09 May 2019


"What is this one called?"
"Right. So it's 'Fado Cabaré'?"
"I believe so..."
--"Cabaré", from "Canta Marceneiro" by Camané

In fado, the whole issue of what to call "the thing that people sing" is enormously confusing and not even remotely obvious, but there is an answer.
Each sung performance of traditional fado has two identities: the music (which is what the musicians and the singer need to know), and the lyric (which only the singer needs to know). The music is "THE FADO"; the lyrics are just lyrics. Both a given lyric and a given music have names, some of them quite bizarre, and often with interesting stories attached.

Daniel Gouveia
The first thing to note is that traditional fado is strophic: there is no chorus, just verses. So while pop music might have an AABA structure, traditional fado is AAAAA... As a result, the form is endlessly malleable in terms of the number of stanzas, though there are very strict rules about the length of a metric foot and the number of lines of verse that the music will accommodate. Some older lyrics in particular can be very long indeed. A great example is "O Bêbado Pintor" (the drunk painter). Here it is sung live in its complete form by Daniel Gouveia at Restaurante Niní in Lisbon.

2019 NY Fado Festival
Photo by Ryan Muir
As shown by Daniel's explanation (in Portuguese, but he could do it in English too), "O Bêbado Pintor" is a bit complicated. The first stanza (the mote) has four lines, and the remaining four stanzas have 10 (!) lines each, for a total of 44 verses. Moreover, the last line of the second verse is the first line of the mote; the last line of the third verse is the second line of the mote; etc. until the end. The beginning is sung over the Fado Laranjeira, the middle is spoken over the Fado Menor, then the end is sung over the Fado Laranjeira. Again, these are different musics, but they all accommodate the lyric in question.

The version recorded by Alfredo Marceneiro has a fewer number of stanzas than the original (evidently this is what the producer, Valentim de Carvalho, demanded in order to fit the performance on a single record). To do so, Marceneiro sang the mote, then only the third and fourth stanzas. The contemporary fadista Camané, on the CD "Camané Canta Marceneiro" (Camané sings Marceneiro), sings the stanzas in a different order from the original. Almost nothing in the fado is as it seems.

Two compendia that suggest the stunning breadth of pairings between music and lyric are the sites 4FadoLisbon (perhaps better--the corresponding YouTube channel) and FadosDoFado, but to understand the possibilities and limits of these pairings you have to read between the lines.
At the 2019 New York Fado Festival, for example, Fado Pedro Rodrigues was performed in sets by both Ana Sofia Varela and Hélder Moutinho--though it was sung to different lyrics. Hélder sang the lyric "A Minha Cor" with this fado, and it is under this name (and not "Pedro Rodrigues") that it appears on Sete Fados e Alguns Cantos, his 2004 record. Ana Sofia sang the lyric "Duas Lágrimas de Orvalho", and again this is how it's listed on her eponymous debut album. As Rodrigo Costa Félix rightly pointed out to me recently, "A minha cor" has four lines (verses) per stanza, while "Duas lágrimas de orvalho" has six (and the Pedro Rodrigues can accommodate five verses per stanza as well). I should also note that Pedro Rodrigues is one of the fados that Professor Ellen Gray discusses in landmark book, Fado Resounding.

The total number of different lyrics that can be sung with Pedro Rodrigues is large. For an idea, see hereSome recent performances of Fado Pedro Rodrigues can be seen after running this queryAnd Pedro Rodrigues is just one of maybe 200 or so fados in current circulation. A solid list of traditional fados is here. Fairly recently, the guitarist António Parreira released O Livro dos Fados, which contains the music for 180 fados (and an excellent introduction by Rui Vieira Nery). José Manuel Osório, at the time of his death, had compiled a list of more than 400 traditional fados.

Ana Sofia Varela
2019 NY Fado Festival
Photo by Feligénio Medeiros

Hélder Moutinho
2019 NY Fado Festival
Photo by Ryan Muir

The number of fado/lyric combinations can therefore be very, very large.

As mentioned, the names of the fados are sometimes unusual, even inscrutable. Corrido means "running". Mouraria shares a name with a neighborhood of Lisbon. Laranjeira is an orange tree (long story). And Pedro Rodrigues? That was the name of the person who wrote it. Rui Nery discusses these and many other fados in his book (now available in English), Para Uma História do Fado.

José Fernandes Castro
The site fadosdofado is organized by lyric, so it always shows the lyricist's name first, then the name of the fado (if it's traditional fado)–along with the composer's name (if known)–so you have to dig a bit to find the different lyrics associated with a given fado. A really great, somewhat rare, collection of CDs entitled Todos os Fados de A a Z (All the Fados from A to Z, edited by the late José Manuel Osório) has–you guessed it–examples of around 150 different fado musics (ISBN 9896121532, 9789896121532). It's pretty indispensable if you really want to dig in–and you can find it. There is a similarly themed YouTube channel and a web site.

