Portuguese music


Lisboa Intima (CD)
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The last Western European country to rid itself of authoritarian rule, Portugal continues to reemerge on the global scene politically, economically, and culturally.  It has become a focal point for trade with Africa and a hot spot for tourism.  Its ancient architecture, gorgeous Atlantic ambience, great wine industry, culinary treasures and a rich political history provide visitors with a unique look back at an old world elegance that is rapidly vanishing elsewhere on the continent.   On January 1, 2017, Antonio Guterres, former Prime Minister of Portugal, became the Secretary-General of the United Nations, further jettisoning Portugal onto the world stage.

Portugal is in the midst of a musical renaissance that began with the downfall of the Estado Novo dictatorship on April 25, 1974 and is exploding in the second decade of the twenty-first century. The music scene in Lisbon, Coimbra and Porto is vibrant, with an energy and optimism unparalleled anywhere in Europe, perhaps the world. Recordings are being released at a lightning pace and new Portuguese stars abound on the world music scene.  The mother tongue may not flow in song as beautifully as the Brazilian dialect, but it is incredibly expressive, especially as sung in Portugal’s main musical tradition, Fado.


While Portugal possesses a rich musical heritage of folk and traditional music, the most well-known and popular genre is Fado.  The roots of Fado reach back to Africa and the Moorish culture that once dominated Iberia.  The modern form, centered in Lisboa, can be traced to the early 1800s when the interaction with Portuguese colonies and the slave trade changed the face of the port cities. Unlike other colonial powers, the Portuguese socialized and intermarried with those they conquered. By the 1820s Lisboa and Coimbra reflected a multiracial population that has had a permanent effect on Portuguese culture. It is believed that the earliest Fado was an offshoot of the early 19th century Brazilian sentimental love song form, Modinha, and that the music took a different shape only when transported from Brazil back to the motherland.

Maria Severa is credited as the first Portuguese fadista (circa 1840) whose persona—a troubled life, many lurid affairs, a haunting, mysterious beauty, and a habit of always appearing with a black shawl—defined the classic image of the female Fado singer that survives today. Fado eventually crystallized in the backstreet brothels, flophouses, cafes, and clubs of Lisboa and Coimbra in the early 1900s.  It is an art song form with lyrics full of regret, mourning, and a mood that is forlorn. Its tones are usually dark, bluesy, and most of all eternally fatalistic, some might say depressing.  Fado singers are traditionally accompanied by the guitarra Portuguesa (the other voice of Fado) which is a 12-stringed guitar with a small body and long neck; the violao, a smaller guitar used to play chords and rhythm; and occasionally violin, flute, and accordion.

COIMBRA FADO is distinct from the more commercial Lisboa Fado and is said to have its origins in the University of Coimbra, sometimes called student Fado.  The music has clear roots in opera buffo from Italy and an association with Occitan troubadour music.  Coimbra Fado is sung almost exclusively by males, unlike the more popular Fado from Lisboa, and is also accompanied by guitarra Portuguesa and violão.  It is quite distinct from the more raw style of Lisboa Fado.  It has been described as "...the song of those who retain and cherish their illusions, not of those who have irretrievably lost them".

Lisboa Íntima includes the famous Verdes Anos, (not Fado) composed by the iconic Carlos Paredes, the son of Artur Paredes, who is widely credited as the creator of Coimbra Fado.  LIsboa à Solta again pays homage to Paredes with a rendition of his Canção.   Susan and guitar wizard Pedro Jóia perform classic versions of these great standards on the Lisboa recordings.

As we speed through 2018, Fado is ubiquitous throughout Portugal and is its major musical export, more popular with tourists and the International commercial music scene than with the Portuguese musical cognoscenti.  Susan has included one famous Fado tune Alfama on Lisboa Íntima out of respect and reverence for the incomparable, legendary Amalia Rodrigues who popularized the tune, but the recording as a whole intentionally focuses on other less known musical genres from Portugal.  Lisboa à Solta expands Susan's reach by focusing on the most important Portuguese composers of the past 50 years.  See, The Story of Lisboa à Solta.

For a deeper appreciation of Lisboa Fado, in addition to Amalia, who has no peer, we recommend exploring the music of singers from the mid to late 20th century including Lucilla do Carmo, Fernanda Maria, Adelina Ramos and Teresa Tarouca, all whose recordings are still widely available.   Perhaps harder to find, but worth the search are the Coimbra fadistos Luis Goes, António Menano, Fernando Rolim, Augusto Camacho and Edmundo Bettencourt, to name a few. 


