A playlist of 10 essential Lisbon songs, from fado to pimba to Eurovision hits.
Lisbon has an energetic music scene, with venues ranging from stadiums and grand concert halls to smoky nightclubs, community association spaces, and bars where you can eat and hear traditional fado. Fado, jazz, indie pop, and electronic music all thrive here. As befits a country that values poetry, Portugal has accomplished homegrown singer-songwriters. Lisbon is such a cosmopolitan city, and so many lisboetas have lived abroad, that musical influences come from all over the world: jazz, folk, and pop have long fed off the rest of Europe and Brazil, to some extent the U.S., and sounds from Portugal’s former African colonies are particularly influential in electronic music. Here are 10 songs that represent the city’s rich musical history.
“Cheira Bem Cheira a Lisboa,” Amália Rodrigues, 1972
Fado emerged in Lisbon around the 1820s, and was sung and enjoyed by ordinary people in bars, in particular in the neighbourhoods of Alfama, Mouraria, and Bairro Alto. It features a vocalist accompanied by a twelve-stringed Portuguese fado guitar, a viola guitar, and sometimes a bass guitar. Fado songs are usually melancholy, with a focus on the vicissitudes of working class life, and on saudades—nostalgic longing. Some of the more upbeat fados are love songs to the city of Lisbon (which this song says smells of flowers and the sea). Amália is fado’s megastar; the best-selling Portuguese singer in history, with an international career that helped bring fado to the world. Born to a poor family, she sold fruit on the Lisbon docks before being discovered singing in a bar. When Amália died in 1999, the government declared three days of mourning. In 2001, her body was transferred to Lisbon’s National Pantheon—the first woman to be laid there.
“Grandola, Vila Morena,” Zeca Afonso, 1972
Zeca Afonso is another household name. He began by singing fado in the other fado tradition that centered on the university town of Coimbra. He became involved in the pro-democracy struggles of the 1960s and toured the country performing his political folk songs, many of which were banned by Salazar’s dictatorship. “Grandola, Vila Morena” is about the struggle of the workers of Grandola, a town south of Lisbon in the communist stronghold of the Alentejo. On April 25, 1974, the Lisbon radio station Renascença played that year’s Portuguese Eurovision Song Contest entry followed by “Grandola, Vila Morena.” This was the secret sign that started the Carnation Revolution, which finally overthrew the dictatorship. The song still represents political struggle. It’s sung at demonstrations and rallies, and every self-respecting activist knows the words. In February 2013, protestors interrupted parliamentary debate by singing it in the public gallery to complain about austerity.
“Cancao de Engate,” Antonio Variações, 1984
In the 1980s, Portugal emerged into the modern world after 48 years of oppression under António de Oliveira Salazar’s dictatorship. Pop music began to express previously-taboo ideas, but society remained conservative. Antonio Variações (meaning ‘variations’, the stage name of António Rodrigues Ribeiro) drew attention for his flamboyant clothing, and for covering an Amália Rodrigues song on his first record. He is an important figure for Portugal’s LGBTQ community, although his sexuality was not discussed until after his death in 1984. His music blends fado with the pop he discovered on visits abroad and living in London and Amsterdam. The result is a uniquely Portuguese sound that can still be heard in Portuguese pop today. Variações is a Portuguese icon (a biopic of his life is coming out this year), but is little-known outside the country. “Canção de Engate,” with lyrics about a casual sexual encounter, still receives considerable airplay.
“Kalemba (Wegue Wegue),” Buraka Som Sistema, 2008
Released in 2008, this was a big dance hit for Buraka Som Sistema, one of Lisbon’s most successful musical exports. The band is named after the Lisbon suburb of Buraca, in Amadora, where its members met. Buraka Som Sistema fuses Angolan kuduro music with techno mash-ups. Member Rui Pité, who also has a solo career as DJ Riot, said (in an interview for the London club Fabric, where he and the band have played): “Lisbon is an entry point in Europe for a lot of Portuguese speakers from the ex-colonies, which makes it a giant melting pot of culture and habits. Growing up in Amadora and going to school with people from Cape Verde, India, Mozambique and Angola made me listen to a lot of different musical genres.”