Interestingly (though not at all uncommon), the lyric "A Minha Cor" is probably most closely associated with a different fado, which is Fado Meia-noite. Meia-noite (midnight) has a completely different vibe from Pedro Rodrigues. So, telling the musicians "A Minha Cor" doesn't help them, since "A Minha Cor" can be sung over Pedro Rodrigues, Meia-noite, and many other fados. The musicians just want to know which music they need to play, and in what key. The public, on the other hand, naturally latches on to lyrics--so that's what appears in liner notes, and it's what people typically talk about (e.g., while "Duas Lágrimas de Orvalho"–which is very closely associated with Carlos do Carmo–is typically in Pedro Rodrigues, no one files it under Fado Pedro Rodrigues since it can be sung with other fados).
André Dias (gp), André Ramos (v), Rodrigo Serrão (vb)
2019 NY Fado Festival
Photo by Ryan Muir
This makes perfect sense when you consider the fact that many singers might pass through a tasca (tavern) on any given night, and each one wants to sing "their" lyric over a particular fado before moving on to the next tasca. The musicians therefore just need to know the name of the music (and the key) in order to provide accompaniment. If that fado has already been played, then the musicians will likely want to improvise a bit to keep things fresh. This helps keep the enterprise afloat.

To make things even more confusing, there are the occasional fados where the name of the fado and the name of the lyric are the same, or nearly so. "Loucura" (also performed by Hélder in NYC) is probably the best example. Of course, in Hélder's set list it is written as Fado Loucura, since the music is now in the canon and there are various lyrics that have been put to it. But in his case he sang the original lyric.

The obvious answer to the question "What is the fado?" is, therefore, the name of the music (if it's a traditional fado). The less obvious answer is yet another question: "Who's asking?" 
  • If it's the singer or musician accompanying the singer, then the answer is the name of the music plus the key in which the music is to be played (e.g., "O Corrido em fá", which means "Fado Corrido in the key of F").
  • If it's the artist's record label, then the answer is "Who cares??!! Put the name of the lyric on the liner notes and let's get this thing out the door!"
  • If it's an audience in Portugal (or anywhere where people care), then the answer is the totality of the thing that's about to be sung, which means the answer (if it's traditional fado) has four elements: the name and composer of the music and the name and writer of the lyric. 
  • And if it's anyone else, then the answer from the fadista could be any combination of the above things.
There are two postscripts to this discussion: 

First, fadistas will typically announce some or all of the complete information from the stage before or after they perform a fado. It's usually something like "In the music of Fado Pedro Rodrigues, I'm going to sing 'Fria Claridade' by Pedro Homem de Melo" (the composer of the music may or may not be mentioned). This happens with some regularity in Portugal; in the US, less so. When it doesn't happen in Portugal, the intelligentsia tend to get annoyed. Sandro Costa sometimes calls these people the Ayatollahs of the fado.

Second, (and I feel this is now very rare), you will sometimes hear "...criação de..." (literally, "creation of...")–then the name of a singer–added to the announcement of the music and lyric. According to Daniel Gouveia, this means that this combination of music and lyric was first sung by the referenced fadista and that it was a hit. For example, "Por Morrer Um Andorinha" was first sung by Francisco Stoffel, but is now associated with the singer who made it a hit–Carlos do Carmo. But this is a topic for another day! 

Acknowledgments: Many thanks to Daniel Gouveia and to Rodrigo Costa Félix for the helpful pointers and information. I claim all the shortcomings of this article for my own, though.

Liner Notes
Consistent with the above explanation, I'm listing the lyrics separately from the music.

LYRICS / lyricist
  • O Bêbado Pintor / Linhares Barbosa
  • Fria Claridade / Pedro Homem de Melo
  • A Minha Cor / Manuel de Andrade
  • Duas Lágrimas de Orvalho / Linhares Barbosa
  • Loucura / Frederico de Brito

FADOS / composer
  • Corrido / Unknown
  • Laranjeira / Alfredo Duarte, "O Marceneiro"
  • Meia-noite / Filipe Pinto
  • Loucura / Júlio de Sousa
  • Pedro Rodrigues / Pedro Rodrigues
Some sources:
  • Gray, Lila Ellen (2013). Fado Resounding: Affective Politics and Urban Life. Duke University Press.
  • Nery, Rui Vieira (2017). Para Uma História do Fado. Corda Seca & Público. (There is also an earlier edition, and one in English).
  • Parreira, António (2014). O Livro dos Fados. Museu do Fado.


  1. Bravo! Bringing light to some of the complexities of fado is always a good starting point. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it!