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.
By touring extensively and venturing outside the fado realm, Mariza is attracting new listeners to the form. She wowed a hip-hop crowd in July 2002 when she opened for Lauryn Hill at the Hollywood Bowl, for example, and had a concert broadcast worldwide via the BBC. Her newest CD, Fado Curvo (EMI), has won rave reviews from American critics.
Mariza's rise coincides with a fado resurgence and the release, in recent years, of several CD compilations that offer a sampling of this unique music. The Story of Fado (Metro Blue) is an excellent introduction to the genre, covering fado songs and stars from the '50s to the '80s. The Rough Guide to Portuguese Music (World Music Network) and Music from the Edge of Europe (Metro) are also rich in fado, and The Art of Am?lia (Metro Blue) surveys some of Rodrigues' finest work.
Mariza, meanwhile, continues to attract listeners-and competition. M?sia, who also goes by a single name, dresses to kill, and wears a striking hairstyle, has been called 'the current queen of fado' in the press. Who will win the broken hearts of fado fans? Perhaps the one who suffers the most for her art.