The New York Critic: Interviews

From Lisbon: Fado

Fado (pronounsed fah-do) is a traditional Portugeuse music that originated in the early nineteenth century. It's an urban music, born - tradition has it - in Lisbon. Today, one of its foremost singers if Mariza. She is in fact one of the few young fado stars, and essentially the only woman singer in its ranks. She played Carnegie Hall in October in a concert so successful the audience could hardly let her leave the stage.

Mariza sang in Portugeuse throughout. She was accompanied by six string instruments and a percussion; at times she was excorted only by a solo string or drum. In a solo song, the cellist gave the strings the organic depth of a human voice.

You don't need to understand Portuguese to know what she sings about. Fado's substance is the sadness of life - yearning and loss. The sustained vowels in those soulful, disciplined wails need no translation. But if the form is tilted toward sorrow, Mariza ultimately reflects the range of life's emotions: some songs are clearly celebrations, when she twirls or dances around the stage.

Mariza's voice has an extraordinary fluidity. She's equally deft throughout her range, and the singing, however technically difficult, always sounds absolutely effortless. The voice introduces itself to a note so delicately that we're not aware of the sound's beginning. It's her pleasure to present the note softly and then to let her voice expand, perhaps adding a subito diminuendo. Sometimes the voice stays soft, and she enjoys an elaborate cadenza. There might be abrupt changes in rhythm, or she might stretch the line, with a perfect instinct for the weight of its emotion.

Even her silence is enchanting. She often pauses mid-line long enough for the audience to make a trip to the bar - but we're totally in her control, and we love having her toy with our attention.

It's as much fun to watch as to listen. She's striking in her black dress with the full skirt and the tight lace sleeves exposing only her fingertips. As the mood catches her, she abruptly throws her elbow behind her, or her hand above her head, and she tosses her head back in a dramatic pose. These stylized gestures would be false in an American singer, but she executes them with such authority that they're inarguable and commanding.

When she strolls around the stage sadly, with her head dropped, she looks as if she were walking down a city street at night. And when she walks off stage and down the center aisle of Carnegie Hall, she includes us in that lonely walk.

Although Mariza sings in the fado tradition, like any artist she makes her own contribution to the form. "I'm still respecting the roots of fado," she tells us, "but more and more it's my song." We tend to associate traditional European singing with a confining, operatic bel canto, and fado is sometimes said to be more like the American blues. But fado singing is more cultivated than the raw blues voice, and the music more complex. Indeed, American culture has nothing like it.

- Steve Capra
October 2005