Fado is the
Portuguese version
of the blues

Fado music is the heart of the Portuguese soul, arguably the oldest urban folk music in the world. Some say it came as dance from Africa in the 19th century and was adopted by the poor on the streets of Lisbon -- or it started at sea as the sad, melodic songs coaxed from the rolling waves by homesick sailors and fishermen.

Fado's themes have remained constant: Destiny, betrayal in love, death and despair.

A typical translated lyric goes: "Why did you leave me, where did you go? / I walk the streets looking at every place we were together / except you're not there." It's a sad music and a fado performance is not successful if an audience is not moved to tears.

By the early 20th century, fado had become an everyday fixture in the lives of Lisbon's working class. It was played for pleasure but also to relieve life's pains. Singers known as "fadistas" performed at day's end and long into the night. Fado was the earthy music of taverns and brothels and street corners.

From the 1940s until her death in 1999, Amalia Rodrigues was fado's biggest star, worshipped at home and celebrated abroad as the most famous representative of Portuguese culture.

THE ESSENTIAL element of fado music is "saudade," a Portuguese word that translates roughly as longing, or nostalgia for unrealized dreams. Fado speaks of an undefined yearning that can't be satisfied. For Portuguese Americans, fado is an expression of homesickness for the place they left behind.

Like other forms of folk music such as American blues, Argentine tango or Greek rebitika, fado cannot be explained; it must be felt and experienced. A fadista who does not possess "saudade" is thought of as inauthentic. Audiences are knowledgeable and demanding. If they do not feel the fadista is up to form, they will stop a performance.

Fado can be performed by men or women, although many aficionados prefer the raw emotion of the female fadista. Dressed in black with a shawl draped over her shoulders, a fadista stands in front of the musicians and communicates through gesture and facial expressions. The hands move while the body is stationary. When it's done correctly, it's a solemn and majestic performance.

TODAY, the younger generation in Portugal and America is respectful but not dedicated to fado. In the film "Passionada," the generation gap between mother and daughter is typified by their different taste in music; the mother is an old-school fadista while her daughter listens to rap on her Walkman.

But in the last decade, a new generation of young musicians have contributed to the social and political revival of fado music, adapting and blending it with new trends. Contemporary fado musicians like Misia have introduced the music to performers such as Sting. Misia and fadistas like Cristina Branco walk the fine line between carrying on the tradition and trying to bring in a new audience.

The actual vocal tracks in the film lip synched by Sofia Milos are performed by Misia, Portugal's reigning fado star. Two songs from her 1999 CD, "Paixoes Diagonais" ("Diagonal Passions"), are used in the film. "Triste Sina," a song made famous by Amalia Rodrigues, is about a woman's regrets for the things she's done wrong. The title translates roughly as "the sadness within," which sums up the spirit of fado.

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