Portugal’s Heartbreaking Soul Music

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

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

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

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.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.