Fado Curvo

Virgin World Connection 84237

It is chastening when one's long-held convictions on a specialist subject are heedlessly tossed out of the window by an intrusion from the real world.  The best one can do in these circumstances is to promptly own up to it ... and this is me doing so.

Last year I received the latest in a long line of CDs from a particular promotions company - almost all of which have ended up in the bin, sometimes without even being played.  Cover picture(It may seem strange but, if you run an organisation with the word 'music' in its title, you get bombarded with 'product' which has little or no connection with your specialism ... and this particular promotions company is a constant source of such stuff.)

The CD I'm talking about was Mariza's first one, Fado Em Mim.  Having taken an interest in fado since encountering it almost accidentally about three years ago, I have listened to more than I care to of the modern tourist-oriented product, and I'm afraid I reacted automatically.  The hype-filled press release, that single name, that haircut ... "I have no intention of affording that the dignity of a play" I cried - and cast it into oblivion.

Last month, when watching a bit of the Radio 3 World Music Awards, I happened to catch Mariza's first song - and immediately regretted my impulsive dismissal of her CD.  Later on the programme she sang another, and I was won over.  A few nights later, BBC 4 showed her 1˝ hour Union Chapel concert, and I was convinced.  Despite all the hype, the credits to her 'designer' and 'stylist', the silly name and even sillier haircut, she is, underneath it all, a drop of the real thing.

I don't mean that I like everything she does, or even that I prefer her to other singers I've heard - she uses too many artificial ploys and over-relies on overt emotion for my taste.  She's not Pedro Moutinho - who none of you will have heard, nor are ever likely to - but she is extremely good and ought to be listened to by MT readers.  What she's doing deserves respect.

It appears that her first CD contained several songs associated with that queen of fado, Amália Rodrigues, and that most songs on it were of the 'classic fado' type.  Here, she has decided to branch out.  Aside from a truly astonishing version of Rodrigues' Primavera, the rest of the material is 'original' - so the press release tells us.  I think this translates as 'words from both classic and contemporary Portuguese poetry, set to pre-existing fado melodies'.  Certainly, even with my extremely limited experience of the genre, I'm sure I recognise several of the tunes.

Jon Lusk, writing in fRoots, tells us that 'Mariza also looks beyond Lisbon, including Menino do Bairro Negro from the Coimbra tradition, as well as sprightly folk dances from both the north (Fado Curvo) and the south (Feira de Castro) of Portugal'.  I assume he's talking only of the melodies here.  These folk dances are the sort of thing you hear from the ranchos folclóricos, the formally constituted groups of singers, dancers and musicians, consciously performing in a revivalist tradition that began in the early years of this century.  They were among the manifestations of tradition which were hijacked by the Fascist Estado Novo for ideological purposes.  Personally, I can do without them.

Seemingly, there's a 'new fado' movement on the go at the moment, and Mariza makes a nod in that direction by using piano, 'cello and brass backing on a couple of tracks, rather than the guitarra, viola and baixo found on the rest of the record.  Again, I find these innovations less effective than the more usual accompaniments.  I also have to say that - although it's a long-standing part of the fado scene - the baixo (acoustic bass guitar) does tend to obscure the interplay between the guitarra and viola.  To those new to fado, I should explain that the guitarra is the Portuguese guitar and the viola is a Spanish guitar.  Mário Pacheco's superb playing of the former is less in evidence on the disc than it was on the BBC shows, and António Neto's brilliant viola playing is often lost behind the baixo - a great shame.

To sum up, this is an unexpectedly good CD of a great singer performing some great songs.  You really should give it (and, I'm sure, its predecessor) a serious listen.  Entirely as an aside - I also hope that it may open the eyes of a few folkies in these islands to the fact that accompanied singing does not have to be in strict tempo; indeed that the free rhythm singing found on most tracks here is absolutely spellbinding and demands the listener's attention from the first note to the last.

It is, though, a terrible pity that so much hype, and so much 'front' was required to catapult Mariza onto the world stage - and that, without it, better singers than her will never leave the casa de fado in Lisbon where they sing every night to the tourists, for peanuts.

Rod Stradling - 6.6.03

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