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Mariza, Queen of the Fado

A sultry Portuguese superstar exports the dark folk sounds of Lisbon's backstreets.

Author JASON FINE Photography ISABEL PINTO


SONG SUNG BLUE Fado star Mariza

IF YOU LOOK CLOSELY, the narrow alleyways of Lisbon are lined with ancient fado houses — quaint clubs with blue-tiled walls where locals listen to the melancholy, majestic Portuguese folk music performed in much the same way it was 150 years ago. But when Mariza, the world’s most famous fado singer, needs to reconnect with the music — “to recharge my battery,” she says — she prefers one spot in particular.

It’s called A Tasca do Chico, tucked away in the bohemian Bairro Alto neighborhood, and it’s basically a dive bar crowded with young, rowdy Lisboans and lined with picnic tables sticky with spilled beer. There’s no stage, just an open space in the middle of the room where singers brave enough (or drunk enough) to face the crowd get up and sing. “This place reminds me of the taverna my parents had when I was a child,” Mariza says, drinking Sagres beer from a plastic cup.

A multicultural blend of North African, Gypsy, European and Brazilian folk styles, fado emerged in bars and bordellos when the city was a booming colonial port. Typically, three acoustic guitars back a fadista who belts out songs of suffering, jealousy, betrayal and loss, a heady brew that the Portuguese sum up as saudade, or longing.

A decade ago, fado was a historical relic. But a new generation of singers have revitalized the Lisbon scene, and Mariza — with her striking looks and tempestuous demeanor — is its queen. In Portugal, she outsells Madonna, and now she’s set to conquer the rest of the planet.

Mariza grew up in Mouraria, a tough, working-class neighborhood. On weekends her parents’ taverna hosted local singers, and Mariza would sneak in late at night to listen. “From the age of five I used to clean the floor, wash the glasses, peel the potatoes with my mom,” she says. “And at night I would hear fado — it was magical.”

But she never intended to sing it. As a teenager, Mariza performed samba, R&B and disco covers in a local band called Funkytown. One night in 1999, on a dare, she performed a traditional fado song at an open mic, and people in the audience burst into tears. Mariza never looked back. “It was not my idea to have a career in this music,” she says. “But I feel very blessed that people wanted to hear me.”

Now she’s expanding the form. On her latest album, Terra, Mariza worked with Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes and guitarist Dominic Miller from Sting’s band. She even sings a jazzy version of the old Charlie Chaplin tune “Smile.” She’s performing it on a two-month tour of the United States, where her main challenge is singing fado to an audience that’s largely never heard it, much less been to Lisbon. “If I can bring the audience there with me, if they can imagine the place,” she says, “they will feel the beauty of this music.”

JASON FINE is the executive editor of Rolling Stone.

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