The Portuguese genre called fado began among sailors in the waterfront bars of Lisbon in the 1830s, but it was born into the world when Amália Rodrigues shook the world with her voice a hundred years later. For six decades, the black-clad, dark-haired singer stood astride the genre, giving shape to the mournful heart of Portugal, a county that looked out to an ocean that took its seafaring men. At a 1999 memorial concert for Rodrigues, a young singer named Mariza took the stage and was launched as one of a new generation of successors to Rodrigues.
Many platinum records later, the platinum-blonde Mariza has released a tribute to the “Queen of Fado”. While Mariza has a similarly powerful voice like Rodrigues, her album is not a copycat version of songs made famous by the late star. Mariza typically performs with a small group of longtime bandmates. Here she has teamed up with Brazilian cellist and arranger Jaques Morelembaum, who has worked with Brazilian stars such as Antonio Carlos Jobim and Caetano Veloso, as well as with notable international musicians such as Sting, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Omar Sosa. For the tribute album, Mariza and Morelenbaum open up the arrangements for a string orchestra and other instruments. The lush sound lovingly wraps around Mariza’s intense, passionate voice.
Fado is often seen as mournful music, but it is more fully music that explores – and sometimes celebrates – the expression of deeply felt emotion. There are light and playful fado songs, but the canon is mostly the retelling of lost love and homesickness, not surprisingly given its origins of music played for men who set off in rickety vessels for weeks and months. As the music evolved, the lyrics were often written by poets, but it has mostly stayed true to its unmistakable essence.
Rodrigues brought the homegrown genre to films and international stages. The country’s military dictatorship, booted in a 1974 bloodless coup, often promoted fado as part of its nationalism, so the music was relinquished by many Portuguese who resented its association with authoritarianism. After memories of the regime faded, a new generation of musicians and audiences rediscovered fado and it joined other traditional music amid the international “world music” festival circuit.
Mariza has become a leading ambassador for fado, playing in major venues around the world and singing with international stars. Born in Mozambique, she was raised in Lisbon by parents who ran a fado taverna in one of the old quarters of the city associated with fado, Mouraria. Though she began her career singing jazz and pop, since her 2002 Fado em Mim debut, she has stayed close to traditional fado, sometimes playing songs outside the genre and sometimes using atypical arrangements.
In the new album’s opening song, “Com Que Voz (With What Voice)”, the narrator looks back to a relationship and sings: “The cause of so much evil is pure love / On account of he who is absent from me.” Like in many of the songs, Mariza wrings the feeling out of each breath and word, exhibiting exquisite control of her instrument as it stretches dynamics, trills, and sustains the lovely sad words.
In the classic “Barco Negro (Black Boat)”, the narrator sings of a lover who goes out to sea, but she holds on to her love for him. “For everything around me / Tells me that you are / Still with me…in the warmth of the bed / In the empty places / Within my heart / You are still with me.” Two piccolos and some light percussion keep the narrator’s long-shot optimism aloft.
“Formiga Bossa Nova (Bossa Nova Ant)” switches gears to a playful soft swing of the jazz-influenced Brazilian genre of its title. The narrator looks at a hard-working ant and compares him to a lonely cricket singing into the night, saying “I should be like that” but concludes that doesn’t feel like it, a playful declaration to pursue beauty and art. In the quiet, “For Deus (It Was God)”, Mariza (and in spirit, Rodrigues) sings what could be a mission statement for fado and its singers: “All the suffering / I feel in my soul / Is healed inside / in the verses I sing….It was God…He put the rosemary in the fields / He gave the flowers to spring / Ah, and He gave me this voice.”
While so many contemporary singers and audiences have been drawn to the hyperbolic style of singing of TV competitions, emphasizing volume and raw power, Mariza breathes new life into a traditional genre, rattling the rafters, but also showing how technique, control, and artistry can demonstrate another kind of power and ability to enrapture a listener.