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Misia's Mission

New Face of Fado Focuses on Future of Urban Song Form Without Sacrificing the Traditional Spotlight on Feelings


Fado is to Portugal what tango is to Argentina, what morna is to Cape Verde, and what the blues are to the world. Different in style, manner and substance, these art forms are linked by their origins in street and rural cultures, and their capacity to find a will to survive in the face of sorrow and adversity.

Fado has had many faces over the past century, from its anarchic associations in the early years to its identification with the dictatorial right and its reemergence into the cultural mainstream over the last decade. Singer Amalia Rodriguez has been its most visible, iconic figure, surely the best-known international practitioner of fado until her death last year.

But the newest face in fado, and the performer most often described as the logical successor to Rodriguez is thirtysomething Misia, who performs Sunday at the Irvine Barclay Theater and Thursday at UCLA's Royce Hall. A native of Oporto, Portugal, she has brought to the music a passionate vocal sound, a connection with tradition and a desire to position fado as a vibrant, contemporary musical form.

Her performances retain much of the fado heritage. She dresses almost exclusively in black, wears the customary shawl and brings a powerful expressiveness to her vocalizing. She also, however, has added an accordion and a violin to the customary Portuguese 12- string guitar in her accompaniment and has added new repertoire, including previously written text by Portugal's finest poets, such as Nobel laureate Jose Saramago.

Misia is an articulate and knowledgeable spokeswoman for the music. Asked to describe fado for the unfamiliar listener, she offers a concise overview:

"Fado comes from the Latin word fatum," she said, "which means 'fate.' 'Destiny.' It is an urban song form that was born around Lisbon, and it has influences from Africa and Brazil, from the travels of Portuguese people around the world. It's not so important to have a declarative voice, or a voice very lyrical. But it's very important to have a good interpretation; you must from Africa and Brazil, from the travels of Portuguese people around the world. It's not so important to have a declarative voice, or a voice very lyrical. But it's very important to have a good interpretation; you must show that you are feeling what you are singing."

There's never any question about that with Misia. Although she is relatively motionless on stage, she brings an electrifying, dramatic energy to her seemingly tranquil presence, largely as a result of her passionate involvement with the music.

"I sing about loneliness, love, life, death and vital anguish," she said, "so I need to sing with strong feelings. I'm a very intense person, and only onstage can I be like I really am. My friends used to say, 'Well, if you were like this in your real life, everybody would be dead around you.' But on stage I can be very intense, and it is this kind of music that allows me to pass through my emotions and put them outside to be cleansed."

Which, in one sense, is what fado has traditionally been about. Even during the eras in which it tended to be associated with a political or social perspective, its emotional richness was ever present. Like flamenco, it takes the highly ornamented, melismatic vocals that course through the music that has journeyed over the centuries from India through the Middle East and the Mediterranean and combines them with patterns and scales from medieval European music. The results, when employed with a poetry of passionate feelings, are extraordinary, their impact direct even for those who do not understand Portuguese.

Misia pointed out that another important aspect in the nonverbal but irresistible connection that fado makes between performer and audience is the almost indefinable element of saudade.

"It's difficult to translate," she said, "but it is vital--the notion of an absence, of longing. But you can have saudade of the future, as well. When you say to someone 'goodbye,' you say 'saudade,' which means, 'I'm going to miss you.' Or when you write a letter, you can say 'saudades,' which means, 'I send my nostalgia for not being with you.'

"And, in a way, I think that also has something to do with the fact that we are a very little country. And, until our entry into the European community, we have spent many years looking at the Atlantic Ocean, and we have that notion, that sadness, of being little, of being on the outside."

A good part of Misia's efforts to transform fado, however, has to do with her refusal to be locked into that traditional perspective, into the classic saudade of the Portuguese women, scanning the sea as they await the return of their seafaring husbands.

"I don't want to continue to sing fado that always says we are a little country, very poor, but very happy in our sadness," she said. "I want to sing about nostalgia and sadness, but in a creative way, not a masochistic way."

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