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17 septembre 2008

Mariza, fado star

From The Sunday Times, September 14, 2008

Photo : Clive Davis

Listen to Mariza

Mariza has taken fado from Lisbon’s backstreets to Womad and beyond

How wrong can you be? The first time I saw Mariza in the flesh, five or six years ago, she was serenading a small crowd in the DJ Charlie Gillett’s cosy marquee at Womad, some distance from the main stage. Her singing was spirited, her audience rapt, yet I had no inkling that I was watching a star in the making. After all, fado - the traditional music of Portugal - has always been an acquired taste. In contrast to the sensuous cadences of the great Brazilian performers of our times, fado (which means “fate”) sounds harsh, austere and guttural. The lyrics, too, can seem as melancholy as the darkest and dankest of blues songs.

So, for all Gillett’s enthusiasm, there seemed to be limited opportunities for the newcomer, at least outside her native land. Fortunately, she was determined to prove the sceptics wrong. In next to no time, she was playing the QEH; by the end of 2006, she had outstripped most of her world-music rivals with a magnificent show at the Albert Hall, no less. The diva had landed.

This summer, in her home town, Lisbon, she was the centre of attention once again, at a concert to launch her elegant new album, Terra. Amid the crush of wellwishers and reporters in the foyer, we could catch a glimpse of some of fado’s leading song-writers and performers - including the stately, white-haired Carlos do Carmo. As ever, Mariza delivered an impeccable performance, dancing across the stage and indulging in occasional duets with the diminutive Cape Verdean singer Tito Paris and the Spanish “nu-flamenco” singer known simply as Buika (who came close to stealing the show on the impassioned Pequenas Verdades).

A triumphant night, all in all. If Mariza’s early albums gave ample clues to her potential, her most recent discs have been nothing short of triumphant. Transparente, released three years ago, created a memorable fusion of Portuguese and Brazilian styles, supervised by perhaps the most intelligent arranger-producer of our times, the cellist Jaques Morelenbaum. Concerto em Lisboa - again with Morelenbaum at the helm - provided a beguiling snapshot of her live show.

Now, with Terra, she digs a little deeper again, in a thoughtfully varied collection that ranges from slow-burning laments to a buoyant, folksy encounter with the towering Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdes. One of the most memorable tracks, Alfama, pays homage to the Lisbon neighbourhood that has long been a nerve centre of the fado tradition, while is a stylish excursion into Beijo de SaudadeCape Verdeanmorna, the music made famous by Cesaria Evora. Mariza is not in the business of serving up undemanding pop hooks; these are allusive, poetic miniatures interpreted with almost operatic verve.

“I had the idea for this album when I was doing the Transparente tour,” she says the day after the Lisbon show, sitting serenely in her hotel suite. “I was walking in Sydney. We’d been to so many places - Bangkok, Singapore, China - and I thought, ‘I’m seeing so many different things, and hearing so many different musicians and rhythms, but I miss my roots so much.’ So I decided the next album would be about ‘terra’ - my country, my land. It’s the heartbeat of a country. I’m respecting my language, my culture, but at the same time I’m bringing forward what I’ve seen in seven years of touring and recording.”

Away from the concert stage, Mariza cuts a poised figure, even in jeans. Without the gigantic heels and billowing dresses that she wears on stage, she looks rather more fragile, although those large, dark eyes and precise gestures still dominate the room. At first glance, you might take her for a classical actress. As she proved with Morelenbaum, she has a sharp eye for collaborators. For this project, she struck up a partnership with the Spanish producer and musician Javier Limon, who happens to be mentor to the aforementioned Buika. Mariza got to know him during a visit to Spain, then invited him to Lisbon to discuss her ideas.

“I wanted to see how he would respond to my kind of music,” she says, “so I put him in the middle of traditional fado singers, then showed him what I had in mind. Later, when we were about to record at his studio, he asked me to go to Madrid by car. It turned out that he had gone out and bought every Portuguese percussion instrument he could find. He wanted me to take them back for him. We had to pack in these huge bombo drums. We were like gypsies.”

The idea of blending cultures comes naturally to an artist who was born far from the metropolitan heart of her country, and whose ancestry includes German, Spanish, French, African and Indian forebears. She spent the first three years of her life in Mozambique. As the curtain came down on the Portuguese empire, her family moved to Lisbon, where they ran a taverna in a compact, traditional neighbourhood in the heart of that beautiful capital. Mariza was singing fado by the time she was five. In her late teens, peer pressure temporarily drew her away from folk melodies to more conventional fare, but she eventually returned to her first love. From her African mother, she also acquired a taste for more exotic artists, from Miriam Makeba to Cesaria Evora and Nina Simone. In her early twenties, her yearning to travel - inherited, it seems, from her footloose father - briefly took her to Brazil, where she immersed herself in the varied cultural landscape and made some money from singing.

At home, many younger listeners assumed that fado - dominated by the stark rhythms of the lute-like Portuguese guitar - was a symbol of Portugal’s long predemocratic slumber. Rightly or wrongly, its fatalistic strain was regarded as a throwback to an era many of the postrevolutionary generation regarded as hopelessly backward.

“Things were different then,” Mariza says. “It was unusual to sing fado outside your own neighbourhood. Intellectual people would come to hear the music, but they wouldn’t talk about it much. Now we have eclectic audiences, and you can hear fado in different places - restaurants and clubs. There’s a new generation learning the music. You realise this culture is not going to die.”

When her first albums began to attract attention abroad, there were mutterings - in Portugal and beyond - that Mariza was merely the result of clever marketing. Some traditionalists frowned at her theatrical style, a marked contrast to the static, pared-down approach of the pioneers. Others complained she was overshadowing more substantial talents. Over the course of five years, however, she has proved that she is no mere elegantly dressed mannequin. When she plays in Britain, it’s doubtful that many in her audience understand the meaning of the words she is singing. But they don’t need to: the voice tells them everything.

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