Hoping to feel at home:
Singer Mariza brings fado, the soulful neighborhood music of Portugal's poor, to
Walt Disney Concert Hall
By Lynell George
Los Angeles Times, March 28, 2004
By all appearances, fado singer Mariza is every part the unreconstituted diva.
She's got the look down tight: the platinum-blond marcel and the inscrutable
face, part Renaissance cherub, part kewpie doll. And of course, there's the
all-important diva seal, the single appellation.
But surface is pretty much where the similarity stops. On every other level, she
plays against type.
Touching down in L.A, to take her first look at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where
she will perform Friday with the L.A. Philharmonic, Mariza arrives with an
entourage of just two: her husband and her manager. She's running late — caught
in a typical, inexplicable L.A. traffic snarl — but with a bouquet of effusive
apologies. Most tellingly, as she steps into the concert hall itself, her hands
begin to quake uncontrollably. "Wow!" she says, standing at the lip of the
stage, face upturned and slowly taking in the arc of the room. She lets fly a
scale. "I'm terrified!"
She holds out both her palms for all to see — they are drenched with sweat. "Oh
my God!," she continues, almost in a whisper. "Why did I say yes?"
She glances around the hall, near empty save for a few wandering tourists.
Dressed in a serious pinstripe suit made flirty with a silk scarf where the tie
would be, she looks like a softer Greta Garbo. Her husband, João Pedro Ruela
asks the Disney Hall folks a few questions about logistics. Mariza's band —
where will they sit in relation to the orchestra? How will she be miked?
"Please," says Mariza sinking into one of the theater's chairs, covering her
face, squirming. "Don't talk about the orchestra."
It's not quite what one would expect of the woman who has caught the eye and
imagination of the international music world, a singer who, some whisper, might
be heir to the recently vacated fado crown worn for five decades by "the voice
of Portugal's soul," Amália Rodrigues. When she died in 1999, Portugal's prime
minister called for three days of mourning, such was the measure of the
Fado, which means fate, is better felt than described. It is often compared to
Argentine tango and Greek rebetika in sound, and to American blues in its
restless spirit. Its resonance is as enigmatic as its often-disputed origins.
"There is a difference of opinion around the extent of foreign influence on fado,"
says Donald Cohen, an L.A.-based musician and historian, and author of
"Fado Português: Songs from the Soul of Portugal." What is clear is that 19th
century Lisbon was at the heart of its evolution.
"We know that the Moors and the Jews had [secular] chants and they contributed.
Portugal also had a great maritime tradition, which might have brought in
influences from all over — Africa, Brazil Macau, China."
But, says Cohen, "beginning in the 19th century, gypsy singer Maria
Severa had a tempestuous, highly publicized affair with a nobleman, Count
Vimioso, that stimulated interest in the music. People wondered for the first
time, 'What's going on down there?' The middle class and upper classes began
going down to Mouraria" — one of the older, poorer neighborhoods of Lisbon,
where the music was sung everywhere from taverns to street corners — "and that
validated fado." Though this is music of melancholy and longing, and has been
associated with sailors, slaves, poets and kings, one thing is certain, says
Mariza: "Fado was always music from poor people."
Mariza plays this dressed-down music against type and tradition. Instead of the
somber black mourning dress and shawl traditionally worn by female fado singers
— fadistas — she takes the stage in Technicolor gowns, jet jewels, platform
shoes and striped leggings — all topped by that singular platinum coif. In the
same vein, she has taken to refurbishing fado as one might redo an old room with
great character or reupholster a fine antique chair. She doesn't want to obscure
the fine lines or contours that made it a classic; rather she seeks to update
it, with a respectful nod to the past, to give it new life. Although much of
Mariza's tinkering comes in the arrangements, folding in fluid elements of jazz
or pop, her voice channels the long tradition of fadistas — suffering, raw
emotion. "Mariza is tempestuous, much more showy than the other younger fadistas
on the scene," Cohen says. Her wish is to convey life's unexpected curves
in the space of a song. Mariza's appearance is one of two solo world music dates
at the hall since its grand opening last fall. The Cape Verdean diva Cesaria
Evora took the stage last fall, and so Mariza is just beginning to comprehend
the import of her own goodwill visit.
If her fado plays differently to the ear and eye, it has much to do with her
varied influences, and the many paths she took to get here. Born in Mozambique
to an African mother and Portuguese father, Mariza Nunes relocated with her
family to Lisbon when she was 3. Music was a constant: The women in the
neighborhood singing fado as they did the laundry. Her father's fado records —
"He only liked male voices. It's completely strange. He's crazy," she says. Her
mother's African music — Miriam Makeba — or bossa nova — Elis Regina and Tom
Jobim. "I grew up in the middle of those two worlds."
They lived in Mouraria, "so I remember not having a choice," she says. "The
neighborhood where I grew up, the way of living, you could call fado, because
everybody sings, everybody talks in the same way. Everybody has the same
feelings." The music seeped out of the tavernas and brothels and fado houses. By
age 5 she, too was singing in her parents' restaurant on Sunday afternoons —
with the aid of cartoons her father would draw for her to help her remember the
"When I was younger, the kids made fun of me. 'Fado is for old people.' 'You
sing different.' So I ran from fado. I didn't want to be different." Instead
Mariza spent her early years singing everything but fado — funk and jazz,
Brazilian music and pop. She put together a band and sang in the casinos and
clubs around Lisbon. "But at the end, at the very end," she says, "very
carefully I would sing a fado number. Just to see…."
Eventually, she began to wander out to fado houses. And as it happened, one
night Jorge Fernando, a producer, got swept up in her spell. "I didn't want a
label. I just wanted to make concerts," she says. Soon Mariza was in the studio
and her first record, in 2001, "Fado em Mim," reached gold in Portugal, then
platinum, before going on to sell more than 100,000 worldwide. Mariza stopped
running. "Fado Curvo" followed in 2003. "I got to be known as the blond fadista."
The music, which enjoyed its golden age in the early part of the 20th century,
went out of favor from the late '60s until very recently, Mariza says. In the
minds of Portugal's youth, it was linked to the politics of dictator António
Salazar's fascist regime and an old style of thinking and living. But in recent
years, she has sensed a change: "Teenagers are beginning to request fado. People
are talking about world music. Opening clubs. We've opened our minds."
Indeed, there is a chorus of other young fadistas — Mísia, Dulce Pontes,
Cristina Branco, Mafalda Arnauth — who are exploring fado's old regrets and
yearnings. Though the music has traditionally been linked to sadness, "the
feelings aren't always melancholy," Mariza says. "With deep fado, I need the
audience to participate. They want to know me. I want to know them. We have
grilled chorizo and red wine. And sing together."
Mariza will do her best to summon up the feeling of her neighborhood within
Disney Hall's walls. She will bring with her a Portuguese guitar — a pear-shaped
instrument with six double-strings and a fan of tuning pegs at the top of the
neck — — and one classical guitar, which in Portugal is called a viola. And
onstage, she'll imagine Lisbon. "Fado is all about ambience. It just appears at
"This," she says, scanning the hall once more, "is going to be one of the
toughest concerts. I've never sung with an orchestra. How can I get all those
feelings? What am I going to do here? It's a big responsibility. I hope to be
half as magnificent as this is."
Who: Mariza with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Charles Floyd, conductor
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave.
When: Friday, 8 p.m., April 2, 2004
Information: (323) 850-2000
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Reprinted with permission