Portugal has a diverse folk tradition, a strong classical guitar repertoire, and its own version of new song known as nova canção.  The giant of this genre is the late Jose Afonso, the revolutionary/folk singer/songwriter/physician whose music was suppressed during the Salazar/Estado Novo regime.  Unlike many of his colleagues, Zeca, as he is known, never permanently left his native land and emerged as a national hero in the late 1970s as Portugal finally entered the modern world.  His legend lives today in the music of rural artists and roots groups such as Brigada Victor Jara, Bando do Casaco, Trovante, Fausto, Celina Piedade, Al-Tambur, Gaiteiros de Lisboa and two artists who are featured on Lisboa Íntima, former Brigada/Trovante/Bando member, Né Ladeiras, and Cavaquinho master Júlio Pereira (see the bio section on this website for more on these artists).  In addition to Artur and Carlos Paredes, the music of the seminal guitar figure Armandinho, from the mid-20th century, is important and truly a revelation.  The renowned Fado Lopes/Meditando is performed on Lisboa à Solta.


The popular music of Portugal is a treasure trove of inventive lyrical and harmonic compositions.  It is not an exaggeration to say that the roster of composers who have created the extensive repertoire for Musica Populare Portuguesa and Fado rival the luminaries of Tin Pan Alley in their clever ability to turn a phrase and combine poignant lyrics with a magical musical structure.   There are Cole Porters and Jimmy Van Heusens, Jerome Kerns and Johnny Mercers here, waiting to be discovered. 

Music lovers in the USA would be well advised to explore the work of the composers listed below.   Some of the names are poets only, some songwriters, others songwriters and performers such as Paulho de Carvalho, Sergio Godinho and Zeca Afonso.   The words of Portugal’s greatest modern poet, Fernando Pessoa (and his heteronyms Alberto Cairo, Ricardo Reis and Alvaro de Campos) have regularly been set to music for 70 years with remarkable success.  To name a few...

Alain Oulman
Alfredo Marceneiro

Armando Machado
Ary dos Santos
David Mourao Fereira
Federico de Brito
Federico Valerio
Fernando Pessoa
Fernando Tordo
Gabriel de Oliveira
Jaime Santos
José Galhardo
José Luis Tinoco
Linhares Barbosa
Paulo de Carvalho
Pedro Rodrigues
Raul Ferrão
Rui Veloso
Sergio Godinho
Zeca Afonso

NB:  In Portuguese names are alphabetized by first name!



Brazil possesses one of the richest and most varied musical histories of any country in the World.  The music of Brasil is a mammoth topic requiring its own dissertation, too long to explore here.  For more on the topic check out the Brazilian section of Richard’s book, World Music:  The Basics (Routledge, 2004).



It has often been postulated that millions of years ago, before the world’s land mass split apart to form five continents, Angola and Brazil had been fused together. Examining the current coastlines of each country seems to support this possibility. What is undeniably true is that both countries were colonized by the Portuguese, and were major cogs in the slave trade, countries that continue to share cultural and musical ties with each other and their colonizers.

The Portuguese landed in what is now northern Angola circa 1482, encountering the kingdom of the Congo and to the south the Ngona people and their King Ngola, from whence the modern name of the country is derived. The Portuguese slaving system began in the sixteenth century, and by the nineteenth century Angola was one of the largest sources of slaves for Brazil and the Americas. Incredibly, slavery, redefined after the 1880s as the euphemistic “forced labor,” continued until 1961.

After the fall of the Estado Novo dictatorship in Portugal in 1974, a coalition of three separate movements that had been fighting the Portuguese in Angola came to power. The coalition soon broke down and civil war erupted into an international conflict.  There is a kind of “peace” now, but Angola remains one of the most corrupt nations on the planet circa 2017.


Semba is Angola’s traditional music, believed by many to lie at the heart of the more famous Brazilian Samba. The two styles sound quite different but share similar names and dance forms. Semba is an ancient dance rhythm accompanied by smooth undulation of the hips, originally played to celebrate good harvests, marriages, and other happy occasions. It developed in the coastal centers of Luanda and Benguela in the seventeenth century and to this day is regarded as the music of the sea.

Liceu Vierira Dias is credited as the modern pioneer of Angolan music, greatly influenced by American jazz and Portuguese Fado.  He fronted Angola’s most famous band, Ngola Ritmos, in the 1940s.

Barcelo de Carvalho, known as Bonga, is Angola’s most famous musical artist. The former African 400 meter track champion and staunch anti-colonialist was forced into exile in the Netherlands in 1972, eventually going totally underground when Holland cooperated with Portugal in returning political activists. After forming his band Kissueia in the early 1970s, he was coaxed into singing. The band likened his mournful, raspy voice to those of Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, and James Brown. While in exile he recorded Angola 72, one of the most popular and powerful African records ever.

