What is the sound of the city at night?
Today, most of the places in Lisbon where you can hear Fado--the quintessential expression of Portuguese popular song--are tourist venues of questionable authenticity. But only a few decades ago it was possible to listen to non-professional singers and musicians known as "fadistas vadios" (amateur or bohemian Fado interpreters) in taverns of neighborhoods like Alfama, the Barrio Alto and Bica. It should not be difficult to imagine the sound of the night along the narrow streets climbing up the hills from the downtown Baixa. The open doors of the "tascas", as those bars or restaurants are known, would let out the melodies played on the characteristic Fado instruments: the bass Spanish guitar and the brighter Portuguese guitar. And of course, the melancholic and sometimes angry voice of the Fado singer.
The history of Fado dates back to the early 19th century and involves colorful, almost mythical figures of the night, like Maria Severa Onofriana, a legendary prostitute of the Mouraria neighborhood made famous by the 1901 novel "A Severa". Other characters included aristocrats--Francisco de Paula Portugal e Castro, the 13th Count of Vimioso, was supposedly one of Severa's lovers--bullfighters and knife-wielding ruffians, a remarkable but explosive social mix that would have certainly added to Lisbon's nocturnal soundtrack.