- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Whenever fado artist Mariza comes out of the airport terminal to the waiting car, the driver often seems unsure whether the striking, platinum-haired singer is actually the artist he or she has come to meet.

Mariza is a fadista, a woman who specializes in singing fado, the sweet-sad, soul-filled music of longing that comes from Portugal.

“When they see me in my sneakers and T-shirt they say, ‘She’s not the singer,’ says Mariza Nunes, who performs under her first name only. She will be performing at Lisner Auditorium tonight.

“I think they are waiting for a completely different person. But I’m ordinary. I read books, listen to music and go to the supermarket.”

So far, though, she’s led hardly an ordinary life. She was named Portugal’s “Personality of the Year” in 2004 by the Association of International Press in Portugal, considered an honor akin to Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.”

Born in Mozambique to an African, Indian, French and Portuguese mother and a Portuguese, German and Spanish father, she left Africa in 1979, when she was 3, to settle in a traditional neighborhood in Lisbon, where her parents operated a taverna.

So, what’s a traditional neighborhood? According to the singer, it’s one where the familiar aspects of modern life hardly find their way through. In her Lisbon neighborhood, the old women still dressed in black and the strains of fado still floated through the air.

“It was a place for the working classes,” says the singer, who learned fado from her father but also was exposed to the music of Miriam Makeba and Nina Simone by her mother.

“They feel life in a more enhanced way,” she says of people who live by tradition.

Fado was born in the early years of the 19th century, when homesick European sailors and African slaves mingled their songs on the docks of Lisbon with the sounds of the 12-string Portuguese guitar. Part blues, part ballad, fado depends on the commitment of the singer to give it grace and depth.

“To learn fado you have to listen to everyone,” says Mariza. “You have to listen to the taxi driver and the butcher as well as the teacher.”

There are some 200 traditional fado melodies, well known to singers who may choose new poems to set to them. The singers themselves have become quite famous: One, Amalia Rodrigues, the “queen of fado,” is said to have captured the essence of the music through a combination of skill, interpretation and showmanship.

“In my house we listened to jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and, of course, we never stopped listening to fados,” says Mariza.

Since she burst onto the music scene in 2002 Mariza has been compared to Miss Rodrigues, as well as other fado artists such as Misia and Ana Moura. But she’s her own person, she says, in part because her unique background makes her both tied to tradition and able to transcend it.

That may be why she doesn’t always wear black. After all, it’s not really the fashion that makes the fado.

“If I’m going to say something, I need to say what I’m feeling,” she says. “If I’m going to sing something, it’s impossible for me to sing something that I’m not feeling.”

She also has her own fados, new works that she created in collaboration with contemporary poets like Paulo de Carvalho and Paulo Abreu Lima.

That, too, is part of the tradition of fado, where poets and composers create songs for the fadista of their choosing.

Her new CD, “Transparente,” makes the most of this straddling of worlds, with new fados like the title track, written for her by Abreu Lima, which explores her African heritage.

And now, between runs to the supermarket and jaunts onstage (she recently performed at the Live8’s Africa Calling concert) she’s reading Hemingway and listening to K.D. Lang.

“Sometimes you have to study,” she says. “I’m trying to understand the way they see things. It’s like being a pupil again.”

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