Waldemar Bastos was born in Zaire and raised in Angola. Following Angola’s independence in 1974, Bastos was disillusioned by the new government’s continued oppression and he defected to Brazil in 1982 where he recorded his first album. After a short stint in Paris, he moved to Portugal where he thrived in the open Lusofonia culture that exploded in Lisboa and Coimbra. His voice and compositions captured a delightful version of the Afro-Portuguese persona.  Other notable artists include Yami Aloelelo, Ruy Mingas and the world renowned Felipe Mukenga.


Approximately equidistant from Lisbon and the East Coast of Brazil, Cape Verde is an archipelago off the Coast of West Africa (Senegal) that has been inhabited by the Portuguese since 1460. Legend has it that the Portuguese were the first people on the islands. Due to its unfortunate location, Cape Verde was home to the cruelest aspect of the slave trade, the site of Portuguese fortresses where imprisoned West Africans were kept before being sent across the Atlantic to the horrors that awaited them. The harsh physical realities of the island and sparse vegetation made it the ideal prison. The island population currently consists of the ancestors of those who were forced to intermarry with the Portuguese, Africans who remained in Cape Verde to build roads, homes, and to work on plantations despite the hostile, dry climate. The callous rule of the Portuguese caused nearly 40 percent of the population to die during the droughts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Today more Cape Verdeans live abroad than on the island, many in New England, especially in Rhode Island, where ties are kept with the homeland and its culture.


To most world music fans, Cape Verde is synonymous with the late Cesaria Evora from the island of Sao Vicente.  Her music is Morna, a lilting variation and combination of Portuguese Fado, Brazilian Modinha, and West African percussion with a strong influence from the innumerable sailors who frequented Cape Verde. It is a languid, sensual, slow-paced song form, melancholy music that is instantly recognizable and lovable. Coladeira is the Cape’s upbeat, festive form, and Funana is a jazz-tinged dance music, both lesser known than Morna but more popular among the Cape Verdean diaspora.

As of 2017, many new artists have established fine careers including the wonderful Sara Tavares, Tete Alhinho, Tito Paris, and his nephew Miroca Paris, but especially the multi-talented Tcheka from the island of Santiago whose style is more West African and the genre known as Batuca. 


The former Portuguese colony is landlocked in West Africa between Senegal and Guinea. After independence in 1974, a new nation led by popular President Luis Cabral enjoyed a cultural revolution and a period of freedom and rejoicing.  Kriolu, the local language, is a combination of Portuguese and Creole tongues, as well as the name of the music identified with liberation in Guinea-Bissau. The music played a mobilizing and unifying part in the struggle for independence. The group Cobiana Djazz, led by poet/composer Ze Carlos (Jose Carlos Schwartz), was at the forefront of the movement. Ze Carlos died in a “mysterious” plane crash in 1977.

The most popular Guinea-Bissau’s genre is Gumbe.  It contains hints of Samba, Morna and Semba but is its own wonderful thing, a very distinctive sound.  Gumbe also borrows from many local folk styles and contains unique West African polyrhythms, non-Portuguese forms that date back to the 1850s.  Several remarkable artists include, Manecas Costa, Eneida Marta, Bidinte and Ze Manel.


Difficult terrain, ethnic diversity, and dense vegetation have made Mozambique hard to unify throughout its history. When Vasco da Gama arrived in 1497, the Portuguese found more than 10 ethnic groups, many trading with Arabs along the Zambezi River. Portugal’s ruthless colonial crusade began with the pazos system whereby settlers were encouraged to lay claims on land, protected by armies of slaves. Despite a long, brutal struggle, Portugal prevailed in this southeastern African land, which was a primary supplier for the slave trade to Brazil.

As was the case in much of Portuguese-dominated Africa, after centuries of domination, rebellion erupted in the late 1960s. The FRELIMO faction took control, fighting both Portugal and troops from Apartheid South Africa. Despite decades of turmoil, Mozambique began to emerge as an economic miracle in the 1990s, with free, multiparty elections in 1994, until the disastrous flood of 1999 halted progress. Today, Mozambique is more stable than ever, a glimmer of hope in the Southern African region amidst an ocean of turmoil.


Current world music sensation Mariza was born in Mozambique as were many other Portuguese singers, including the eclectic Amelia Muge. Mozambique’s urban dance music is Marrabenta, with its distinctive, catchy beat that hints at calypso, salsa, and merengue has made waves on the world scene since the founding of Orchestra Marrabenta Star Moçambique in 1979 with leader and singer Wazimbo.  The timbla music of the Chopa people of the northeast is based on the indigenous Mbila, a type of xylophone said to derive from Indonesia. It is Mozambique’s strongest surviving roots music, although recordings of the genre are virtually nonexistent.   Stewart Sukuma, José Muscavel and Mingas are well known artists to explore.