Mariza: A sweet sound from old Europe

Mariza is a new singing sensation, says Garth Cartwright. But what is 'fado'?
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Portugal is famous for great beaches, fine footballers and, more recently, Mariza. The 29-year-old Lisbon native's hairstyle has made her second only to David Beckham in the much discussed follicle stakes. This follows the fact of Mariza being Europe's most celebrated new singer.

The subtle beauty of her 2001 debut album Fado Em Mim quickly established Mariza as a major talent. An instant icon in Portugal, Jools Holland and Charlie Gillett championed her in the UK, so helping her win Best European Artist at Radio 3's recent World Music Awards and pack venues. Such is Mariza's appeal that EMI bought out her contract from her previous label. Which means the European release of her new album Fado Curvo is held in Madrid before an international media pack. Not bad for a singer of fado - Portugal's traditional music - who refuses to sing in English, be remixed or dress in revealing clothes.

Born in Mozambique to a Portuguese father and African mother, Mariza later moved to Lisbon where her parents ran a restaurant. From the age of five her father encouraged her to sing fado for the diners. As a teenager she turned to singing pop and funk: "My friends all said 'fado is for old people' so I tried to avoid it. But at the end of each night, if we had a good audience, I would sing one of two fado numbers to close the show."

It was one of these encores that caught the ear of a passing fado dignitary who invited Mariza to perform at an established venue. Word quickly spread across Lisbon about the elegant young woman who possessed the voice of a truly great fadista. Fado is comparable to flamenco in its emotional intensity and interplay between voice and guitar. The music's melancholy ambience remains the purest expression of the Portuguese psyche with the nation's finest poets penning poems for their chosen fado singers to interpret. Aficionados also demand that a fado singer should possess saudade - a soulful yearning that captivates the listener.

"Saudade is a word that appeared with sailors and only exists in the Portuguese language," Mariza explains. "It describes when you miss your partner or family or country very much. It is a very deep feeling. I wasn't conscious of developing this and when I first appeared with my hair and costumes the intellectuals went, 'Who is this crazy woman?' but then they remembered hearing me sing at my parents' restaurant and they respected me. Now, well, they are very proud of my success, they say it is for all Portugal, not for me. And this can be tiring because my country expects me to be the most famous fado singer ever, to sell a lot of records and get lots of awards."

All of which Mariza may achieve. But it will be on her terms, which include thebleached, gelled hair and outfits that straddle classics and camp."I've always been theatrical. To me the stage is a special place and when you occupy it you can do what you want, it's my world."

What makes Mariza special is her voice: a deep, throaty instrument that conveys both melancholy and joy. Indeed, when Mariza sings she transports the listener to Lisbon's cobbled streets and evokes an old European soulfulness, one too rarely heard among the incessant, empty din of so much contemporary music.

"You know, I don't even like the sound of my voice," notes the exasperated singer, "and now when I wander around Lisbon I hear it coming out of every shop and bar. I'm driving myself crazy!"

Mariza: Royal Festival Hall, London SW7 (020 7960 4242), 27 October