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Fado, that singular strain of balladry that is to Portugal what samba is to Brazil and tango is to Argentina, isn't exactly mainstream music here in the United States. It is a centuries-old tradition marked by the delicate murmur of the twelve-stringed Portuguese guitar; mournful female singers, black shawls draped over their shoulders, expressing a poetic sadness in almost operatic tones; and an inescapably nostalgic longing. As a result, one is more likely to find a fado record in a Salvation Army record bin than hear it over the radio.
But with the arrival of Mariza, the 30-year-old fado sensation from Lisbon, that may be about to change. The accolades from her first album, 2001's Fado em Mim(Fado and Me), put her in a league with world music superstars like Cesaria Evora and Susana Baca. After the album's release, Mariza embarked on several whirlwind world tours, selling out concert halls from Berlin to Bangkok; sang the Portuguese national anthem at a World Cup match between Portugal and Korea; and was honored as Best European Artist at the 2003 BBC World Music Awards. There's little sign of her slowing down, either. Her second album, Fado Curvo(curvois a Portuguese word for curved or winding, Mariza explains, because "life is not straight"), will be released in the U.S. this May, followed by a short North American tour.
Mariza's recent success is the unexpected result of a journey that began with a childhood spent singing fado in the traditional Mouraria neighborhood of Lisbon (she was born in Mozambique, but moved to Portugal as a baby). When she grew into young adulthood, she sang with soul, funk, and jazz bands in Lisbon. "You know, always at the end of the evening, if I felt like we had the correct ambiance to sing fado I used to sing fado. But always with the feeling that I was not very good!" she laughs in accented but fluent English from her hotel in Brussels, where she's finishing up a two-month-long European tour. Not everyone around her agreed. Soon, at the urging of a local club owner, she was singing fado regularly in Lisbon.
After attracting national attention for singing at tribute concerts commemorating the late, renowned queen of fado Amália Rodrigues, Mariza recorded Fado em Mim with production help from Rodrigues's former guitarist, Jorge Fernandez. "The first one [Fado em Mim] was something I did because everybody started saying you should do a record," says Mariza. "I did it just for fun, and I chose some fados I used to sing from my childhood." She adds that the resulting acclaim was a surprise. "When I did the first album, I was not really expecting all these things -- making tours, giving interviews, winning awards."
The attention focused as much on Mariza's appearance -- her movie-star looks, dyed-blonde hair, and high-fashion dresses -- as on her music. That's understandable, given that even over the course of a transcontinental phone conversation Mariza's sultry voice conjures images of a pop diva luxuriating in splendor. But it's also a bit misguided since her enthralling singing -- captured to great effect again on Fado Curvo, where she comes across as the long-lost sister of Rodrigues and jazz icon Billie Holiday -- is what really deserves the spotlight. "When I read things in the papers about me, I really feel a little bit uncomfortable, because it's a little bit strange," she says. "What I really want to do is just to sing my music and not to have big responsibilities."
Mariza seems not to mind, though, that the worldwide fame comes with the unspoken responsibility to be fado's ambassador to the world. "It's difficult to describe," she says when asked to explain the style. "It's more than music, it's a feeling. Normally we used to sing at the small tavernas, with the ambiance of lots of smoke and lots of red wine, with a Portuguese guitar and with an acoustic guitar, and with a female voice normally singing.
"I don't know how to explain better than this, you need to come and see!" she laughs. "I usually call it the Portuguese blues."
While the roots of fado are as mysterious as the music itself, there is general agreement among musicologists that it evolved sometime in the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, mixing the Portuguese poetic tradition with two cultural forms -- the lundu and the fofa-- common among Lisbon's African population (with Lisbon's substantial Brazilian, Arab, and Jewish populations throwing elements into the stew). But there the consensus ends. "Some want to believe fado came from slaves and then went to Brazil, other ones want to believe the fado came from sailors, and other ones want to believe, but this is really wrong I think, that fado came from the kings and nobility," says Mariza, who is so drawn to the music's history that she plans to help produce a documentary on the subject later this year. "But that for me is wrong, because fado came from the streets."
This deep awareness of fado's culture comes through on Fado Curvo. "During the last year I think I've grown, as a person and as a fado singer, and at the same time I feel more secure with the things I would like to do," she says. This leads to Mariza interpreting the title track, a lively ode to the joys of fado written by Fado Curvoproducer Carlos Maria Trindade, with an exuberance that runs counter to the restraint normally exercised in the art form. "I don't do these things because it's not traditional; I do them because I feel it," she says.
The music on Fado Curvoseemingly does as well. Portuguese and acoustic guitar still girds Mariza's renditions. But there is also some beautifully original instrumentation not normally found on a fado record, like the cello and piano melodies running through "Retrato" and Miguel Gonçalves's plaintively muted trumpet-playing on "O Deserto," the latter what Miles Davis might have sounded like had his Sketches of Spainbeen Sketches of Portugal instead. Its twelve tracks ooze a spontaneous sound, the result of Mariza and Trindade recording live in the studio. "Fado is very sentimental music," Mariza says, "music that works with the feeling. So if you start recording more than three takes you're going to be closed, not organic, not with a soul anymore. So what we did was to record everything only to the third take, no more."
For Mariza, capturing the essence of fado in the studio was much more of a challenge than simply performing the music. "I've been singing fado since I was five years old. For me it's so natural I don't have to think, it's like breathing. But," she pauses, reflecting on an album she has been too busy to even listen to since it was finished, "I don't like too much to be in the studio. I feel, like, closed. It's really easy when you're in the studio and you have all these computers and you push a button and you change things and everything. The most difficult thing to do is to have your own sound." Thankfully, Mariza has found her voice through the beautiful Fado Curvo,charting an aural landscape that pays homage to fado without being bound by it. It places her in the enviable position of defining this art form for some years to come.