A few years ago I arrived in Lisbon, Portugal, while it was still dark. At 6:30 a.m., just as the escalator pushed me up onto the sidewalk, the sun and the city were coming into their own. Everything glistened. The sight of the old, towering city encrusted in blue tile and piled on top of itself right next to a glittering sea reminded me of my grandmother's hands, of her heartbreaking, jubilant laughter. It didn't make sense, but there it was. The weight of its history and the beauty of the city made for a sensation that was a mix of hunger, excitement and a tiny bit of inexplicable sadness.
The first time I listened to Mariza, the eloquent daughter of her working-class neighborhood's native fado music, her voice cracked like that first morning in Lisbon. At 34, and with an evocative, heartbreaking vocal range, Mariza has emerged as the face and the voice of contemporary Portuguese fado, a modern revivalist with roots planted firmly in the music's tradition and history.
"It's a very passionate music, music that's born by the sea, by the sailors," Mariza says. All who sing fado know the song of their descendants and recognize its ancestral echoes. "Some of the roots of fado come from the African slaves and from Brazil."
When one of Portugal's kings returned from Brazil, she says, he brought back African slaves who settled in Lisbon's old neighborhoods. "At the beginning, it was a type of dance in Brazil, kind of erotic, so we took the dance away in Lisbon and did the singing."
It was then that the traditional African dance was shaped into the songs of fado, which is also said to have Moorish roots and which was first sung by the fishermen in Lisbon's oldest, working-class areas.
Mariza grew up listening to the music's known and many unknown singers and musicians in the streets and tavernas of Mouraria, the old Moorish neighborhood considered the heart of fado. She's been listening to and singing fado since she was 5.
"I think it's very important to learn on the streets like I learned it," she says. "The schools are the neighborhoods. The schools are the people who sing for many, many years."
She's emphatic about the purpose the music first served and the misconception that it is only made up of sad laments. "In the 19th century, this music was a kind of newspaper; it used to tell what was happening in the city, about the king, the news of the day," the sea and work, she says. "It's not sad . . . It is a music that makes a combination of all the feelings of life."
And in that combination, there is sadness, she says, but there is also joy and humor. The inevitable emotional highs and lows that characterize life dwell at the music's core. "The story is very similar to the blues," Mariza says. "That's why I sometimes say fado is the Portuguese blues."
Fado's complexity is in the humor, emotion and saudade—a Portuguese word that cannot be easily translated into English, but which alludes to a kind of crushing nostalgia, joy and longing—that characterizes its lyrics and the tremendous emotional range in its singer's voice.
Although she grew up immersed in the sights and sounds of traditional fado, Mariza, who was born in Mozambique and raised in Lisbon, says her own fado was also influenced by the international voices of the time. "My mom had a completely different background," she says. "My mom was the first who showed me Nina Simone, Miriam Makeba, a lot of instrumental music. Without knowing, my mom was opening a lot of doors in my mind."
Those influences evolved into the penetrating, personal style that characterizes her singing and her onstage presence, where Mariza sparkles like a relic pulled out of old Lisbon in her elegant, floor-length gowns. She reflects the country's mixed roots and history, as well as fado's contemporary revival. "I'm living in 21st-century Lisbon. I'm living with a different generation and that's influenced me to sing in a different way and about different things," she says. "You can't imagine a person in the '30s singing the same as they did then. It's an urban music, and urban music breeds and moves like the society does."
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Her U.S. tour is a blend of her contemporary lyricism and a call back to the warm taverna gatherings that marked fado's earliest performances and continue in Lisbon today. "I decided to make it more intimate, more traditional," she says of the four musicians who will accompany her with Portuguese guitar, bass and percussion. "I feel like I'm connecting with the audience. Even if you don't understand the words . . . music has the power of crossing that frontier of language and touch. Fado has that magic."
Mariza performs at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787; www.ocpac.org. Sat., 8 p.m. $23-$72.