Review | Fado Resounding: Affective Politics and Urban Life by Lila Ellen Gray

Fado Resounding: Affective Politics and Urban Life. By Lila Ellen Gray. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.  [328 p., ISBN 9780822354710. $24.95] 22 photographs (including 10 in color), 10 figures, appendixes with fado transcriptions, notes, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Joshua Brown


Fado Resounding is a powerful ethnographic account in which Lila Ellen Gray argues compellingly that the musical genre of fado performs invaluable labors in locating, synthesizing and activating modes of experience, expression and interaction.  Throughout the book, Gray takes us through various lessons, concert settings, and intimate listening sessions in which fado amador, or amateur fado, is enacted.  In this volume, fado is situated as a musical form that articulates, symbolizes and constitutes locality, history and national identity in Lisbon and Portugal at large.

In the introduction, the author lays out an affective framework in which local places and histories are rendered into feeling, “given sound,” and “granted ‘soul’” (9).  Gray asserts that fado allows locality and temporality to cohere through the everyday performances of cultural actors, which include speaking, listening, moving and feeling.  In this way, she strikes a balance between the influence of individual agency and the transformative power of cultural forms.  Moreover, she illustrates how relationships between these forces are not only mutually constituted, but how they change over time in response to a wide array of pressures and power structures.  As a national and international marker of Portuguese identity, fado has long been suffused with political and commercial discourses and interests.  Such debates have intensified in the wake of fado’s inscription onto UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in November 2011.  While Gray does not discuss the UNESCO declaration at length, she does address many issues related to cultural patrimony, including the ways in which fado is commodified as an expedient economic resource (Yúdice 2003).  For example, she asserts that as fado becomes increasingly relied upon to promote and represent neoliberal and multinational interests (including UNESCO), narratives of fado resistance to the Estado Novo  will be highlighted while accounts of fado complicity with the totalitarian state will be erased (103).

In the first chapter, the author describes the physically and socially constructed environments in which fado amador takes place.  Focusing on performance practices in the tasca, or neighborhood bar, Gray explores how informal vocal lessons promote artistic development, including the construction, maintenance and adaptation of particular aesthetics.  She asks, “What kinds of selfhood and socialities might practices of fado shape?  What are the stakes of the soulful sung?” (29).  Indeed fadistas, defined as experienced fado singers and listeners, often believe that the feeling of fado cannot be learned.  Rather, one must be born with the ability to understand and express oneself through fado.  Consequently, the institutionalization of fado education (often referred to as “the modernization of fado”) has been met with a great deal of cynicism and scorn in amateur circles (48).  Gray examines how discourses of innate knowledge in fado serve to promote claims to authenticity that are based upon longstanding ideas of nationalism, including the existence of a shared internal soul.  Drawing from Raymond Williams’s “structures of feeling,” Gray introduces the phrase “structures of listening” to explain how soulfulness is internalized and communicated both individually and collectively (43).

Chapter two looks at how origin stories in fado serve to construct local and national imaginaries that are highly gendered and racialized.  More specifically, this section centers on the ways that history is affectively mediated through sound (9).  Fado histories are saturated with narratives of colonization, miscegenation and globalization that simultaneously compete and intertwine.  As an oral tradition that spans over two hundred years, fado’s origins cannot be concretely determined.  The absence of a definitive history in fado leaves a discursive space that is open to unrestricted debate, speculation and doubt.  Gray illustrates how origin claims are highly fraught with identity politics that are unleashed lyrically, sonically and affectively in a multitude of ways.  For example, she considers how saudade, a nostalgia that is ubiquitous in fado lyrics and expression, became a tool for reconciling Portuguese nationalisms, histories and colonialist desires (77).

The third chapter, entitled “Fado’s City,” outlines how Lisbon is experienced and imagined through musical performance.  For example, Gray refers to a sub-genre of fado as “place-name fado” in which fado houses, chapels, street names and other locales are referenced in song (108).  Locality and intimacy are constantly sounded through fado, “situating genre in place” and “empowering genre to ‘speak’ and to ‘sing’ of the past of that place” (109).  Gray introduces the reader to Lisbon’s neighborhoods and geopolitical history, including the impact of António de Oliveira Salazar’s dictatorship (1932-1968) on fado spaces and ideologies.  Moving from the state-sponsored tourism of the Salazar era into the present day, this chapter chronicles the development of fado as a “world music” that simultaneously represents Portugal’s spiritual essence and marks the nation’s entrance into the global entertainment industry.

The remainder of the book touches upon styling, gendering and celebrity in fado.  In chapter four, sentimento and estilar – feeling and styling – are situated within ideologies of spontaneity and a fabric of sedimented performance practices and “cumulative listening” (156).  The latter term refers to “a listening that includes past renderings of the same traditional fado structure in the inner ear, a listening that juxtaposes the styling one hears in the present with the styling one remembers by a different performer in the past” (157).  Chapter five discusses fado as a feminine form that helped to develop projects of nation-building.  The author traces the gendering of amateur fado spaces in Lisbon, including how performative and participative boundaries are drawn and maintained within these communities.  Furthermore, she reflects upon the multiplicity of values that are mapped onto the feminine fado voice.

The sixth and final chapter surveys the life, legacy and artistry of fado’s most celebrated figure – Amália Rodrigues.  Here, Gray contributes to larger conversations on celebrity and publics that are linked to processes of media production, distribution and consumption, as well as commodification and nation-building, in the mid-twentieth century.  Rodrigues, who was said to have possessed a “throat of silver,” became larger than life as a metonymic representation of fado and Portugal on the world’s stage.  In the years since her passing in 1999, Rodrigues’s fame has expanded and been appropriated in a number of interesting ways.  Gray relates stories of amateur fado performers in Lisbon that continue to mimic Rodrigues’s mannerisms, dress and vocal styles in order to pay tribute to their idol.  Contemporary fadistas shape themselves in Amália’s memory as they move this dynamic musical form into the future.

Overall, Fado Resounding weaves together incredibly vivid ethnographic accounts with incisive analyses that will be of great use to scholars working on vocality and gender, as well as constructions and articulations of locality, history and genre.  Rooted in anthropological scholarship on sound and the senses, this book demonstrates how local practices of music-making vocalize and implicate a vast collection of temporal, spatial, national (including colonial), and personal narratives.



Williams, Raymond.  1977.  Marxism and Literature.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yúdice, George.  2003.  The Expediency of Culture.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


Joshua Brown is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology and a recent recipient of the UC President’s Dissertation Year Fellowship at UC Riverside.  He conducted his dissertation research on flamenco performance spaces, tradition and patrimony in Seville, Spain, supported by Fulbright IIE and UC Riverside Humanities Research Grant fellowships.


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