Mariza is one of the rising stars of fado. She has one of the finest voices in the fado scene. Mariza brings together tradition and innovation, with her new arrangements of traditional fados and her charismatic image.
This interview was made exclusively for World Music Central at WOMEX, Essen (Germany), in October 2002.
You grew up in a part of Lisbon called Moreria. How did that affect the kind of music that you were introduced to?
A lot. I suppose that if I hadn’t grown up there today I would not be a fadista. I would be a singer, but not a fadista.
Is that because of your family background or the area where you grew up?
Because of the area. We are talking about one of the oldest and traditional neighborhoods in Lisbon where musicologists say that in the 19th century fado was born there. So when you walk the streets of Moreria, every corner, every street, every house, even the way of living of the people, is a fadista life. You can always listen to someone singing when they are cleaning,
singing fado. Even the woman who sells fish is singing. It’s more than a tradition; it’s a way of life.
Are your parents fado fans?
Yes, they are fado fans, not performers. They sing very badly. But they had a little restaurant in Moreria and we used to have fado afternoons on Sundays. I was accustomed to listening to fado and listening to the best traditional fadistas. It was a really small place, a very traditional place, but with very nice ambience. In the 1980s you could find people from the theater, culture, journalists, the traditional fadistas, everybody. And I started singing fado there at the age of 5. At the time I didn’t know how to read so my father started making cartoons. He listened to the poems and started making cartoons for me to learn. And I started learning the poems and singing
fados. In fado we don’t have lyrics, we have poems.
Growing up in Moreria was one of the best things to me because I know since I was a child I wanted to be a singer, but being a fadista is completely different. And growing up there made me a fadista. Normally, at my parents’ home, we used to have lunch and dinner, listening to fado and Portuguese music. So it’s a kind of traditional thing.
Why do you think there is so much interest in fado, not just in Portugal, but also outside Portugal?
I feel that although I really don’t have an explanation for that. I suppose it has to do with a kind of curiosity in the world to learn about all kinds of cultures.
Why do you think most of the best-known fadistas now are women?
I’m not sure if I’m correct telling you this, but it’s a feeling I have. When you look at men singing, sometimes for them it’s hard to have a connection with feelings. Socially speaking, it’s not normal for people to see men trying to show their feelings. With a woman it’s easier, you feel more connected. You have a connection. You have a relationship. I have seen a
woman crying, talking about the feelings, talking about what she’s feeling inside, why she has that grief, why she has that sorrow, why she lost that love, but for men it’s not normal to talk about those things.
Considering that you grew up listening to traditional fado, what are you trying to do with fado? Are you trying to create something new?
I show what I feel and what steps I think fado could give to have an evolution. I think everything has an evolution. And when we talk about a culture that is 240 or 270 years old, to get here that culture had to grow along the centuries so we can’t stop now. Because we talk now about the old generations of fado, every generation makes something new with fado that takes it one step ahead. What I’m trying to do is the same. I’m trying to respect the traditional poems, the basis, but at the same time showing what I feel for the new steps in this culture.
And because of this are you having any problems with the purists?
No, actually they respect me a lot in Portugal. The first thing was, “who is this crazy woman?” Because I have a very different kind of look. It’s not traditional. When you are talking about a traditional fadista you are expecting a person completely dressed in black, with black hair and a pony tail and I don’t have anything like that. So at my first appearance people asked “who is this crazy woman?” Then the second time they listened to my voice and my singing, so they understood I’m singing fado and I’m very traditional when I sing it, so now I have the respect of the most purists, the most traditional, the oldest fadistas and, one thing that makes me very
happy, I have the respect of young people too, so I’m very happy with that.
Is your image something very conscious? Do you look the way you look because you like it or are you trying to shock the public?
It’s because I like it. Dying the hair blond was something I did for fun. I appeared on TV with it in Portugal and they started associating the hair with me, so it was nothing meant to shock. It’s not something I did to have a certain image or to have a new look. It’s me. And when we talk about my dresses and the colors I use it’s because I like it. I don’t mind when they say
“she has too many colors, and the hair”. Sometimes some old people in Portugal, in the street, come and say “I love your voice, but your hair,” and I ask “when you close your eyes do you like it?” “I love it,” they say, so I tell them “close your eyes because I love to be like this.”
You recorded your first album when you were 26. Why do you think it took so long for people to discover your talent?
I stopped singing fado when I was 15 or 16 years old. Because I used to sing in social clubs in the neighborhood, but I stopped doing it because my friends at school started telling me “it’s that old thing and for old people”, so I stopped.
So it was not cool.
No, it was not cool. “Are you not ashamed of singing fado?” and they started to show me other kinds of music. When I was 15 or 16, if you asked me about some famous rock bands, I had no idea what they were talking about because my universe was only fado, because at my home we listened to fado, and my friends started showing me other kinds of music. Other styles.
