Alfama rooftops seen from Miradouro de Santa Luzia © John Harper/Corbis
Alfama rooftops seen from Miradouro de Santa Luzia © John Harper/Corbis

[PLAYLIST] The voice of Portugal

Just as France has its Bastille Day on 14th July, Portugal has its 25 April to commemorate a pivotal date in the history of Portugal. 25 April 1974 was the beginning of the fall of the Salazar dictatorship, in place since 1933. The generally-accepted symbol of this revolution is the fado.

Salazar's Estrado Novo (New State) had paralysed Portuguese society for many years and gradually isolated the country from the international community. Portugal's colonies (Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Cape Verde) had been in revolt since the early 1960s, engaging the regime in a vain attempt at pacification, to the detriment of mainland Portugal. This colonial revolt finally lit the spark that triggered the fall of Salazar's regime.

Why has it been dubbed the "Carnation Revolution"? One of the rallying points of the population of Lisbon on 25 April was the flower market, which, at that time of year, was full of carnations. Some soldiers bore a carnation on the barrels of their rifles as a symbol. Another symbol of this historic uprising was the fado. Salazar's regime had tried to manipulate the population by turning the fado into a sad, macho, miserabilist song. This is why some musicians in 1974 burnt the archives and reclaimed this popular genre, which the regime had taken over and been using for its own purposes for 40 years.

The fado is thought to have been born about two centuries ago in the port of Lisbon, sung by prostitutes to sailors. The Fado do marinheiro is unanimously accepted as the first fado. But every level of society can make it its own: it is ideally suited to presenting specific, individual stories. The history of the fado has been written with each successive text and singer. In the early twentieth century, for example, it was the preferred expression of the class struggle; during the revolution in 1974, it symbolised the emancipation of Portuguese society from the dictatorship.

Etymologically, the term fado comes from the Latin fatum, meaning fate. And fatum comes from "fari", or "tell". Thus, singing the fado is akin to taking control of one's destiny. And yet the fado would for a long time remain the preserve of brothels, like a siren song drawing honest men to the heights of Bairro Alto. What a long way it has come since then!

The Lisbon fado has traditionally been sung by women, and the virtuosity of the great Amalia Rodrigues left its mark on the twentieth century. There is another sort of fado, however: the Coimbra fado. This type of fado is closely linked to academic traditions: it is sung exclusively by men and the performers wear black (like the university garb).

Here is a selection of performances of fado from Lisbon, Coimbra and elsewhere.