“Falcon,” Minta and the Brook Trout, 2009
This female-led indie pop band, formed in 2009, all hail from Lisbon, but they have an English name and write their songs in English. This is not unusual: The Portuguese don’t dub their films, and near-native fluency in English, Spanish, and French is common in all but the oldest people. Minta and the Brook Trout are representative of a young generation of Portuguese musicians who are confidently multilingual and multinational in outlook. Yet this band’s songs seem to express some of the essence of the country’s capital city too: gentle, simple, melodious, thoughtful, unhurried. Their two latest albums, Olympia (2012) and Slow (2016) have now been released in the U.S. too, but this song, from their debut album, Minta and the Brook Trout, only released in Portugal, has a special directness and simplicity, as well as a beautiful tune.
“O Ritmo do Amor,” Emanuel, 2010
Emanuel is one of the biggest names of pimba music, a style named by journalists after his 1995 hit “Pimba Pimba”. It’s Portugal’s take on party pop, mixing traditional sounds with accordion and Latin beats. The lyrics are simple, often humorous or religious, or both, with catchy sing-along choruses. Pimba is often used as a pejorative term to describe a piece of music as light and inane. It may not be the most sophisticated music, but it has so far withstood the onslaught of musical globalization—and remains the soundtrack to Lisbon’s June festivities, the sardine-fuelled traditional street celebrations of the city’s patron saint, St Anthony.
“Afro Xula,” B Fachada, 2012
This is a bouncy dance tune with African-inspired synthesized beats. B Fachada is part of the current generation of confident, versatile music creators who draw on global influences, but sing in Portuguese, which has restricted their fame to Portugal but given them a particularly loyal following there. B Fachada often plays outdoor concerts in the city. He’s a constantly-evolving musician whose songs comment on current affairs: the chorus of Afro Xula mourns the number of people without jobs or power.
“Desfado,” Ana Moura, 2012
Ana Moura is part of a wave of female singers reinventing fado music, grouped under the ‘novo fado’. All grew up after the revolution, many with experience of life in the former African colonies. They record versions of traditional songs, but also write their own fados, experiment with other instruments, and assert their desire for the female fado singer to move beyond the image of black-clad victim. Moura has drawn international attention for her interpretations and her rich contralto voice, loved by both Prince and the Rolling Stones, with whom she has performed. Pedro da Silva Martins of Portuguese pop-folk band Deolinda wrote Desfado for Moura’s 2012 album of the same name. The song is a new twist on a classic fado theme of loss, with a bouncy tune that works against its lyrics.
“Apocalipsiio,” DJ Nigga Fox, 2015
Nigga Fox’s dance music is produced by the Principe label, created by African immigrants in the housing estates of Chelas. Principe calls its music ‘the ghetto sound of Lisbon’, Resident Advisor has called it ‘a complex web of singular Afro-Portuguese sounds’. It draws on kuduro, batida, kizomba, funaná, Afro-house and tarraxinha, genres found in the former Portuguese colonies of Angola, Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe.
“Amar Pelos Dois,” Salvador Sobral, 2017
Lisbon-born Salvador Sobral won the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest with “Amar Pelos Dois” (Love for Two), winning both the jury and public votes. The song was written by his sister Luisa, a musician known for her distinctive voice and original jazz/folk/pop tunes. The popularity of the song in Portugal was no surprise—thanks to the legacy of fado and a love for the poetic and melancholy, the folk ballad is alive and well here—but its enthusiastic reception in the rest of Europe was unexpected. Sobral used his moment of fame (he’s now retired from music because of a heart condition) to speak out for refugees, earning a ticking-off from the European Broadcasting Union.