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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Mariza at Disney Hall

The Portuguese-Mozambican chanteuse and her stellar five-piece backing band elevate the fado music of the streets of her native Lisbon into an art form.

March 20, 2009|Reed Johnson

When the Portuguese-Mozambican artist Mariza sings, she often draws her listeners to her with a beckoning finger, addressing the audience with the hushed intimacy one might use toward a lover, as she did during her Wednesday performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Bending the final note of a song into a statement of longing, she'll fold one of her arms into her body, as if she were wrapping an overwhelming emotion deep inside her soul.

At other moments, as her contralto voice soars and plummets through the yearning sentiments of Portuguese fado music, Mariza glides into a dance step and fixes her gaze on some distant point, as if she were directing her poetic lamentations at the stars. The vocalist has taken a musical genre associated with working-class bars and helped raise it to an internationally recognized art form.

Mariza, who grew up singing fado in the tavernas of her Lisbon home, evinces a generous rapport with her five-man ensemble: Angelo Freire on the pear-shaped, 12-string Portuguese guitar; Diogo Clemente on classical guitar; Marino de Freitas on bass; Simon James on piano and trumpet; and drummer-percussionist Vicky Marques.

Each of the musicians had opportunity to demonstrate his instrument's contribution to the mix of earthy sensuality and baroque precision that constitute Mariza's brand of fado.

Among the evening's high points was Marques' solo on "Barco Negro" (Black Boat). Perching herself near the edge of the stage, Mariza summoned the African vocal and rhythmic influences that are a legacy of Portugal's colonial-era slave trade adventurism. Marques then picked up the beat and whipped into a percussive froth that turned his arms into blurring batons.

Mariza acknowledged this Iberian-African-transatlantic musical diaspora. Introducing her rendition of "Beijo de Saudade" (Kiss of Yearning), she announced that "This song has a little perfume from Cape Verde." She concluded the number, sung half in Portuguese and half in Creole, by blowing a kiss to the audience.

Fado music (the word means "destiny") has a dark undertow that draws comparisons to Argentine tango, but it's buoyed by a spirit of emotional resilience. Many of the songs in Wednesday's set came from her latest release, "Terra," a poignant evocation of her homeland, or more accurately, of the idea of homeland. But as she told her audience, Mariza's artistic terra firma is widening, as she demonstrated with one of two encores.

It wasn't "Smile," the bonus track on the U.S. version of "Terra," that she performed, but another pop classic, "Cry Me a River." Scaling a peak of elation before avalanching down into a ravine of near-despair, Mariza's voice never fails to rise again.

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reed.johnson@latimes.com

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