Mariza Takes Fado to the Top in Carnegie Hall Newsletter

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    Mariza Takes Fado to the Top

    Mariza (Eduardo Mota)

    Mariza at Carnegie Hall: October 12, 2007
    by Banning Eyre (photos by  Eduardo Mota, Joke Schot)

    If you patronize one of Lisbon’s fine fado restaurants, you discover that the music is parceled out in brief performances—typically just three songs—interspersed throughout the evening.  Fado, the stylish, melancholy song style of old Lisbon, is strong medicine.  Even its proudest purveyors would not think of subjecting an audience to a lengthy set of unalloyed fado.  Even Mariza—quite possibly the most celebrated living fado singer—observed this convention when she took the stage at Carnegie Hall on October 12.  Her 90-minute set came in waves of full strength fado, spelled by lighter dance pieces, imaginary excursions to Africa, and even popular songs.

    Mariza burst onto the scene a few years back, an arresting figure, slender and six feet tall, with a shock of short silver hair, piercing dark eyes and a voice both explosive and masterfully controlled.  She debuted in New York at Joe’s pub and charmed the lucky few with her rudimentary English, and even a little shtick—like the colorful leggings she wore to evoke the memory of a latter day fado idol.  Mostly, though, she curried favor with her spectacular voice which made the desperate angst of fado palpable without translation.

    Five years later, she can fill Carnegie Hall, largely with Portuguese visitors and expatriates.  Her English has improved substantially, but at Carnegie, she hardly needed to say a word.  Every note she sang confirmed her stature, not as a talented upstart, but rather the reigning queen of a genre.  Mariza uses the classic fado accompaniment, a classical guitar, a guitar bass (a low-pitched, four string guitar, not a double bass), and the chiming, paired-string Portuguese guitar.  Each of the three instruments has its distinct sonic range, so that combined, they do not compete, but rather compliment, creating a sound so unified and rich with overtones that it’s easy to imagine one is hearing a violin, a flute, a horn.  This was particularly true within the acoustic shrine that is Carnegie Hall.

    Mariza (Joke Shot)

    Fado at is best is both delicate and savage.  It is the music of a broken heart and a grieving spirit, sighing with pained resignation at one moment, and lashing out with fiery complaint the next.  Mariza’s complex ornamentation of melody, and precisely calibrated emotional delivery verge on operatic.  Two or three fados from her, and everyone concerned is emotionally drained.  Hence the need for excursions.  At a few points, Mariza summoned a fourth musician to the stage to play the buzzing box drum known as cajon.  To start, she sang an arcing, quasi-African melody accompanied only by the cajon.  Mariza was born in Mozambique, and returned there for the first time just last year.  Her pride in her African roots was more tolerated than embraced by the Carnegie crowd.  When she introduced a melodious, 12/8 song about her “black grandmother in Mozambique,” the reaction was noticeably restrained, although the song itself brought the house down.  Then, back once again into the venerable darkness of fado.

    Near the end of the concert, Mariza confessed that she could not fulfill the oft heard request that she “sing a fado in English.”  However, she had found an English song that feels to her a bit like a fado.  A fado-esque rendition of “Summertime” followed—risky, but surprisingly effective.  Riskier still was the moment during her encore when she offered to do a song she likes to sing in the shower, and then broke into “Smile”…though your heart is aching.  This feel-good anthem popularized in 1955 by Nat King Cole might seem the furthest thing from fado imaginable.  The suffering of the old world, Portuguese, maritime widow is lofty and noble—never merely sentimental.  But Mariza nudged the song from pop fluff to smoldering torch song, producing handkerchiefs from pockets throughout the hall.
    In the end, Mariza returned to her time-honored riff, surrendering the microphone and drawing close with her guitarists for an all acoustic number.  And for a moment, that great hall took on the feel of a Lisbon taverna.

    Mariza: 2007 tour dates

    Contributed by: Banning Eyre
    (source: African Music World Music Latin Music)

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