Fado is the passionate, volatile and haunting acoustic folk music that is as vital to Lisbon culture as the blues is to Memphis.
A blend of North African, Roma and European folk styles, it was adopted by the poor on the streets of Lisbon, Portugal, in the middle of the 19th century.
Performed by a male or female singer accompanied by one classical guitar and one Portuguese guitar, it was usually heard in taverns and brothels. Fado was the expression through song of working class life.
The word “fado” comes from the Latin “fatum” meaning fate. Its essential element is the Portuguese concept of “saudade”, which is described as a sense of longing or nostalgia for unrealised dreams.
Gradually, in the way that wealthy whites discovered the jazz clubs of Harlem in the 1920s, the aristocrats started hanging around the fado clubs.
During the years of Antonio Salazar’s right wing dictatorship (1932-68) the music was hijacked and censorship laws meant that its lyrics had to be approved.
As Salazar came under increasing criticism for his treatment of the Portuguese colonies, he embraced fado as a tool for diplomacy, organising international tours.
By the time Salazar died, fado was associated with the right wing regime and had lost its popularity.
But over the last ten years a new generation of musicians has contributed to the social and political revival of fado, adapting and blending it with new trends.
One such artist is Mariza. Her new album, Transparente, uses accordion, cello and flute, but maintains the spirit of traditional fado in songs like the opening track “Ha uma Musica de Povo” (“Music of the People”).
The greatest fado singer was Amalia Rodrigues (1920-99), who is regarded by some to be up there with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Maria Callas.
Her career spanned three decades, and on many occasions she was called upon by Salazar to sing for him.
Later on in her career she was criticised for this, and she left Portugal for a while.
But she came back with “Grandola vila Morena”, a song which symbolises the spirit of Portugal’s 1974-75 revolution.
Rodrigues’ powerful and passionate recordings are among the greatest available and The Art of Amalia Rodrigues, a compilation CD, is available from EMI.
Mariza plays in St David’s Hall, Cardiff in July, and in London’s Barbican Centre in November.