And I started doing research about blues, jazz, Gospel. I knew about Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand, but fado was really my universe. And I stopped singing fado when I had bands. I used to play in casinos and clubs, but never thought about making records. I just sang because I liked it and loved to do it, but I never thought about making a record. I never thought about having an
I used to sing fado for my family and friends and, later, at shows in clubs for friends, just for fun. One of those evenings, I was at a club and at the end of the evening there was a man that had a fado house in Lisbon. He enjoyed my show and gave me an invitation to go to his house to sing one day a week. And I said why not, I have nothing to do. OK. But really for fun. And then I started singing there and I felt like I didn’t want to sing any more blues, jazz or soul, I wanted to sing this so I started singing every day and then Jorge Fernando, the producer of this record, asked me “why don’t make a record?” And I was thinking, this man is crazy, he wants to make a record with me? Why? Who’s going to buy this? The family? And I said to him: ““OK, let’s do it. It’s something for us.” And he said, “yes it’s something for us.” We started working on the record. I started doing research about the poems I wanted to sing and then everything got started.
How did the recording happen? Did you use musicians you knew or did the producer bring his own musicians?
Jorge is well connected with fado so we brought the musicians.
Were these professional musicians that had been around for a long time?
Yes. At that time I was a professional too because I was living from making music. Not from fado, but singing other kinds of music. I knew some of the musicians because I worked with them in some clubs, because some of them are not only fado musicians, they are musicians. And actually I know 50% of the musicians in Lisbon, because music in Lisbon is not a big market if we are talking about clubs. It’s not very big so I know them and they know me very well. So we started working and it was really good to work with those people and to work with Custodio Castelo, the Portuguese guitar player. It was really good because I learned a lot and they are very nice musicians, good people.
How did it feel recording in Portugal and having a Dutch label release the album?
It’s very strange because at that time my feeling was very patriotic, like fado is from Portugal. I remember that they told me it’s a very good label. It’s small and it’s going to be good for you. But I was like, it’s not Portuguese. I want a Portuguese company. If I want to release something I want it to be Portuguese, but I was not thinking about having a big label. And they wanted to release the album so for me it was something crazy because the thing I wanted to do was to have an album and to sell it at the fado houses and give copies to some friends. I hadn’t planned to do this and they started talking to me and they said they are small label, with few artists. The problem
was that I didn’t want anything big. I don’t need that, but everything changed.
How do you normally connect with audiences that are not fado audiences? For example, a European audience that is not in a cozy, fado house. Do you think they understand what you are singing to them? Do you explain things or is the music enough?
I try to explain it of course. I know I’m singing in a different language, but there are some words people know like saudade, like morte, you know. I have some words that can make a connection with them. One thing I really enjoy is to feel you are making a trip with me when I’m singing. It’s like I give you something and you give something to me. It’s like give and receive. And when I do my shows I try to explain the meaning of the poems and I try to give that energy to everybody that is sitting there because when I perform it’s not like I’m in a big theater, or I’m singing for 10,000 people. My audience, they are my friends because they come to see me. It’s like you being in my sitting room and we are in a very intimate place and I’m singing for you. It’s a kind of feeling I have.
Do you have a regular band that you tour with?
Yes. I have the musicians who work with me. We have been working together for about 2 years, but they’ve been my friends for a long time. One of them is a classical guitar player, my friend for 20 years, from the same neighborhood. I used to sing and he was learning how to play the
acoustic guitar. When all this started to happen, he was the person to call so we are more like a family. I like to think like that because I need them, like they need me.
How’s the song writing process? Do you like to take poems that you are already familiar with and do you also write your own lyrics?
No, I don’t feel like I could compose. It’s difficult.
But is it something you might consider?
Yes, why not? But I need to have experience with life to reveal more true feelings. That’s why I always choose poems that are not talking about deep lost loves. My poems talk about the city. Of course we talk about love, but not in a big way. We talk very softly and that’s how I normally choose. I fall in love with the music and then choose a poem.
So the music comes first?
For me, yes.
How has Amalia Rodrigues affected your music?
A lot. It’s impossible and irresistible not to sing Amalia when you are a fadista because she had a wonderful voice. She sang the best poems. She had people who wrote poems just for her. She had the best composers making fados for her so it’s irresistible not to sing and of course we have about 230-300 traditional fados. When we talk about Amalia fados we are talking about fados musicados. And it’s the most modern way to sing fado because she brought modernity to fado. So what I like to do is to mix traditional fado with fados musicados, and original fados and that’s why the record is like that.
When are you planning to record a new album?
We’re going to record the new album, in January of 2003. I can’t tell you exactly what we are going to do. We have some ideas, but not something fixed yet.
Are there going to be any big changes from the previous one?
I think it’s going to be a step forward. Of course with every record we try to take a step forward. We’re going to try to make it. The producer is going to be a different person, Carlos Maria Trindade, from Madredeus, and we have a lot of poems from the biggest poet in Portugal. We have poems and music from the most important composers in Portugal so I think we’re going to have a very good record.