Singing Fado in Contemporary Lisbon: Questions of Boundedness

Author Information

Olga Kakosimou,
National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece

DOI: 10.47298/comela22.10-3
The GLOCAL Proceedings:  The GLOCAL Conference in the Mediterranean and Europe 2022


Understanding the oral tradition of fado, requires a profound engagement with the power of its narrativity and its lyrics (Castelo-Branco 1997; Abu-Lughod 1986). Fado is a poetical world of stories being told (sung) and shared in everyday life between those who understand and mainly possess the fado linguagem. It is a broad corpus of words and utterances, pre-existing melodies and repertoires, meanings, and performances, that creates the aesthetic vocabulary of fado and a strong sense of traditionality and boundedness, often disregarded by the global music scene and industry (Gray 2018). This sense also derives from fado’s close interaction with the historical past of Portugal and the collective memory of the community, both performatively and lyrically.

However, now that the Portuguese urban song of longing has turned its gaze to globality, especially since 2011 when recognised by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, there are severe questions regarding how the traditional language of fado could be in dialogue with contemporary musical trends, and at what price. How might the fadistas negotiate or not their musical and cultural identity in front of new, global audiences?

In this paper, I will attempt to sculpt the boundedness of the fado universe. Therefore, fado lyrics will be my point of departure to unfold the storytellings and the set of sign types, mainly symbols and metaphors, that help understand the fadistas’ linguagem and their way of being-in-the-world (Turino 2008). Then, by using original ethnographic material, I will examine the dialogue between fado and the modern music industry.

Keywords: Fado, tradition, storytelling, poetry, performance, heritage, linguistic anthropology


Abu-Lughod, L. (1986). Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. Oakland: University of California Press.
Castelo-Branco, S. (1997). Voix du Portugal (trans. Pascale de Mezamat). Paris: Cité de la Musique / Actes Sud.
Finnegan, R. (2015). Where is Language? An Anthropologist’s Questions on Language, Literature and Performance. London και New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
Gray, L. E. (2018). Listening Low-Cost: Ethnography, the City and the Tourist Ear. In A. R. Suzel and K. Brucher (eds.), The Routledge Companion to the Study of Local Musicking. New York: Routledge.
Turino, T. (2008). Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Full COMELA 2022 Proceedings book