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Hoping to feel at home

Singer Mariza brings fado, the soulful neighborhood music of Portugal's poor, to Walt Disney Concert Hall.

March 28, 2004|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

By all appearances, fado singer Mariza is every part the unreconstituted diva. She's got the look down tight: the platinum-blond marcel and the inscrutable face, part Renaissance cherub, part kewpie doll. And of course, there's the all-important diva seal, the single appellation.

But surface is pretty much where the similarity stops. On every other level, she plays against type.

Touching down in L.A, to take her first look at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where she will perform Friday with the L.A. Philharmonic, Mariza arrives with an entourage of just two: her husband and her manager. She's running late -- caught in a typical, inexplicable L.A. traffic snarl -- but with a bouquet of effusive apologies. Most tellingly, as she steps into the concert hall itself, her hands begin to quake uncontrollably. "Wow!" she says, standing at the lip of the stage, face upturned and slowly taking in the arc of the room. She lets fly a scale. "I'm terrified!"

She holds out both her palms for all to see -- they are drenched with sweat. "Oh my God!," she continues, almost in a whisper. "Why did I say yes?"

She glances around the hall, near empty save for a few wandering tourists. Dressed in a serious pinstripe suit made flirty with a silk scarf where the tie would be, she looks like a softer Greta Garbo. Her husband, Joao Pedro Ruela asks the Disney Hall folks a few questions about logistics. Mariza's band -- where will they sit in relation to the orchestra? How will she be miked?

"Please," says Mariza sinking into one of the theater's chairs, covering her face, squirming. "Don't talk about the orchestra."

It's not quite what one would expect of the woman who has caught the eye and imagination of the international music world, a singer who, some whisper, might be heir to the recently vacated fado crown worn for five decades by "the voice of Portugal's soul," Amalia Rodrigues. When she died in 1999, Portugal's prime minister called for three days of mourning, such was the measure of the country's loss.

Fado, which means fate, is better felt than described. It is often compared to Argentine tango and Greek rebetika in sound, and to American blues in its restless spirit. Its resonance is as enigmatic as its often-disputed origins. "There is a difference of opinion around the extent of foreign influence on fado," says Donald Cohen, an L.A.-based musician and historian, and author of "Fado Portugues: Songs from the Soul of Portugal." What is clear is that 19th century Lisbon was at the heart of its evolution.

"We know that the Moors and the Jews had [secular] chants and they contributed. Portugal also had a great maritime tradition, which might have brought in influences from all over -- Africa, Brazil Macau, China."

But, says Cohen, "beginning in the 19th century, gypsy singer Maria Severa had a tempestuous, highly publicized affair with a nobleman, Count Vimioso, that stimulated interest in the music. People wondered for the first time, 'What's going on down there?' The middle class and upper classes began going down to Mouraria" -- one of the older, poorer neighborhoods of Lisbon, where the music was sung everywhere from taverns to street corners -- "and that validated fado." Though this is music of melancholy and longing, and has been associated with sailors, slaves, poets and kings, one thing is certain, says Mariza: "Fado was always music from poor people."

Varied influences

Mariza plays this dressed-down music against type and tradition. Instead of the somber black mourning dress and shawl traditionally worn by female fado singers -- fadistas -- she takes the stage in Technicolor gowns, jet jewels, platform shoes and striped leggings -- all topped by that singular platinum coif. In the same vein, she has taken to refurbishing fado as one might redo an old room with great character or reupholster a fine antique chair. She doesn't want to obscure the fine lines or contours that made it a classic; rather she seeks to update it, with a respectful nod to the past, to give it new life. Although much of Mariza's tinkering comes in the arrangements, folding in fluid elements of jazz or pop, her voice channels the long tradition of fadistas -- suffering, raw emotion. "Mariza is tempestuous, much more showy than the other younger fadistas on the scene," Cohen says. Her wish is to convey life's unexpected curves in the space of a song. Mariza's appearance is one of two solo world music dates at the hall since its grand opening last fall. The Cape Verdean diva Cesaria Evora took the stage last fall, and so Mariza is just beginning to comprehend the import of her own goodwill visit.

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