What is fado music? How Sara Correia is taking 'the Portuguese blues' to the masses

A new generation of artists are giving this genre a resurgence – here's a look at four of them

Fado star Sara Correia performs at Oslo World in Norway on Friday, October 1, 2019. Courtesy: Helge Brekke/Oslo World
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Fado music is ready to go global. That was the message coming from the genre's latest star, Sara Correia at the Oslo World Music Festival, the five-day fiesta that ended last week. The Portuguese singer, 26, is part of the latest generation of artists who are bringing her homeland's signature music to the masses and, in turn, are challenging some of the biggest misconceptions about the genre.

"The biggest one is that fado is for old people," she tells The National after performing at a sold-out concert at the festival.

Fado star Sara Correia performs at Oslo World in Norway on Friday, October 1, 2019. Courtesy: Helge Brekke/Oslo World

“There is this idea that it should be a museum piece, or like a black-and-white movie, but this is not true. If you look at the artists today, many of them are younger.”

Fado is experiencing a resurgence, just like Lisbon

Stretching back to the early 19th century in the downtown Lisbon district of Alfama, fado music – a genre that in 2011 was added to Unesco's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage – is viewed as the city's expression of the blues, with its yearning Moorish ballads conjuring an emotion the Portuguese describe as "saudade", which means a state of profound nostalgia or melancholy.

This is reflected in the vocal delivery of fado songs. These passionate ballads undulate between explosive bouts of anguish and serene states of acceptance of loss.

Fado's resurgence this year mirrors the present fortunes of Lisbon. The city's status as a popular tourist destination among residents of the UAE and beyond has resulted in its fado houses, which are home to nightly concerts, now doing a booming trade.

Correia says that's because it only takes one performance for visitors to become hooked. "It is something that is completely different if you are not from Portugal," she says. "People love how authentic the music is. As a singer, you just can't fake it, it is deeply emotional. And this is why it is called a 'fado house' and not a 'fado club'.

Fado star Sara Correia performs at Oslo World in Norway on Friday, October 1, 2019. Courtesy: Helge Brekke/Oslo World

It is all about intimacy and the singer being in front of the audience. In Oslo it is different as it is a large venue and the people are far away. But I try to make it intimate and bring that home feeling whenever I travel."

How Correia is helping fado go global

Correia's Norway show was part of a European tour that continued to grow due to word-of-mouth reviews of her eponymous debut album, which was released last year.

It is a passionate collection of songs that has been lauded with praise by the Portuguese press for its vibrant take on the genre.

The bewitching opener Fado Portuguese is a statement of intent in which Correia stakes her claim as a talent to be recognised, with her quavering and smoky voice unaccompanied for the first 60 seconds of the track.

The song also functions as a history lesson on fado with its nod to Portuguese sailors ("In the chest of a seaman / While sorrowful he sang") whose seafaring songs were a precursor to the genre.

The elegant production and minimal instrumentals on the album – it only features acoustic and bass guitars, plus percussion instruments – allows Correia's voice to take centre stage. Her vibrato shimmers as she captures the immensity of falling deeply in love in Sou A Casa, while it shudders in despair in Hoje as she attempts to gain an insight into her loss, singing "Today, I know my ways / I have already run to many addresses, looking for my name". 

Why fado doesn't need to be modernised

And it is here, perhaps, where fado and the blues diverge. The latter genre champions the idea that you must suffer for your artthe late American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson perhaps articulated it best when she said "anybody singing the blues is in a deep pit yelling for help". Fado, by contrast, is all about practice.

For Correia, that training began as a child. Her earliest memories of fado houses are of when she was three and part of the family entourage who went to see her aunt, Joana Correia, perform. Inspired by her aunt's records, Sara recalls writing the lyrics to songs in her journal and singing them to herself at home. Her big career break arrived in 2007 when she won one of Portugal's biggest amateur talent contests, the Great Night of Fado. She says that was when the penny dropped and she realised she could have a career in fado music.

While she says she is humbled by her growing stature as an artist, Correia says she is rather miffed with suggestions she is helping to revitalise fado music. "I hear that sometimes and people say that maybe we can try and change it and make it more modern," she says. "Let me tell you something, fado does not need changing. It is beautiful the way it is and once you hear it, you will understand why."

Correia urges people from the UAE and across the world to visit a few fado houses and savour the experience. Who knows, you may arrive to find her performing an impromptu gig. That's another thing about fado singers – they always need to return home. "If you are fado singer you always need to go back to the fado house," Correia says. "This is where we learn our trade and get inspired."

What is fado music?

Native to the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, fado is considered to be the country’s version of the blues.

After years of toiling away in relative obscurity, musicians of the genre are revelling in a new wave of enthusiasm afforded to the sound. This is predominantly down to a combination of Portugal becoming a  hip destination for tourists and fado music becoming more accessible with the help of online streaming platforms. But with so much of the music out there, where do you begin if you want to immerse yourself in fado?

Here’s our pick of three singers who are renowned in the genre.

The queen: Amalia Rodrigues

She died 20 years ago, but Rodrigues is still often referred to as the “Queen of fado” due to her masterly collection of work.

During her 60-year singing career, she not only became the most revered artist in Portugal, but she was also an international ambassador for the genre. Her death in 1999, when she was 79, was a national tragedy in Portugal, with Rodrigues receiving a state funeral. Her home was also transformed into a museum.

She was once asked to explain how she approaches her craft and replied that her success was down to fully embodying the emotional turmoil that makes fado music so engaging. “Everything fado demands in a singer, I have in me,’’  she said. ‘’When I am on my own, alone, tragedy comes, and solitude.’’

The modern star: Mariza

She is the genre’s biggest export right now. Born in Mozambique, Mariza’s dexterous approach to fado comes from her background as a singer of gospel, soul and jazz music. Mariza only began taking fado seriously after her father encouraged her to do so.

In a poetic fashion befitting the genre, Mariza got her fado start after performing as part of a 1999 tribute show to Rodrigues. Such was the acclaim Mariza received for her performance that her debut album, Fado em Mim, which was released three years later, became an international hit and earned her a European Border Breakers Award in 2004. Mariza performed a sold-out show at Emirates Palace as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival in 2017.

The technician: Camane

The artist is a darling of critics. In his 30-year career, he has become known as the most technically adept fado singer performing today. Born in Lisbon, Camane discovered fado at the age of seven while ill in bed. Whether it was down to his fever or the initial power of the music, Camane says fado has been his key mode of expression ever since.

He won an amateur singing competition as a teenager and in 2005 announced himself to the industry by winning the Amalia Rodrigues Prize for Best Fado Singer. Camane’s appeal lies in his deft approach to fado, which has him deliver innovative interpretations of the music without sacrificing its traditions.

In an interview this year, Camane said the appeal of the genre lay in its immediacy. “Like classical music, blues and jazz … these are styles of music with a tremendous character, that have a really emotive and personal sound to them,” he said. “It is extremely defined and it is simply impossible for people to be indifferent.”