Glossary of selected terms relevant to Portuguese music

Accordion (acordeão)

Bigger, more sophisticated version of the Concertina. Both these instruments are part of the sound of Portugal. They add their characteristic timbre or tone quality to several popular Portuguese musical genres. See Concertina for the differences between them.

Both these instruments are early 19th century inventions, originating in Germany and/or England. They required an industrial economy to accurately and economically make the metal reeds that produce the sound. Mass produced concertinas and accordions were a huge success, rapidly spreading round the world and making their way into both popular and salon music.

In Portugal and Cabo Verde accordions and concertinas are still popular, adding their characteristic sound to musical genres including Pimba, Desgarrada and Alentejan music, plus Funana in Cabo Verde. Notable artists include Celina da Piedade (Alentejo).


(pronounced alenTAYjzhoo) is a large, mainly agricultural, region to the south and east of the Tejo (Tagus) river. It is dry, very hot in Summer and fairly sparsely populated, but supports grain, cork and eucalyptus farming. It is famous for its wild flowers in Spring.

The region faces Spain to the East. The Spanish side is mountainous, and even more arid and empty, except where rivers puncture the landscape. Portuguese castles, notably at Elvas, block the historic invasion routes.

Characteristic musical activities include male choral singing in a distinctive Alentejan style (Cante Alentejano), country singing with an almost American twang, and accordion music. Noted alentejanos (not capitalised in Portuguese) include accordionist and singer Celina da Piedade and the veteran Vitorino.

Portugal's agricultural areas all have active festival calendars, and Alentejo is no exception. Traditional dancing and singing is alive and well, while Pimba and left-wing songs of intervention all have a following.

The Alentejo countryside is characterised by very large land holdings, quite different to the Douro and Minho small farm patterns. In response, the Alentejo rural workers have a history of trade union organisation, with strong resistance and repression during the fascist era.

The Alentejo was the major area of land seizures by farm workers after the 1974 revolution. Évora, the largest town, to this day usually elects the PCP (Communist Part of Portugal) to run the town council.


Like many musical terms arpeggio comes from Italian, and means “to play like a harp”. Instead of playing notes from a chord (q.v) simultaneously, they are played one after another in a rising or descending pattern. This melodic effect is much used in Portuguese music. For example the long intro to “Suave tristeza” (soft sadness) by Madredeus is an extended sequence of guitar arpeggios.

Beira Baixa

Border region near Spain in mid Portugal. Beira Baixa lies to the north of the Tejo (Tagus) river where it flows in through a gap in the mountains from Spain. It is thus on the norther side of an historic invasion route. Ancient fortified villages and the ruins of castles going back to Visigothic and even Roman times dot the landscape. The climate is hot and dry in summer, and agriculture depends on the many rivers. Distinctive folk music still persists, but like many of the more remote areas of Portugal rural depopulation is a problem.

Bossa Nova

One of the few Brazilian musical forms to have much resonance in Portugal. Emerging in the 1950s and 1960s, it is a largely middle-class music influenced by Jazz and French chanson, with an emphasis on words but with a more sophisticated Brazilian rhythmic structure. This gives it a cool, wistful, emotionally detached feel. This makes it a bit of an outlier in both Brazilian and Portuguese music, but some Bossa Nova songs make it into the repertoire of more adventurous Portuguese singers such as Teresa Salgueiro.


Brazil is by far the largest Portuguese-speaking country in the world and has 20 times the population of Portugal itself. Brazilian football and soap operas (telenovelas) have a great following in Portugal, but they are the exceptions. The two nations split apart in the 1820s and are socially, politically and temperamentally very different. The relationship is more distant than those between the UK and the USA, or the UK and Ireland or Australia.

Brazil has a vibrant musical culture, but it is very different to Portugal’s and there are surprisingly few points of contact between them. Each market is dominated by completely different musical genres. Only exceptional artists have hits or sell into the other country - for example Marília Mendonça from Brazil has had some success in Portugal.

Going the other way the late singer and songwriter Roberto Leal (1951 to 2019) was a star in Brazil, but he emigrated there as a child in the early 1960s and lived in both countries. Globe-trotting Portuguese band Madredeus has one big hit in Brazil, "Haja o que houver" (Come what may), but the music was used in a hit drama series. It's almost as if Brazilans find much of Portuguese music too miserable!

