.

Old Lisbon is where fado was born in the early 19th century, in the districts of Alfama and Mouraria, which were populated by traders, sailors and fishing families. The Portuguese royal family spent the Napoleonic Wars in exile in Rio de Janeiro, which became the capital of the Portuguese empire from 1808-21. They returned with a whole retinue of Brazilians and Afro-Brazilians, and as such Lisbon has long had a multiracial and assimilado population. Fado (also the name of an Afro-Brazilian dance) was heard in the taverns and brothels of the city's working-class areas. Its first star was a young prostitute called Maria Severa (1820-46), who had a notorious affair with the Count of Vimioso, an aristocratic bullfighter, and introduced fado to high society. Many fado lyrics refer to her by name ("Fado da Severa" is one of the most famous), and both a stage show of 1901 and Portugal's first all-talking sound film, A Severa (1931), were dramatisations of her life.

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To Portugal's leading fado historian Rui Vieira Nery, the lyrics of "Fado da Severa" and "Fado Choradinho" ("Fado of the Unfortunate"), written in the mid-19th century, underline the genre's connection to the Lisbon underclass. "There are several texts that were clearly written by people who had been in jail for long periods and this zigzag between legal and illegal lifestyles is very present in those early fados," he explains. It is Nery, with his book Para uma Historia do Fado ("Towards a History of Fado"), who has surprised even the Portuguese with the secret history of the music they thought they knew so well. "By the late 19th century, fado was essentially a working-class song--very politically committed. You had fados talking about Kropotkin, Bakunin, Marx--and even Lenin later on." One socialist fado from 1900 begins: "May 1st!/Forward! Forward!/O soldiers of freedom!/Forward and destroy/National borders and property."

Such militant fados remained underground, although the more respectable theatrical fado revista ("revue") was popular with the middle classes. In 1882, the cartoonist Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro criticised fado singers (and by implication the Portuguese people), through the character of Ze Povinho ("Poor Ze"), for being too passive and playing whatever song was placed in front of them. …