Sigh notes

In the backstreets of Lisbon, Kate Armstrong joins the night owls for a hauntingly beautiful musical experience.

TALK about intimate. A singer, silhouetted against dim red backlighting, closes her eyes and sways. She tilts back her head and sings. Deep, wistful notes fill the room. Several people, gathered with friends around tables, know this tune. Some click their fingers, one gasps with appreciation as the melody rises and falls. Welcome to the world of Portuguese fado.

I am seated an arm's length from Fabia Rebordao, the fado singer - or fadista - in a fado club, somewhere in the labyrinth of tiny cobbled streets of Lisbon's central Alfama district. It was almost midnight when

I entered the club, "Bacalhau de Molho" (warning: fado is the domain of night owls). It was easy to find - I followed the haunting musical notes that resonate off the stone walls of this historic centre.

So, what exactly are these beautiful songs of Portugal's national "folk music"? Simply put, fado is a song that tells a story of "saudades", meaning longing or nostalgia. But it's more than that. Or so I discover during the two days I tune into Portugal's fadista "royalty": Carlos do Carmo, fado king; Ana Moura, one of the country's fado princesses; and Celeste Rodrigues, an 87-year-old who has more than 58 recordings under her belt in a career spanning 65 years. Her sister was Amalia Rodrigues, the queen of fado, who popularised the genre globally in the '50s, '60s and '70s.

According to Celeste Rodrigues, "Fado isn't necessarily melancholic. Not all songs are sad. I am happy when I sing. Fado means emotions. It's like a sigh - [about] love, jealousy, life, death."

Ana Moura puts her hand on her heart as she urges in her husky voice: "Fado is something you need to feel. It's a kind of music where we use the melody and words to express what's going on in our soul."

This stunning, petite 31-year-old has performed with the Rolling Stones and sings to huge audiences around the world (as do other famous fadistas, including Cristina Branco and Mariza).

Fado's roots are in Lisbon's Alfama district and along the coast where, in the 1850s, sailors and ruffians sang of life. Later, when it gained popularity among the nobility, fado performance took off more formally. In the 20th century, instrumental accompaniments included a 12-string Portuguese guitar and a classical guitar, both still popular in the clubs today. (For concert performances it's another matter, with anything from contemporary fusion sounds to jazz and orchestras added to the mix). These days, clubs vary from the tourist-oriented, two-tunes-and-a-meal experience to authentic, high-quality establishments frequented by locals for their quality of fado, atmospheres and bars - no longer smoky due to recent health regulations.

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The most fascinating performance is "desgarrada", a melodic sparring or "duel", akin to a verbal jazz jam session (apparently the divas can get quite heated). Unfortunately, I don't witness this. I'm sure I'll have another chance: fado and its clubs will never die, at least not if the fadistas have anything to do with it. This year, passionate supporters applied to UNESCO to have fado recognised. Besides which, fadistas are loyal to clubs which have supported them.

Celeste Rodrigues says: "The club is an intimate space - we are in contact with our public. What is important for an artist is not just the applause, it is the human warmth, the intimacy. If you leave these roots, then you leave fado."

Feeling fado

Fado Museum, museudofado.egeac.pt, Largo do Chafariz de Dentro 1, Alfama. This fun and interactive museum lets you experience the heart and soul of fado.

Clube de Fado, Rua de Sao Joao da Praca 92, Alfama. A touristy but pleasant fado club that keeps earlier hours. +351 218 852 704, clube-de-fado.com.

Senhor Vinho, Rua do Meio a Lapa 18, Lapa. Many say it's Lisbon's best, Senhor Vinho is small and intimate and a good place to catch a spontaneous performance of desgarrada. +351 213 972 681, srvinho.com.

Bacalhau de Molho, Beco dos Armazens do Linho 1, Alfama. This upmarket, atmospheric option has excellent fado and meals. +351 218 865 088.

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