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  • Writer's pictureFrancisco Teles da Gama, MA

A Brief History of the Museu do Fado in Lisbon

What is the Museu do Fado?

The Museu do Fado, or Fado Museum in English, is a Museum of traditional Portuguese music with a collection of stringed instruments, musical artefacts and paintings.

Museu do Fado History

Largo do Chafariz de Dentro, here in the Alfama, the oldest neighbourhood of Lisbon, is considered to be the home of fado, the famous musical genre that originated among the city’s working class in the 19th century and is now considered Portugal’s finest musical expression. Fittingly, it’s here you will find the Fado Museum, which opened in 1998, dedicated to the study, promotion and celebration of fado. Through its insightful permanent and temporary exhibitions, the museum explores the tradition’s cultural legacy, the evolution of the Portuguese guitar, and the fascinating lives of celebrated local musicians.

Fado consists of traditional tunes sung by either a man or a woman to the accompaniment of stringed instruments. However, this apparently simple framework is incredibly rich and deep, partly due to its literal meaning in Portuguese: ‘fate’. António Augusto de Rocha Peixoto, the great 19th-century naturalist and ethnologist, described the music as follows: ‘[F]ado has in it the flagrant and clear expression of… fate, chance, luck that presides over our destiny, determines our actions, and explains the varied aspects of our existence’. Although it’s generally believed that the song’s origins stem from the Portuguese urban working classes, some experts disagree, suggesting that its origins are Brazilian, while others claim some elements are derived from North Africa. Unsurprisingly, there are many modern interpretations of this age-old tradition, represented by the instruments, recordings and sheet music archived and on display here in the museum, as well as in the many restaurants that line the Alfama’s cobbled streets.

In addition to historical objects relating to fado, you will also find the museum’s collection of paintings executed by admirers of the tradition. Within it are works by the pioneer of Portuguese Naturalism, José Malhoa; the artist, illustrator, caricaturist and ceramicist Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro; and the Modernist Júlio Pomar, all of which manage to capture on canvas the power of song. In the galleries, there are several interactive displays telling the story of fado through the lives and experiences of personalities such as Maria Severa Onofriando, who sang in the streets of Mouraria, Ercília Costa, and Maria Amélia Proença.

The museum also contains a school for those who want to master this form of musical expression, a workshop for guitar repairs, an auditorium, and a sound archive with thousands of recordings. The Fado Museum, an eclectic survey of Portuguese musical tradition, is one of the best ways to understand the spirit of this great city.

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