It takes a lot for all of the elements to come together just right and create the kind of music experience offered last night at the Flynn Center.
The evening began at 6 in the adjacent Amy Tarrant Flynn Gallery with an excellent hour-long, anecdote-packed a/v tour through the colorful history of Portuguese “fado” music, a relatively recently evolved singing style from two very different but coexistent sources: the ‘tavernas’ in Lisbon’s working class neighborhoods, and the more formal academic environment at the University of Coibra (where fado is traditionally only sung by men! Quel dommage!).
One music; two distinct paths of expression – as I was listening to the discussion on fado it occurred to me how often we find this kind of divergence as a particular style takes root and evolves simultaneously but separately, in different areas of the same geographical region. Indian classical music came to mind immediately, with its improvisatory Hindustani tradition in the North (a style partly shaped by centuries of neighboring Islamic and Persian influence), and the voice-reliant, religious-themed orientation of Carnatic music in the South.
At 7:30 the concert began, three solitary guitars on the stage in three distinct voices (bass, lyrical Portuguese, and classical acoustic), strumming a stirring prelude in anticipation of the entrance. And a moment later, there she was: Mariza, with her signature stylish peroxide wavy bob and long black fitted dress. She strolled into the scene with a radiant smile and a broad wave and began singing in the dark, soaring voice that simultaneously defines her artistry and dispels any initial impressions given by her petite physique.
Half African (mum is from Mozambique, where the future fadista was born), and half Portuguese, Mariza was raised in a seaside Lisbon ‘taverna’ owned by her father. Early on, she described the ‘fado weekends’ her father’s tavern hosted, and her own first forays on the stage as gradeschooler when she was allowed to sing her three fado songs at 9pm each Saturday night, promptly followed by a 10pm bedtime where her father carried her upstairs and tucked her in. (And where the young Mariza, waiting in anticipation for the sound of her father’s footsteps going back downstairs, promptly hopped out of bed and took a seat on the second floor landing to listen the rest of the night’s singers…)
If you’ve heard ‘fado’ you may be inclined to describe it as a mournful, wailing, sad or nostalgic sounding style of singing. You’re definitely right about that. As Mariza demonstrated, though, that’s like looking at the half moon and describing it as “dark”. Accurate, but that’s only part of the story. In omitting the ‘other’ half you’ve not only missed a significant and defining characteristic of the whole picture, you’ve also neglected to describe the one obvious factor upon which you based your judgement of the ‘dark’. (Without light, no dark. The classic paradox.)
So, as it goes with most artistic effort, fado can be thought of much more as a spectrum of expressive capacity rather than a single wedge of the emotional color wheel. For all of its poignancy and longing and wistfulness (‘saudade’) there is also joy and passion, and a love of life and homeland. Mariza’s performance was infused with all of that, and the surprisingly contrasting emotions of the songs she shared made for a compelling and exciting narrative that just kept on unfolding in new insights throughout the show.
I mentioned all of the elements coming together last night to make this a special, memorable experience. The musicianship was incomparable; the unique combination and balance of instruments seemed a good fit for what occasionally can be an alternately constrained or overly ‘lively’ sound at the Flynn; and the subdued, striking lighting schemes gave every illusion of creating the intimate ‘taverna’ space that this music calls home. (I could have lived without the flashing “laser Floyd” spotlight efx on one of the early ‘up’ numbers, but it’s a small complaint to balance against the otherwise beautiful tableaux throughout.)
Mariza is in the second month of a 4-month, 47-city North American tour in promotion of her new recording “Terra”. She is a powerhouse of a singer and a gracious, charming host on stage, generously sharing the spotlight and credits with her fellow performers. If you missed her here you may still be able catch her in another city, and by all means do it if you can. (Tour schedule’s on her website…a Flash-heavy experience, be patient…)
Otherwise I can recommend her earlier recordings, “Fado em Mim”, “Fado Curvo”, and “Transparente” (a tribute recording to her African grandmother).
“Fado”, as Mariza informed the audience last night, “means ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.”
How very fortunate for us that hers included Vermont as a destination.
[The musicians: Mariza, fadista; Jose Marino Abreu de Freitas, bass; Angelo Braz Freire, Portuguese guitar; Diogo Clemente, classical guitar; Hugo Marques, drums; Simon Wadsworth, piano/trumpet]