ZURICH (Reuters) - Portuguese fado singer Mariza treated a sold-out Zurich audience to a show pushing the boundaries of her genre.
The willowy singer with bleached blond hair is at the vanguard of a new generation of young musicians taking fado into new terrain since the 1999 death of Amalia Rodrigues, who was widely regarded as the “Queen of Fado.”
Pulling in musical influences from around the world, Mariza is modernizing fado, a melancholy musical form that grew out of the streets and tavernas of Lisbon in the 19th Century, in the way that virtuoso guitarist Paco de Lucia revolutionized Spain’s flamenco music a few decades ago.
“Fado is an urban music and urban musics move and they walk at the same time as society moves and changes. If I didn’t do that, I would not be making music and fado,” she said in an interview ahead of the concert.
The concert mainly showcased songs from “Terra,” Mariza’s most ground-breaking record to date and further evidence she is the rightful heir to Amalia’s crown.
It featured Cape Verdean singer Tito Paris and Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes, and was produced by Javier Limon, who has already left his mark on the current crop of Spanish musicians by cross-fertilizing flamenco with other musical forms.
“Terra is a record made from eight years of traveling. It’s like an old Portuguese boat,” said Mariza, adding tireless touring had allowed her to meet and share music with many artists around the world.
“It’s trying to cross several different continents and cultures with our own culture, but at the same time trying to understand those different cultures,” said the 37-year-old, who was born Marisa dos Reis Nunes in the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique.
Fado is the music that most aptly expresses the Portuguese tendency to “saudade,” a bitter-sweet longing.
“Fado is the soul of the Portuguese people. It is a music based in the feelings of life, like sadness, happiness, melancholy, passion, lost love,” said Mariza, whose family settled in Lisbon after leaving Mozambique in 1976.
“Every single thing that makes up a human being, every single part of life you can sing in fado.”
Mariza started singing fado at the age of five in the taverna her father ran in the Mouraria quarter of Lisbon and always returned to fado after trying different styles like jazz and soul later on.
“I think fado was my first joy. I didn’t have an option. Everyone in my neighborhood used to sing fado, they used to play fado, they used to listen to fado, so fado always surrounded me,” said Mariza, who combines singing with her role as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Mariza was catapulted to fame at the start of the millennium after award-winning debut album “Fado em Mim,” a collection of the singer’s favorite songs from her childhood, gained international distribution.
Fado is not taught formally and the only way to learn is by watching and listening to others perform.
“You have to get close to the traditional ones. They don’t explain anything to you. You just have to listen and to understand and if you have the gift, they accept you.”
Mariza was cagey about where the next record will take her on her musical journey.
“Making records is not a mathematical thing. Making music, you have to deal with your heart, with your experience of life,” she said.
“I try always to be close to the musicians I respect most like Javier Limon, Chucho Valdes, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Omara Potuondo, Cesaria Evora,” she said, citing just a handful of the greats of world music she has worked with, alongside rock stars like Sting and Lenny Kravitz.
Mariza gestures with her hands and sways across the whole stage in a way atypical of fado singers, who for generations gave statuesque performances in the cramped spaces of Lisbon’s tavernas.
“It is my way of feeling music, it’s my personality when I‘m singing. If you look at Mick Jagger or Bono, they dance all the time,” she said. “Tradition is tradition. I just try to be myself.”
While Mariza’s schedule means she now has more opportunity to visit New York jazz clubs than watch fellow fado musicians perform, she is proud that a generation including names like Ana Moura and Cristina Branco are helping fado to thrive.
“I feel very happy to know there is a new generation that is carrying the culture of a country and that they are not letting that culture die.”