Fado, Dictatorship, and Nostalgia: The Centenary of the Life of Amália Rodrigues

Fado, Dictatorship, and Nostalgia: The Centenary of the Life of Amália Rodrigues

Nestled in the Plateau Mont Royal neighbourhood, directly across from the widely known Parc de Portugal, is a mural dedicated to Portuguese singer Amália Rodrigues. This artwork was commissioned and funded by Portuguese-Canadian entrepreneur Herman Alves, the head of a project to paint twenty five murals celebrating Amália’ life and career across different cities around the world. Amália’ rise to success also coincided with Portugal’s 50 year-long fascist dictatorship, which turned both herself and fado music into controversial symbols. 

Fado and its Queen 

Fado is a Portuguese genre of music, but its origins can be traced back to Arabic and Afro-Brazillian musical influence. It is typically performed in small restaurants or bars, where one singer is accompanied by the Portuguese guitarra and the Spanish guitar. The music itself has a melancholic quality, but it embodies the Portuguese concept of saudade. This word has no direct translation in English, but British folklorist Rodney Gallop describes saudade as a “yearning for something so indefinite as to be indefinable”. Fado has become a national symbol for many Portuguese people, and Amália herself has become the face of this iconic genre. 

Amália de Piedade Robordão Rodrigues was born in Lisbon on July 23rd, 1920. She began performing fado in the 30s, and became a regular at several major casas do fado  (English: fado houses or small restaurants where fado is sung) in her hometown. By the late 40s she had acted in several films, and was easily the most famous faddistas in Portugal and abroad. She not only developed a unique style of singing and a signature style that left a lasting mark on the genre, but was somewhat of an ambassador for Portugal as she performed in several major music festivals in many countries. Amália’s countless international accolades and the hundreds of albums she recorded throughout her sixty-year musical career earned her the title of rainha do fado, or Queen of Fado. But whilst Amália shared her talents with the world, her home country was politically shutting its doors to the international community. 

Salazar and the Estado Novo

Antonio Oliveira de Salazar took power in 1932, after a military coup ended Portugal’s short and unstable twenty-year democracy. Salazar’s infamous ideological legacy is the Estado Novo (English: Second Republic), a political ideal rooted in facism, authoritarianism, and religious conservatism. His dictatorship pandered to Portugal’s richest 100 families, whilst “keeping the mass of the nation’s nine million people poor and illiterate”. Political suppression was a strong part of the Salazar regime, both in Portugal and in colonial Angola, and Mozambique. In 1974, a left-leaning coalition led the Carnation Revolution, which ended dictatorship in Portugal and the thirteen year war waged in ex-Portuguese colonies. Though this event took place three years after Salazar’s death, his government’s effect on all facets of society is unmistakable, and fado was not immune to the ideology of the Second Republic. 

Fado presented a problem for the dictatorship because of its working class and leftist roots. Well known fado songs composed in the early twentieth centuries were written by anarchist and leftist poets, whilst famous fado musicians such as the great guitarist Armandinho played at Communist party rallies. Whilst these songs were largely eradicated by Salazar’s strict censorship laws, the undoubtable popularity and accessibility of fado as a genre was presumably not missed by the Portuguese government. Author John Lewis for The Guardian notes the shift in the dictatorship’s policies post-World War II, as conservative ministers became cultural patrons of fado music. Despite her unclear political opinions, the rainha do fado herself was undoubtedly caught in the polarized state of her country. 

Amália as “political symbol”

Amália always denied any political affiliations, but society consistently sought to position her within political narratives. During her career Amália sang fados that glamourize Salazar-backed themes of rural simplicity and poverty. However, she also collaborated with leftist and antifascist figures like Ary Dos Santos. She was accused of both being an agent of the Portuguese secret police, and a patron of the Communist party.  Whether she’s singing “Meu Amor, Meu Amor” by Dos Santos or iconic but traditional “Uma Casa Portuguesa”, Amalia’s political leanings are still ambiguous, yet her significance remains undisputed, and understanding her popularity often goes hand in hand with understanding the very significance of fado in Portugal. 

Anthropologist and ethnomusicologist Lila Ellen Grey says of fado: “in its elusiveness therein lies its power”, arguing that the politicization of fado is impossible as the genre has never been tied to a sole specific political ideology, much like Amalia herself. In the wake of her death, she was venerated by both Portuguese conservatives and leftists; celebrated in the diaspora and in the Portuguese gay community alike. Even those who denounce Amália and fado itself for its perceived opposition to modernity, have something in common with those who praise her. Anthropologist Mattijs van de Port asserts that in the figure of Amália most if not all find a means of cleaning “the mess they cannot and will not allow back into their glamorous lives, yet cannot deny completely if they are to claim authority”. The symbol of Amália is used to legitimize political leanings, whilst she also represents a means of reconnecting to a Portuguese identity that is released “from the confines of” Portuguese inertia. 

The Legacy of Amália

Remembering Amália is a complex thing, as her image is tied to a very divided Portuguese collective memory. Van de Port asserts that the “void” being filled by connection to the symbol of Amália is potentially the feeling of saudade itself, as saudade is literally a sadness for something that might have been, or may never be. The hardest question to ask is: can one feel saudade for things like the simplicity of widespread poverty, the legacy of colonialism, or even of a dictatorial Portugal that was largely closed off to the world? This is a question that is hard to answer for many Portuguese people, and the current political climate makes it even harder to answer. 

In her essay entitled “Resistência: 3 Fados” author Elaine Avila quotes Donald Trump saying that he does not cry, a claim infamously made by several authoritarian powers like Adolph Hitler, and Salazar himself. Avila asserts that “Salazar allowed himself ‘one tear’ when he heard Amália…sing ‘O Grito’—a fado song, the title of which might be translated as ‘shout,’ ‘call,’ or ‘cry’”. Perhaps this showing of emotion allows us to understand fado as something that can transcend the image of a dictator. Yet more, perhaps the current paths being forged towards authoritarianism can be blockaded by a humane, emotional understanding. While Fado was used as a tool by the dictatorship, it remains both an embodiment of the fragility of the human condition and of the idea that we, as people, are constantly looking outwards in order to make ourselves whole. 

It’s perplexing to simultaneously love fado while also being aware that that the genre has connections both to a government that engaged in violent imperialism and to a leader that impoverished a whole nation in the name of ideology. Members of the Portuguese diaspora crave a connection to the homeland and culture of their grandparents, but these are tainted by the shadow of Salazar’s authoritarianism. Passing the mural of Amália and listening to fado should evoke feelings of saudade, but it should also be a time for to remember the realities of living under Salazar. These acts of remembrance help us to know our own history, and to recognize how and when present day political figures mirror these dangerous behaviours. 

Edited by Olivia Shan 

Featured image by Adriana Franco, taken on 13 Sept. 2020. 


Links to mentioned songs:

Meu Amor, Meu Amor – Amália Rodrigues (Music by Alain Oulman, Lyrics by Ary Dos Santos, 1968)

Uma Casa Portuguesa – Amália Rodrigues (Music by Artur Fonesca, Lyrics by Reinaldo Ferreira and Vasco Matos Sequeira, 1953) 

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