Searching the Internet for information about the Portuguese folk music known as fado yields few conclusive answers as to its origins. Although most sources seem to agree that it first gained widespread popularity in the 1800s, they are universally vague as to where, how, and when it first developed. Like North American blues music originally offered African Americans the means to help relieve the pain of their day to day existence, fado, played on the street corners and in the brothels of working class districts in Lisbon and other metropolitan centres, provided the poor and working class of Portugal with similar relief.
Whether or not, as some claim, it came as a dance from Africa that the poor adapted or from homesick sailors at sea as others insist, by the twentieth century it was the most popular form of music in Portugal. One need look no further than the three days of official mourning declared by the country's prime minister in 1999 upon the death of Amalia Rodrigues, who had been the genre's biggest star since the 1940s, to understand the depth of its popularity.
Traditionally fado is performed by a trio comprised of a singer and two instrumentalists playing Portuguese guitar, a type of 12-string, and a classical guitar. There are two distinct types of fado: that of the poor in Lisbon and that which had its beginnings in the university town of Coimbra among the students and professors. The latter is less concerned with the pain of everyday life and more poetical in nature as its themes focus on love and friendship. However no matter where it originated or what type is being played, the essential element of saudade is shared. Roughly translated into English as a longing, or nostalgia, for unrealized dreams, saudade is expressed by lyrics that speak of a yearning that can't be satisfied or fulfilled. It's this highly fatalistic world view that gives the music its shape and the sense of longing audiences look to hear and see in performers.
At one time the performances by women were highly stylized affairs.They would stand slightly in front of the two guitar players with their head covered by a shawl and barely move for the length of their show. It was only through facial expressions and hand gestures that they were able to communicate any additional information their vocals and the song's lyrics were unable to express. While times have changed and there has been some slackening of expectations among audiences with regards to how fado is presented, the demand that the performer still be able deliver on the promise of saudade hasn't relaxed in the least. Just as we still expect a blues performer to "feel" what he or she is singing, a knowledgeable fado audience won't accept anything less than the genuine article.