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World Music Features

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By J. Poet

Published November 30, 2007

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Mariza stands on a stage that’s been constructed in the gardens of the Tower of Belém, one of the most treasured historical and architectural sites in Portugal. Built in the early 16th century to commemorate Vasco da Gama’s expedition that opened India to Portuguese trade, the shimmering white tower looms above the singer, like the ghost of a bygone era looking proudly down on a woman crooning fado, the melancholic, poetically rich folk music that was born in Lisbon’s working class barrios.

Behind her is a small chamber group —the Sinfonietta de Lisboa, conducted by her musical director, Jaques Morelenbaum— as well as a traditional fado ensemble: Luis Guerreiro on Portuguese guitar (a 12-stringed instrument that sounds like a cross between oud and mandolin), Vasco Sousa on acoustic bass, Antonio Neto on Spanish guitar and percussionists Jose Salgueiro, Eduardo Salgueiro, Vicky and João Pedro Ruela.

In a long black dress that makes her look like a princess and sorceress at once, the blonde singer approaches the edge of the stage and begins singing “O Gente De Minha Terra,” a tune written by the late Amalia Rodriques, the undisputed queen of fado in her day. The song is a salute to the Portuguese people, a ballad full of weeping guitars, aching sadness and national pride. An electric charge goes through the crowd as they lean forward in their seats, eyes wide, drinking in every word as Mariza lifts her head and lets her emotions fl y, her voice full of the anguish and restraint that makes fado so emotionally wrenching.

“It was a rainy summer evening, a beautiful emotional night,” Mariza says, recalling the concert that’s now out on CD and DVD as Concerto em Lisboa. “The tower was on the side of the stage, bathed in light. It’s one of the most romantic places in Lisbon, a special place for us.” Mariza says that the Tower of Belém holds a deep personal meaning for her and her music. “It’s the place where our explorers set sail for the New World, to find the future. In the same way, I start off from the traditional roots of pure fado and while I respect the old traditions, I bring in my own sonorities to make it my fado, to take it into the future.”

The plaza of the Tower had never been the site of a live concert before. The mayor of Lisbon organized the event to pay tribute to Mariza’s success and to honor her as a world-renowned citizen of the city. “Jaques was on stage conducting the special arrangements he’d written for that night,” the singer says. “We had 25,000 people witnessing a concert of fado, which is not normal for Lisbon. I saw older traditional fado purists, people my age, people younger than me, people who came from many different parts of the country. It was a very emotional evening. I was surprised how supportive the audience was.”

For a live recording, the sound quality on Concerto em Lisboa is amazing. Mariza’s voice is strong, pure and expressive, while Morelenbaum’s expansive orchestral arrangements add even more drama to songs already heavy with heartrending power. “Every note you hear me sing is live, no editing,” the singer says proudly. “Some people retouch in the studio, I don’t. If I make a mistake, I make a mistake. Music is not perfect. It’s the same in the studio. I work with old analog equipment, machines with tubes in them. You get a hotter sound for the voice and if you make a mistake, you have to admit that and go on. What you see on the DVD is what happened that night. You can see I’m tired at the end of the concert, even the voice is a bit tired, but I must be sincere with the audience and show them the truth. The only thing we did after was to record some of th

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