“If young people don’t like fado it is just because they haven’t had the opportunity to go to a real fado house.”

Fado is a mystery. Fado is love. Fado is Portugal. This is how guests at Once in Fado, a musical bringing the best of Portuguese culture to the United Kingdom described what fado means to them.

Fado is the traditional music of Portugal, most popular in the country’s capital of Lisbon. This genre of music includes instruments like the Portuguese guitar and mandolins, as well as one performer – known as the fadista – who sings about sadness, passion, death and “saudade“- a Portuguese word used to describe the feeling of missing someone or a place.

However, for the producers of Once in Fado, which premiered in London on 13 June, fado is much more than a music style. Once in Fado Co-Producer Sofia Noronha told the IPF:

“It’s the spirit of Portugal itself, conjuring the sun, the vineyards, the food, the drink, the sea and the culture.”

Once in Fado’wants to bring all these aspects of Portuguese culture to the international stage, starting in London. The production team decided to put on the show in London because they believe fado is something that can only be experienced live, with authentic Portuguese performers.

Sofia said: “We wanted to explain a bit of fado to the world. We wanted people to really experience Portugal.”


Fadista and Portuguese guitar players [Image credit: Katy Lalanne]

Once in Fado, directed by Matilde Trocado, had an unrivalled cast of famous Portuguese fadistas, including Maria João Quadros, Francisco Salvação Barreto and Matilde Cid. As the show began at Village Underground, a venue in one of London’s trendiest neighbourhoods, one of the fadistas asked everyone to close their eyes and imagine they were at a traditional fado house in Lisbon.

Sofia, who lives in London, explained that although it felt “a bit weird” to bring traditions from her home country to London, she still felt in Portugal inside the venue. Paintings of Lisbon covered the walls, and even the tablecloth resembled the ones used at traditional Portuguese restaurants.

“This musical completely transports you through space and time,” Sofia said.


Village Underground in Shoreditch [Image credit: Katy Lalanne]

In Lisbon, most fadistas perform in restaurants, where people can eat while enjoying the music.

Before and during the musical, traditional food and drink were served by well-known London-based Portuguese restaurants, including Taberna do Mercado, Portuguese Story and Café de Nata. On the stalls, guests found everything from cheese and cured meat, to wine, beer and the famous custard tart.


Cheese and cured meat served by Taberna do Mercado [Image credit: Katy Lalanne]

While the audience enjoyed the food, the artists performed original songs, as well as other songs by renowned artists, including Amália Rodrigues, a fadista who was declared “the Voice of Portugal” after she died in 1999. The one-hour long musical ended with songs celebrating Portugal’s June festivities for the Popular Saints, including St Anthony, St John and St Peter.


Maria João Quadros performing at Once in Fado [Image credit: Carla Cuomo for Village Underground]

Over two days, 400 people, both from Portugal and the UK, attended the event. On day one, 60% of the audience was from Portugal, but on the day two, more than 80% were from the UK.

Jonathan, from England, said he didn’t really know what to expect of the show. “I came along and obviously there were a lot of jokes in Portuguese which went straight over my head.”

Even though he thinks fado is very “alien” to English people, the 35-year-old enjoyed the experience. He added: 

“You looked around the room and you could see everyone else singing along and people almost wanting to get up on the stage to sing.”

Among the crowd was Elsa Alves, a 38-year-old from Portugal who used to live in Lisbon. She told the IPF“It feels so good to recreate some of the moments I lived in Portugal here in London.” 

Elsa, who has been living in London for over a year, finds it hard to explain to her English friends what fado is, saying that you need to hear the music to understand the meaning behind it. Elsa believes more young people from Portugal need to listen to fado, noting that it is an important part of their culture.

“The younger generation says that they don’t like fado because they think of it as music for older people.”

Manuel Marçal, Once in Fado Executive Producer, shares a similar opinion and encourages young people, both from Portugal and abroad, to learn more about this music genre. He said: “If young people don’t like fado is just because they haven’t had the opportunity to go to a real fado house.”


[Image credit: Katy Lalanne]

In the future, Elsa hopes more projects like Once in Fado come to London. She said:

“Coming to shows like this makes me feel proud of my country.”

In 2016-17, Once in Fado will tour France, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Brazil. You can find out more about them on their official Facebook page.