Portugal's Heartbreaking Soul Music

<em>Fado</em> music finds a new star in Mariza

| September / October 2003

IN AMERICAN music, we've spent decades searching for the next Bob Dylan. In Portugal, they've been looking for the next Am?lia Rodrigues -and now they may have found her.

Rodrigues held Portuguese listeners rapt in the '40s, '50s, and '60s by singing mournful songs of the fado tradition in a beautifully sad voice. Today, Mariza, a young fado singer from Lisbon, is attracting comparisons to Rodrigues and riding a wave of newfound interest in the fado form.

Taking its name from the Latin term for fate, fado contains, note for note, more heartache than country music, more existential angst than a Sartre tract, and more self-pity than many mental-health professionals would say is healthy. Languorous, dramatic, and shot through with pathos, it is in essence the blues of Portugal. The singer is the centerpiece, but the fado sound also rests on the gentle trilling of the guitarra, a 12-string guitar, and often the viola, a nylon-stringed guitar.

Many fado songs are soap-operatic tales of betrayal, while others are more metaphorical ruminations on misery, or self-referential compositions -- fado about fado. Singers often refer to saudade, a Portuguese word describing nostalgic longing, and give their songs portentous titles such as 'My Wound' and 'I Don't Long for Life.'

Not all fadistas are women, but the genre's high drama naturally lends itself to divadom. Mariza, though, is a new kind of diva: Unlike traditional fadistas, who often stood stock-still onstage, she accentuates the music with sinuous movements and grand gestures. And while top fadistas have often been sharp dressers, she takes fashion to a new level with elaborate gowns, oversize necklaces, and a helmetlike platinum cornrow hairstyle.

Behind this look-at-me allure lies real substance: Mariza's voice is a mellifluous instrument of melancholy, conveying, as the best fadistas do, a deep well of passion beneath her woe. She stretches the form to include echoes of jazz, soul, even rock, but remains true enough to fado's roots to impress even staunch traditionalists. 'Mariza is an adorable extraterrestrial being, someone sent by the Great Creator to reivent the fado,' Portuguese composer Nuno Nazareth Fernandes has said.

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