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ortuguese musical traditions and contemporary popular music are highly diverse and dynamic. They reflect multifarious historical, cultural, and political processes to which they also contributed. Some traditional song and dance genres are pan-Hispanic and pan-European. Others resulted from the confluence of multiple cultural influences, including those that were the outcome of Portugal’s direct and prolonged contact with non-European cultures from both North and sub-Saharan Africa and Brazil.

The major Portuguese cities have been important centres for the production and dissemination of a rich array of forms of urban music – places where urban musical genres and styles have developed, rural traditions have been reinterpreted and foreign traditions have been transplanted. In particular, the 1960s marked the beginning of a period of expansion and innovation that has continued up until the present day. Rock and jazz were introduced, political song developed, Lisbon fado and the Coimbra style of singing were revitalized, Portuguese styles of pop and rock evolved, music from the former African colonies and Brazil occupied an increasingly important place in the capital’s musical life and local styles of rap and hip hop emerged.

Fado is the best-known Portuguese musical genre outside Portugal. There are two distinct fado traditions. The most widely known forms a central part of Lisbon’s musical life. A separate, though related tradition, also named fado or canção de Coimbra (Coimbra song) thrives in the central city of Coimbra.

Lisbon fado emerged in the second quarter of the nineteenth century and has remained an essentially oral tradition. While some of its characteristics can be traced back to its initial phase of development, several aspects have changed considerably, including its social context, performance practice and repertoire.

amália rodrigues
Amália Rodrigues

Fado performances involve a solo vocalist – the central figure – instrumental accompanists and audiences in a communicative process that makes use of verbal, musical, facial and bodily expression. Live fado performances are complex events in which performers construct narratives and express ideas and emotions through a skilful interplay of words, melodies and their variation, vocal quality, gestures, facial expression and instrumental dialogue. Fado performances are also structured by norms in terms of social context, political conjuncture, performance setting, occasion, repertoire, performers, audience and performance. Fado is sung solo by either a woman or a man. The standard accompaniment is provided by a guitarra (a kind of cittern with a pear-shaped soundboard and six courses of strings) and a viola (an acoustic guitar with six metal strings). A second guitarra and/or viola baixo (a bass guitar with four metal strings) are sometimes added.

The fado or canção de Coimbra is a lyrical performance tradition integrated within the academic life of the medieval university of Coimbra. The protagonists are primarily male students, alumni and professors from Coimbra University. Their performances constitute a basic ingredient in the city’s annual academic rituals.

The development of the Coimbra form of fado can be traced back to the second half of the 19th century, when the Lisbon fado and guitarra were introduced to Coimbra by students from the metropolis. Since then, Coimbra has developed a distinct fado tradition, which is a synthesis of several different elements, including traditional music brought by students from various parts of the country, the Italian bel canto style, and initially Lisbon fado. The guitarra and viola both play a central role as accompanying instruments.

Political Song
Political songs (canção de intervenção) played an important part in the protests against the totalitarian regime that ruled Portugal from 1926 up to the 1974 revolution. José Afonso (1929-1987) was one of its main protagonists, but other musicians – several of whom had been exiled in France – also contributed to its development. They include Adriano Correia de Oliveira, José Mário Branco, Luís Cilia, Francisco Fanhais, José Jorge Letria, José Barata Moura and Sérgio Godinho. They traced a new course for urban popular music and influenced a further generation of musicians, some of whom also participated in the protest movement and are still active, including Fausto, Vitorino, Janita Salomé and Júlio Pereira, among others.

josé afonso

Political song introduced a new style to urban popular music. The poetry, often written by the composer-singer him or herself, is politically and socially engaged. Melodies are word-born and, in conjunction with the accompaniment, reinforce the textual content. This musical style reflects a confluence of influences from traditional music, French urban popular songs of the 1960s, African music and Brazilian popular music. By the late 1970s the revolutionary climate had subsided and the need to express political militancy through song was no longer felt by poets, composers and singers, who subsequently redefined both their role and their creative contribution.

Popular music since 1974
The 1980s and 1990s were marked by the search for a new musical discourse in urban popular music, the increase, commodification and industrialization of musical production, and the mediatization and expansion of music consumption. The recording industry, which is essentially controlled by a handful of multinational companies and over two dozen local independent producers, has been playing a central role in producing, shaping, and disseminating urban popular music. The increase in the recording companies’ discographic production was paralleled by a significant increase in the consumption of phonograms (recording formats for domestic use: CD’s, cassettes and so on) – 70% between 1995 and 1997, according to a recent study.

The boom in musical production in the 1980s and 1990s was accompanied by both the diversification of the musical domains and styles produced and consumed in Portugal and the emergence of new styles which, although intended primarily for Portuguese audiences, are increasingly taking the global market into account.

In the late 1970s and 1980s there was a boom in the number of Portuguese rock groups and a local style of rock grew up. Jazz has recently seen a substantial increase in the involvement of both musicians and audiences.

portuguese rock

Several transplanted musical traditions – especially from the former African colonies – are also thriving in Lisbon, and foreign styles such as rap and hip-hop have been adapted locally. In summary, it is possible to note two stylistic tendencies in the popular music of the 1980s and 1990s:

a) a musical discourse created by Portuguese musicians that is integrated within the major international developments experienced by commercial popular music;

b) a new musical style that vindicates its Portugueseness by both drawing upon various musical elements which musicians and audiences alike identify as Portuguese and emphasizing the Portuguese language.


© Instituto Camões, 2003