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Fado and the Blues August 3, 2012

Posted by akessler47 in Travel Log.

Fado, a national treasure in the eyes of the Portuguese and an official Cultural Heritage according to the UNESCO, is a unique Iberian musical melting pot, blending elements from Moorish, African, and Brazilian culture. The story of its inception is clouded with uncertainty and myth, but the musical anatomy and cultural impacts are clear. This blog will discuss the musical theory breakdown of Fado music and its history in comparison to a similar genre, American Blues.

On a Wednesday night we sit in a cramped little dining room packed away in the back of a restaurant. It’s hot and noisy, waiters barely have enough room to navigate between tables to take orders and serve tiny tapas platters. Suddenly the lights dim and a blood red aura is projected onto the walls; the musicians enter.

Portuguese Guitar

Portuguese Guitar


A typical Fado group consists of at minimum four members, a vocalist, a classical guitar player, an acoustic bassist, and a Portuguese-guitar player. The Portuguese-guitar is an odd-looking string instrument one half the length of a typical guitar and has twelve strings instead of six. Its hollow body is shaped like a tear drop, reminiscent of the medieval cittern, and uses watch-key tuners on the top (a string is held to a screw, which is raise or lowered into the wood along the axis of the neck to increase or decrease the length of the string). There are two models of this guitar, Lisboa and Coimbra, the latter having a slightly longer fret board while the former has a wooden scroll piece at the head of the guitar. Aside from cosmetics the only difference in sound in that the Lisboa is “brighter”. 

Holding the
Portuguese-guitar like a classical guitar, the player uses a thumb pick and his
index and middle fingers to pluck strings. However, unlike a classical guitar,
the tuning is in the form of B-A-E-B-A-D (each note is played by two successive
strings, the one string an octave higher, so technically B-B-A-A-E-E, etc.),
which is very odd considering that each string in semitone intervals of 1, 7,
7, 1, then 5. On classical guitar the tuning E-A-D-G-B-E separates notes by 5
semitones (6 in the case of G to B) in conjunction with western music theory
based around major and minor 7 note scales with emphasis on specifically intervaled
thirds and fifths.

E Major Phrygian Scale

E Major Phrygian Scale


However, when we understand that Fado emerged from cultural synthesis in Portuguese colonies in Moorish North Africa it is clear that the strange tuning comes from the Phrygian mode, an Arabic understanding of music very different from the one we are familiar with in Europe and North America. 

Phrygian mode is
typical to a majority of Iberian and North African music because of its Arabic
influence. The most notable example of this interval set is in Flamenco music
in Spain, which sounds very dark, brooding, and sad because of its similarity to
the natural minor scale (Aeolian mode) in Western music. The tuning B-A-E-B-A-D
now makes much more sense, as it contains the root note B, the minor seventh A,
the fourth E, and the minor third D, the harmonic chords of a B Phrygian scale

Sam Chatman, Early Blues Artist

Sam Chatman, Early Blues Artist

Fado is by nature
a sad and mournful music. The loose translation of the word is “destiny” or
“fate”, and its lyrics focus on melancholy and events regarding loss or
longing. The genre is said to have emerged in the 19th century amongst
the poorer constituents of Lisbon, such as sailors in the Alfama Quarter. Fado
was typically regarded as the poor-man’s music as it was most often played in
the streets by amateur bands; it has been called the ‘Portuguese Blues’ in
comparison to American folk music of similar nature and feel. Soon the genre
was quickly picked up by the intellectual class and it became a professional
art, played in theaters and even incorporated into movies. Fado was essentially
a mirror for Portuguese society on the decline of their empire and wealth in the
early 1800’s. After episodes such as the Earthquake of 1755 (Terramoto do 1755)
and the French invasion of 1807 the economic stability of the nation was
shattered, historic landmarks and cultural icons were destroyed. More than
anything Fado is a memory of the hardships experienced by the nation, and it
struck a universal chord with the Portuguese. 

At a similar time
more than 5,000 miles away in the United States, Blues was forming from African
American culture on the eastern coast. The most prominent reasons people (or
more specifically, Senor Rodriguez from the guitar shop on the intersection of Rua
de Alecim and Sao Paulo) compare Fado to Blues are similar cultural synthesis
and then musical tone. A non-native and impoverished culture took up
instruments common to the region but wrote music akin to their passed down
traditions. For centuries Blacks in the US continued to carry along African
work-songs and spiritual dances. The ability of this musical culture to persist
under harsh conditions is an astonishing feat for both African Americans in the
South and Moorish immigrants in Portugal. 

Both people groups
subsequently mixed their style of music with music from the region, meaning
Blues is the complement of both traditional African sing-songs and Southern Riverbed
and Brass Bands. Hence, Blues is known to use not only classical guitar but
also trombones, trumpets, tubas, drums, and pianos. Picking up from Western
Classical music theory, Blues revolves almost exclusively around the minor
scale, except for, most importantly, the flat fifth, the devil’s note. This note
is extremely unique to Blues and was considered for quite some time an unlucky
and ominous tone to classical composers because of its discordance;
consequently it was banned by the church for centuries. However, the devil’s
interval provides an even more unsettling tone, giving a powerful emotion to
songs centered on poverty, depression, drinking issues, and slavery. Painful historical
events are clearly reflected in Blues songs even today, most exemplified by
Solomon Burke’s “None of Us Are Free”, showing the common chord of anxiety
struck among artists and listeners alike.

Like Fado, Blues
was played mainly by amateurs in the streets and in small bars populated by the
impoverished. For this reason, and its social context, it was also excluded
from mainstream music and took a century to be recognized by society as a truly
popular form of music. Yet Blues diffused entirely into American music, finding
its way into Jazz, Country, and Rock and Roll, while Fado remains a relatively
isolated genre. The reason being, I believe, is that it is held on a pedestal as
a national treasure, causing a reverence of only “true” and “authentic” Fado.
Such pride in the art form discourages alteration (unlike their cathedrals and monasteries);
Blues was never “treasured” and by nature is more fluid and spontaneous,
encouraging evolution and melding. 

The most famous Fado singer was Amalia Rodriguez, the undisputed “Queen of Fado”. Though she
had passed years ago people still play her music on a consistent basis and cover
her songs in tribute. More recently, modern bands have combined the essential
elements of Fado with electric guitars, keyboards, and drums to make the songs
radio-friendly and extremely popular on an international level. The band
Madredeus is currently the most prominent modern-Fado group in Portugal, with
several records and tours under their belt. Though true to its origins in the
early 1800’s the genre is evolving along with the rest of popular music, but it
will never lose its unique blend of Iberian and Moorish music that makes it a
staple of Portuguese history and culture.



1. Barbad J - June 9, 2013

Good read thanks… I stumbled upon Fado by accident and as a blues-head became an instant fan of the style and its similarities

2. ao khoac nu giam gia - September 17, 2013

So, off we went. Finally, whether you are citizens of
America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same highstandards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you.
They also can be bought at online stores.

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