The new saudade
Marty Lipp takes a 21st century look at the music of Portugal with Mariza.
The modern world has provided a dazzling array of ways for us to anesthetize ourselves: creature comforts, endlessly fascinating toys and media that are as sweet and insubstantial as spun sugar. Yet nature - especially human nature - is not so easily fenced in.
So despite a mainstream flood of superficial proportions, some adventurous spirits dive into the depths. This insurgency has helped raise up the traditional Portuguese musical style of fado since, in the words of singer Mariza, it "is a music that talks about very deep feelings."
"The melancholy is there," she said. "The sadness is there. But love, passion, jealousy, lust, happiness [are] there too. Fado is a music that talks about life."
Fado's origins in 19th century Portugal are somewhat cloudy, but many Portuguese turned their back on it when the country's military dictatorship used it to drum up nationalism and loyalty to the regime. Years after the bloodless "Carnation Revolution" of 1974, a younger generation that didn't associate fado with the dictatorship began to revisit the traditional, dark-hued music.
In a 2001 interview, Carlos Maria Trindade of the group Madredeus speculated that Portuguese embraced the melancholy of fado because of "our ancestors' 'heavy traveling' around the world during the 14th and 15th century, crossing the risky seas and being far away from home for months or years at a time... It's like trying to entertain loneliness. It's a cry, like the American blues."
A new generation of fado singers has tinkered with the genre's sound in subtle ways, but Mariza has pulled away from the pack of leading talented fadistas.
Mariza was born in Mozambique and moved to the poor Lisbon neighborhood of Mouraria at the age of three. She began singing fado at five, but eventually became a singer with a more-conventional pop repertoire, avoiding fado, which was derided as old-fashioned.
Expecting nothing, she paid her own money to record an album of fado songs, which was eventually picked up by a Dutch company and went platinum in Portugal. She was soon pegged as the next Amália Rodrigues, the Colossus that towered over fado for five decades. The constant comparisons, Mariza said, were unsettling.
"I didn't know how to live with that. I just wanted to be me," she said.
Certainly she was no copycat. Where fado singers traditionally wear black dresses and shawls, as Rodrigues did, Mariza wore high-style gowns and a distinctive hair style of tight, platinum-blonde waves. With a beguiling stage presence, Mariza has also been able to build an international following, tapping into the still-growing world-music circuit.
On her latest, the lovely Transparente (Times Square), Mariza collaborates with the Brazilian cellist and producer Jaques Morelenbaum. She recorded the album in Rio with a Portuguese guitarist and top Brazilian musicians, but despite the Brazilian ingredients, the result is still unmistakably fado.
"When you find your way," she said, "when you find a music that could really show your emotions... You don't have to look for more."
Where Mariza - with cello and orchestral accompaniments - gently pushes against the boundaries of fado, the group Madredeus stands just beyond that border while still rooted in the traditional music. The group's latest, "Faluas do Tejo" (EMI), is a series of songs about Lisbon. The group's blend of synthesizer and acoustic instruments gives it a bit of a new age sound, but its defining characteristic is the voice of lead singer Teresa Salgueiro. While Mariza's voice has a wide dynamic range, her big dramatic moments - typical of fado - are what initially one notices. Salgueiro's voice, however, is more ethereal - delicate, but with its own kind of power.
These Portuguese performers have reached across language barriers with their exploration of saudade, a bittersweet mix of feelings akin to nostalgia, but broader; a celebration of being able to taste these uniquely human emotions.
Speaking about her performances, Mariza said, "My idea is to shrink the theater, to bring people near me and make a small taverna: Let's have fun and commemorate that we're here together. Because tomorrow you never know, but today we're here and commemorating these feelings that make us alike."
- Marty Lipp
Mariza's Transparente is available from Amazon