Many Portuguese artists do better in Mexico and the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America than in Brazil, probably because the cultures are a better match on the emotional plain, despite the difference in language.

However, while complete performances don't transfer well, words and music sometimes do because they can be re-arranged to fit in with local tastes. The big names of 20th century Brazilian music, composers Tom Jobim (Antonio Carlos Jobim), Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil are influential in Portugal, as elsewhere.

Cabo Verde

Formerly known as the Cape Verde islands. Independent from Portugal since 1975, the 10 volcanic islands off the coast of Africa were uninhabited when discovered in the mid 15th century. The Portuguese started settling in 1462, establishing the islands as a supply base and later a depot for slaves heading to Brazil. Rainfall in the islands is unpredictable, with major famines striking well into the 20th century.

Musically Cabo Verde is arguably the closest to Portugal of all the former colonies - including Brazil which has its own distinct culture. Many Cape Verdean musicians are based in Portugal, with another major centre in France. Smaller numbers of musicians performing Cabo Verdean styles are to be found wherever diaspora communities exist - notably the Netherlands, Canada and the USA. Notable musicians: Césaria Évora (1941 to 2011), Bana, Lura.

Cape Verdean Creole (or Kriolu)

Language based on Portuguese and local West African languages, and one of the very oldest creoles still in active everyday use. It is obvious in written text as the creole uses the letter “k”, which is largely absent from Portuguese, and many short words derived from African languages. But much of the lexicon, especially nouns and adjectives, is derived straight from Portuguese.

Creoles are mother tongues, and used for everything unlike specialized trade languages. European Portuguese is taught in the country's schools, partly because the creole varies from island to island and it is difficult to agree a neutral standard. Example: Terra di paz terra di gozo / Tudo quem djobk'l pa sk rkgoce / El ca ta ba el qu'rk fica / Ma s'el mandado el ta tchora. From the Césaria Évora song “Cabo Verde terra estimada”.


Characteristic French musical style that has had some influence on Portuguese and Brazilian music. What we are talking about here is the music in the tradition of Jacques Brel or Léo Ferré rather than any other meaning ("chanson" in French just means song.) Simple accompaniment and an often direct, unembellished vocal performance puts the emphasis on the words, and the meaning(s) they hold.


The concertina (same word in Portuguese) is a bellows-operated musical similar to an accordion (acordeão) but smaller. A concertina has buttons rather than a keyboard, and usually octagonal or hexagonal sides. The larger, more expensive accordion has a rectangular shape, usually with a front-facing piano-like keyboard running the full height of one side, plus buttons on the other.

Chord (acorde)

What the listener hears when two or more notes (of different musical pitch) are sounded together. This is also called harmony. A chord consisting of three notes is called a triad. Sequences of chords (“chord progressions”) form the basis of much western music.

The guitar and the accordion are the chord producing instruments most associated with Portuguese styles of music, but piano and synthesiser are also much used.


Ancient university city on the banks of the Mondego river in central Portugal. A former capital of Portugal before the recapture of Lisbon from the Moors in the 13th century. The University has a strong musical traditional and is associated with the Fado of Coimbra.


Musical style from the Cape Verdes, faster and happier than Morna and more suitable for dancing. But still laid back. Listen to: Grace Évora (m), Assol Garcia (f).


Another term for Desgarrada. Deasafio is derived linguistically from the verb to provoke, while Desgarrada is related to words for ripping apart or going astray.


Musical style in which singers respond to each other with improvised verses. The singers are usually accompanied, or accompany themselves, with concertinas or accordions. They take it in turn to deliver verses, with the accordions filling in the gaps if they pause to think.

The words are usually humourous or observational, with the singers attacking each other or topics they wish to comment on. Translating Desgarrada lyrics is difficult - as well as slang there can be references to shared Portuguese jokes and values. The tune is unvarying, going on repetitively and hypnotically until the singers have nothing more to say - which can be a considerable time.

Desgarrada is strongly associated with the north of Portugal, particularly the area between the Minho and Douro rivers. But is also found in Madeira, and north of the Minho river in Galicia in Spain. It goes back a very long way - similar forms of improvised competitive singing have been found lingering on in remote areas colonised by the Portuguese.

