Secret history

The roots of Portuguese fado in militant, working-class Lisbon were airbrushed by a fascist regime

The international success of the fado singer Mariza has brought a new audience to Portugal's most distinctive music. In Lisbon, the clubs in the historic fado districts are flourishing, frequented by locals and visitors alike. Traditionally, the melancholic sound of fado is said to be associated with saudade, or longing (the word fado literally means "fate"). Amália Rodrigues, the most celebrated fado singer of them all, said in 1994: "The Portuguese invented fado because we have a lot to complain about. On one side we have the Spanish with their swords; on the other side there's the sea, which was unknown and fearful. When people set sail we were waiting and suffering, so fado is a complaint."

It came as a surprise, therefore, to find a political side to the music, as I did while making a BBC documentary about the history of fado, going out later this month. Take these lyrics from an anonymous anarchist fado from around 1920: "The world shall behold/The poor free from oppression/Smashing the butchers/Of the ruling bourgeoisie." I found out that the militant roots of fado had been airbrushed from history, only to be rediscovered in recent years.

Old Lisbon is where fado was born in the early 19th century, in the districts of Alfama and Mouraria, which were populated by traders, sailors and fishing families. The Portuguese royal family spent the Napoleonic Wars in exile in Rio de Janeiro, which became the capital of the Portuguese empire from 1808-21. They returned with a whole retinue of Brazilians and Afro-Brazilians, and as such Lisbon has long had a multiracial and assi milado population. Fado (also the name of an Afro-Brazilian dance) was heard in the taverns and brothels of the city's working-class areas. Its first star was a young prostitute called Maria Severa (1820-46), who had a notorious affair with the Count of Vimioso, an aristocratic bullfighter, and introduced fado to high society. Many fado lyrics refer to her by name ("Fado da Severa" is one of the most famous), and both a stage show of 1901 and Portugal's first all-talking sound film, A Severa (1931), were dramatisations of her life.

To Portugal's leading fado historian Rui Vieira Nery, the lyrics of "Fado da Severa" and "Fado Choradinho" ("Fado of the Unfortunate"), written in the mid-19th century, underline the genre's connection to the Lisbon underclass. "There are several texts that were clearly written by people who had been in jail for long periods and this zigzag between legal and illegal lifestyles is very present in those early fados," he explains. It is Nery, with his book Para uma História do Fado ("Towards a History of Fado"), who has surprised even the Portuguese with the secret history of the music they thought they knew so well. "By the late 19th century, fado was essentially a working-class song - very politically committed. You had fados talking about Kropotkin, Bakunin, Marx - and even Lenin later on." One socialist fado from 1900 begins: "May 1st!/Forward! Forward!/O soldiers of freedom!/Forward and destroy/National borders and property."

Such militant fados remained underground, although the more respectable theatrical fado revista ("revue") was popular with the middle classes. In 1882, the cartoonist Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro criticised fado singers (and by implication the Portuguese people), through the character of Zé Povinho ("Poor Zé"), for being too passive and playing whatever song was placed in front of them. The following year, however, another of his cartoons showed politicians at a fado tavern dancing to Zé Povinho's music, but knocking him over in the end. It is clear that, far from being simply nostalgic and sentimental, fado included social and political commentary.

In 1926, after years of political instability, Zé Povinho and the Portuguese people really were knocked over by a coup d'état that installed a fascist dictatorship (led by António Salazar from 1932-68) which lasted nearly half a century. "By the mid-1920s, when the coup took place, fado was for the most part a left-wing, working-class, socialist-oriented type of song," says Nery. "But of course, in a fascist dictatorship, this wouldn't do." In 1927, laws were introduced subjecting all lyrics to censorship. Songs that had not been approved could not be sung in public. "The regime didn't trust fado," Nery says. "It was originally sung by people of ill-repute - prostitutes, thieves and marginals - and that did not carry great prestige for a song of national identity." A 1927 cartoon by Alonso entitled "A Sad, Miserable Life", shows two fadistas, one of them singing, "Cry, politicians, cry", over a subtitle that reads: "O fado, you used to be fado." The implication is that fado has been emasculated. In 1936 the regime ran a series of radio broadcasts entitled Fado, the Song of the Defeated, in effect consigning the genre to history.

But after the Second World War, with fado as popular as ever, the regime decided to change tack. "They decided to cultivate a strategy of public relations with the Portuguese people," says Nery. "They encouraged lyrics about popular traditions, about love, about family life with no concern for politics. And those were lyrics that fado adopted very easily, so there was a certain tacit alliance between the regime and the fado world." As left-wing opposition to the fascists grew during the colonial wars of the 1960s, it was said that the pillars supporting them were the "three big Fs" - fado, football and Fatima (referring to the popular shrine of the Virgin Mary at Fatima). A cartoon by João Abel Manta from 1970 depicts the ghost of Augusto Hilário, a celebrated fado singer/songwriter from Coimbra who died in 1896, floating over Coimbra Castle, suggesting that true fado was long dead.

When the revolution came in 1974, it was felt that fado had been tainted by the former regime and it fell out of favour for a decade or more. It was only during the 1990s that a younger generation felt able to turn to the music again and give it new life. Most of them are probably unaware of its political origins. But if you go to one of the fado tavernas such as Tasca do Chico, as Mariza sometimes does when she's in Lisbon, you can hear ordinary taxi drivers singing fado, surrounded by peeling posters and football scarves. This so-called fado vadio (amateur or "vagabond" fado) is a reminder of the lost, radical tradition.

"Mariza and the Story of Fado" launches BBC4's "European Roots" series on 19 October (7.30pm). Simon Broughton is editor of "Songlines", the world music magazine

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, An abuse of power