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Mariza, the New Diva of Fado

When we talk about fado, the one thing I don't want is to put it in a kind of museum. It needs to grow, it needs to walk further.

Mariza is a 29-year-old singer of fado — the rich, emotionally textured music tradition from Portugal. She recently spoke with NPR's Melissa Block about her childhood in Lisbon, and about how fado has been her anchor, even when she ventured into other musical realms.

Mariza has shot to the top of the fado world since her debut album, Fado em Mim, in 2001, and is poised to attract a larger audience with the release of her latest CD, Fado Curvo.

Songs of longing and despair are a national tradition in Portugal. The word "fado" comes from the Latin fatum, meaning fate, destiny or doom. "Curvo" is the Portuguese word for curved or winding. "For me, curvo means that which is not straight," Mariza says. "Life is not a straight line — like passion, like music."

Fado emerged from the brothels and taverns of Lisbon about 200 years ago, and were first sung by lonely sailors. Today the songs are mostly performed in restaurants and special fado clubs.

Female fado singers, called fadistas, usually perform these fateful songs while draped in black shawls, standing very still. But Mariza's performances are kinetic — she moves with the emotion of a song — and does not wear a traditional shawl. "When we talk about fado, the one thing I don't want is to put it in a kind of museum," she says. "It needs to grow, it needs to walk further."

Like many other fadistas, Mariza goes by just one name. She was born in Mozambique, but her family moved to Portugal when she was very young. She says singing was part of everyday life, and remembers going to fado houses when she was very young.

Before Mariza could read, she says her father sketched out cartoon stories to help her remember lyrics to songs. At the age of five, she would join in the spontaneous singing in her parents' restaurant in Lisbon.

Mariza has been compared to Amália Rodrigues, an icon of the fado tradition. But Mariza says she wants to expand on the tradition of fado, rather than emulate the fadista divas of the past.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.