In Portugal itself Desgarrada is still part of local festivals, competing with pop, Pimba and African-inspired dance music. Notable artists: Augusto Canário, Cláudia Martins, Mike da Gaita, Naty Vieira, Cristiana Sá.

map of Douro river


(pronounced DOORoo) river in North Portugal on which Porto sits. Arising in Spain, the Douro's mountainous steep valleys define part of the border before the river heads west to the sea. Here around Porto the river is the centre of a heavily populated industrial and agricultural region.

Upstream the climate is suitable for olives, almonds and grapes. Historically the Douro river valley has had lots of small farms, and is the home of the Port wine industry. The upper Douro valley now also produces top table wines. Apart from Porto, a major music venue, the surrounding country areas host numerous festivals.


Ancient walled town, capital of Alentejo.


Lisbon Fado. Most famous musical style associated with Portugal, or more accurately Lisbon as “Fado” on its own generally means Lisbon Fado. Characterised by a dominant, emotion-driven performance by a solo singer and sudden changes of tempo for expressive purposes. Right from the beginnings of Lisbon Fado women have been well represented among the singers, with the semi-legendary and tragic figure of Severa credited as the first fadista or Fado singer.

The singer is almost always accompanied by the high-pitched Portuguese guitar, and sometimes other acoustic instruments. In recent years there has been a tendency to add more instruments to the line up and adopt a more conventional and regular rhythmic structure. Noted Lisbon Fado exponents: Amália Rodrigues, Ana Moura and Mariza, and among male Lisbon singers Carlos do Carmo and Carmané. For the other type of Fado see Fado of Coimbra below.

Meaning and capitalisation. "Fado" also means fate, as in destiny or lot in life. Song lyrics often switch between Fado as a music genre and fado as the singer's destiny. In Portuguese neither are capitalised, except sometimes in song titles. So you just have to decide from the wider sense what the meaning is. Portuguese tends to capitalise less than English.

On this site I capitalise the word Fado in English, when talking about the genre, in the same way I would capitalise Rock. If I'm quoting Portuguese I leave it as it is, which would normally be uncapitalised, in lower case, whatever the meaning.

Fado of Coimbra

This university town already had a strong musical tradition before Fado arrived - initially inspired by the Lisbon version that had already taken off in the early 19th century. Lisbon Fado was low class, even criminal, while Coimbra was where the nation's elite was trained. But the university's students embraced the music.

Coimbra at the time was an all-male institution, producing one immediate change in the character of the music - the Coimbra singers were all men. This Fado of the elite students soon developed more ambitious, poetic lyrics than typical of Lisbon Fado at the time. But conversely, the musical accompaniment by the amateur students was often cruder.

Another change was that the Fado of Coimbra was adapted for playing in the street, rather than the small intimate venues of Lisbon. This led to a taste for larger, louder versions of the Portuguese guitar, and sometimes larger ensembles of guitars both Portuguese and classical (called viola in Portuguese), and even the inclusion of drums.

This Fado soon became part of the university's traditions, with a specific repertoire associated with significant dates in the academic year. This tradition continues, and has been adopted to some extent in other Portuguese universities, notably in Porto and Lisbon itself. There is strong amateur ethos to this elite student Fado, with classes forming bands organised by year and faculty.

From within this background some major figures have emerged into serious musical careers. Noted Coimbra-educated singers include Edmundo Bettencourt in the early period, and later Luís Goes and José "Zeca" Afonso. Carlos Paredes is an ace Coimbra guitarist.


Fado singer of either sex. Cantor (male) or cantora (female) is the more general term for singer.


Emblematic Spanish musical style originally associated with southern Spain and the Caló-speaking gypsies of Andalusia. It is characterised by rapid, percussive guitar playing, harsh irregular vocal lines and dancing. But a supposed link between Flamenco and Portuguese Fado is one of the many myths around the origin of Fado. It has been debunked by modern scholarship (if anything Fado has much longer distance, more exotic, influences via Portugal's Atlantic trade routes).

But there is one connection. The success of Spain's dictator General Franco in promoting Flamenco around the world as a tourist music and national symbol may have encouraged Portugal's own dictatorship to relax its persecution of Lisbon Fado and instead seek ways to use it, especially after the Second World War.

In the modern era some Portuguese fadistas have sometimes incorporated Flamenco elements in their performances (as they have other influences from elsewhere). In particular Dulce Pontes, Mísia and Carminho.

