Misia: The other first lady of fado

While Mariza takes the plaudits, Misia is still waiting for the diva status that she is due, reckons Michael Church

Great voice, great presence, great hair - we all know who the queen of fado is, don't we? To listen to the ecstatic audience at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday, there is no disputing where the crown that was once worn by Amalia Rodrigues now belongs: on the peroxide-permed water-waves of a charismatic young singer called Mariza. And since she ran off with one of this year's Radio 3 World Music awards, she has the official seal of approval. She also has a fabulously effective publicity machine.

Well, some of us do dispute this: there is a slightly older singer with a great voice, great presence, great hair - in her case, a Louise Brooks bob - who deserves to share that crown. Step forward Misia, not currently presented with fanfares at the South Bank, but releasing a record that pushes the fado spirit into territory where it has never been before. And if her new CD, Canto, sits at the outer limits of the fado genre, her earlier ones superbly occupy its centre: she, too, has been justly hailed as the "new" Amalia Rodrigues.

But one can be too far in advance of fashion, as Misia ruefully admitted last week. When she made her first CD, 12 years ago, with freshly commissioned lyrics by contemporary Portuguese poets, she did not even know if there was an audience for it. "I had to do everything myself," she says."I carried CDs everywhere in my suitcase, went to Japan to find a publisher - I was my own manager and promoter. I even had a job persuading Portuguese audiences to accept me - my image was deemed too graphic, too minimalist."

Her music was viewed with suspicion, because in those days it was still tainted by its connections with the Salazar regime: fado may now be the hottest thing in Lisbon, but even in the early Nineties it was regarded by most Portuguese as a cultural throwback.

If you drop in at the Clube de Fado in Lisbon's Alfama district, where the singers range in age from 18 to 80, you'll be stepping into the past. Since the mid-19th century, fado's form has remained constant. Dressed up to the nines, the singers are accompanied by a Portuguese guitarra plus a Spanish guitar. Each ballad lasts three minutes, and each set consists of three songs, each of which builds to a climax of such intensity that the audience is compelled to join in. Fado's lugubrious momentum is impossible to dance to, but listening to it provides a powerful physical charge.

Misia spent her childhood listening to fado, and her early adulthood "finding her voice" in Lisbon clubs. This was not, she says, a matter of technique: "There is no school of fado - it must be sung out of your own experience. Virtuosity and brilliance don't come into it." Because fado does not come with a dance attached, it has been, as she puts it, "protected". "But that doesn't mean that you don't have to move it on. And the big challenge is how to do that, while still staying true to the Portuguese tradition."

Misia's approach has been through using lyrics by living poets, and through delicate instrumental innovation. "But, really, I'm not renovating fado. Fado is renovating itself, as it always has."

With Canto, however, she has broken the mould. "While it's good that fado's getting so much attention, I felt the field was getting crowded. It seemed a good moment to go away and make some different music, and I have my own department of crazy ideas - that's where I found the idea for this CD."

Canto is a collection of lyrics set to melodies by the Portuguese composer Carlos Paredes, who is now old and sick. "I wanted to do this while he could still appreciate the gesture. It's not a homage, it's a gift." The music is based on the sound of the Coimbra guitar and though spiced with violins, it retains the fado atmosphere, because the key to it is Misia's bewitching vocal art, in which darkness and light chase each other across the horizon.

When I suggest to Misia that she is currently being short-changed in the diva-stakes, she gives a graceful reply. "Mariza's voice I like very much - she is a very authentic artist, very generous - and her success is good for Portuguese music. She always says Amalia opened the doors, but it was me who kept them open."

So that's all right, then.

'Canto' is out on Warner Jazz

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