Free translation

A translation that concentrates on conveying the ideas, images and emotions of a poem or the lyrics of a song (or other text). It doesn't conform on a word-for-word basis to the original text (called a Literal translation). And it doesn't attempt to faithfully reproduce the rhythm and other poetic qualities of the original language (which would be called a supremely good translation if you could pull it off).


Fast Cabo Verdean musical dance style. Rapid guitar accompaniment is more influenced by other African guitar styles than Portuguese models, but accordion or synthesiser is sometimes used instead.

Kizomba music

A fusion music tracing its origins back to Luanda, capital of the former Portuguese colony of Angola, in the 1980s. Kizomba from the start was dance music (see below), and specifically for sensual couple dances where the partners stay in physical contact. This tends to require slower music.

Other big influences on Kizomba music come from Haiti and broader Caribbean Zouk party music, and Coladeira from Cabo Verde. Within Portugal the rhythmic structure of Kizomba has sometimes been incorporated into other popular styles, including the very Portuguese Pimba.

Kizomba dance

Kizomba dance has taken off in a huge way globally, in the processes taking on different influences and mutating into broad family of different styles, much taught in dance schools. All share ultimate Angolan roots, and involve couples dancing in close proximity.


Also originating in Angola in the 1980s, Kuduro is a fast high-energy dance music. Originally using accordions or accordion samples, it is now heavily electronic. Arriving with Angolan immigrants in Portugal and France, it has tended to merge with Techno and House. Listen to: Buraka Som Sistema.


(pronounced lishBOa) Lisbon, port city and capital of Portugal since 1255. Birthplace of Lisbon Fado.


Portuguese-speaking. The term comes from the ancient Roman province of Lusitania, but now refers to the whole Portuguese-speaking world. This website is about Lusophone music - it largely ignores artists singing in English or American idioms, even if they are Portuguese.

Within the Lusophone world it focuses on the music of Portugal, and to a lesser extent, Cabo Verde. It ignores what is happening right next to Portugal in Spain, even in Spanish Galicia, which is culturally and linguistically similar to Portugal (but it wasn't in Lusitania in Roman times).

So we have left most of the Lusophone world out - and each Portuguese-speaking country has its own blend of musical traditions. The big gaps are Brazil and Lusophone Africa - Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and São Tomé & Príncipe. There are some Portuguese musical influences still in Asia - in Macau, East Timor, Sri Lanka and Goa, even though the number of Portuguese speakers has declined.


Originally a Polish folk music and dance type, taken up by royal courts around Europe and somehow finding its way to the Cape Verde islands. Here it evolved, but still preserving a face-to-face ballroom-dancing-like style. Outside the islands Cabo Verdean Mazurka shows up sometimes in repertoire of other Portuguese artists.


The vocal technique of changing the pitch of a word or syllable while it is being sung. It can range from simple note bending to the most elaborate ornamentation. Much used in Fado, Morna and other Portuguese and Cabo Verdean styles. Listen especially to: Mariza, Mísia and Cesária Évora.

Melisma has a long history and is far from being exclusively Portuguese. It is also found in Gregorian chant, Afro-American Gospel singing and Indian classical music. And also - sometimes to excess, in modern TV talent shows.

Like other musical ornamentation it's up to the artist to use it appropriately. Used badly it can become exhibitionism that obscures the melody and lyrics and undermines the emotional authenticity of the song.

If Lusuphone singers have any special claim on Melisma it is because they typically use it with skill and great expressive effect. As Salvador Sobral famously said "Music is not fireworks - music is feeling.”

map of Minho river


(pronounced MEENyoo) River in far North of Portugal. Though fairly mountainous, the area is densely populated and characterised by small farms. Vineyards dot the steep valley sides, and small patches of vines are grown alongside other crops.

An 80km stretch of the river forms part of the border with Spain - more specifically Galicia, the Spanish region with the closest linguistic, cultural and historic links with Portugal.

A musical style strongly associated with the Minho is Desgarrada.

map of Mondego river


River in central Portugal on which Coimbra lies, much celebrated in the Fado of Coimbra. Coimbra is the Oxford of Portugal, boasting one of the country's oldest universities. Many of Portugal's most valuable vineyards lie upstream of the city. The river rises in the Serra da Estrela (mountains of the stars) 145 miles (234 km) from the sea.


Most famous musical style of the Cape Verde islands, characterised by plaintive, melodic ballads. Morna generally has a slow tempo, relaxed but emotion-laden vocal delivery, often with lots of note bending, accompanied by a multi-layered rhythm section. Notable exponents: Cesária Évora, Bana, Nancy Vieira, Tito Paris, Lura.


Popular Portuguese folk/pop fusion music, characterised by simple song structure, witty often sexual lyrics, strong hooks and relentless danceability. Pimba is analogous to the folk fusions found in other European cultures such as such as German Schlager and Balkan TurboFolk, but unique in sound. Like them it is often looked down on by official or self-appointed guardians of folk culture.

The Portuguese version is built on genuine local roots, and often features accordions or accordion-like synth. Rhythmically Pimba has rapidly evolved, from a simple dull thumping approach in its early days to a more sophisticated sound influenced by other popular European and Luso-African dance music. Quim Barreiros exemplifies the earlier roots, Emanuel the evolution towards modern dance music.

The word Pimba itself has various slang meanings mostly relating to sex. My dictionary (Porto Editora) gives none of these, instead choosing to define pimba rather primly as a pejorative adjective meaning downmarket or tacky.

The names of other popular music genres such as Jazz or Rock may have once had similar disreputable meanings. This is popular music, and that's people for you.


Historic city in North Portugal, called Oporto in UK English. It is the place where Portugal began and after which it is named. Located at the mouth of the Douro river, Porto is the export hub of major wine regions extending far upstream into the mountains.

Portuguese guitar

A smallish high-pitched round-bodied guitar-like instrument with 12 steel strings arranged in six courses. Typically played with plectrums strapped to the index finger and thumb. It sounds very different to a conventional acoustic or classical guitar, called "viola" in Portuguese.

Historically the Portuguese guitar has more in common with the English lute and various citterns of northern Europe than the Spanish guitar. Traditionally there have been Lisbon, Coimbra and Porto variants of the Portuguese guitar, but today's professional players tend to have custom instruments combining features to their own preferences.


Schlager is a commercially highly-successful folk fusion music native to Germany, but with analogues in many other European countries, notably Sweden. But it doesn't have a direct Portuguese equivalent, at least not with a major presence.

Schlager is characterised by emotional or nostalgic lyrics, a simple base line, catchy tunes, relaxed but sometimes dramatic vocal delivery, and musical devices like key changes to keep up the intensity. Local instruments and vocal techniques also sometimes feature, adding an overt folk flavour.

With ballad singers in particular it is sometimes hard to distinguish Schlager from the regular article. But frequent references to the past, home and idiosyncracies of the national culture take you into Schlager territory.

The closest Portuguese music gets to Schlager is in some of Portuguese artists based and/or brought up outside the country. Accustomed to catering for an expatriate audience, they have a tendency to fuse different Portuguese styles into an easy-listening nostalgic blend, often also influenced by the popular music of the host country. Possible examples, whose fans may not welcome the Schlager label, are Linda de Suza and Tony Carreira (both linked to France) and Jorge Ferreira (USA).

map of Tagus


(pronounced TayJSHO or TaJSHOO) river on which Lisbon lies. Called Tagus in both English and Latin, and Tajo in Spanish, it is the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula at over 1,000 kilometres (620 miles).

At its mouth at Lisbon the Tagus forms a very broad estuary, helping make a large and safe anchorage. Vast number of songs and entire albums have been devoted to extolling the Tagus and the life and loves of the inhabitants of its banks. See for example Mísia. She's throwing herself into the Tagus at the (heavily reconstructed) Castle of Almourol, at Vila Nova da Barquinha (Tancos).


Danceable Argentinian musical style that is popular with Portuguese composers. Examples: Rodrigo Leão, Teresa Salgueiro.


Rapid pitch change when singing note. Similar to ululation found in many folk style around the world (especially Balkans but not in Portugal), but faster and usually learned in formal musical voice training. Has the effect of increasing power of note, with the knock-on effect of increasing usable range. But can make the voice sound cultivated rather than natural. More typical of classical music than commercial pop or Portuguese folk styles. Examples of vibrato: Ângela Silva - and José Zeca Afonso.

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