It takes an especially luminous star to make the old-timers at the Petisqueira stop mid-drink and goggle. The atmospheric old tavern on the Tagus River in Lisbon's Alcântara district has long been the favored haunt of the finest performers of Fado, Portugal's traditional song form. Leading singers like Nuno da Camara Pereira and Maria da Fé could be sipping vinho da casa at the bar and, between them, get barely a sidelong glance. But when Mariza enters the place, at 11 p.m. on a winter Thursday night, heads turn, necks crane and conversation stops for a moment. This is as much in admiration of her looks she is a stunning sight, dressed all in black to offset her close-cropped, platinum-blond hair as in awe of her current stature as Fado's hottest, most innovative performer. Fernando Maurício, a singer recently knighted by Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio, comes over and kisses her on both cheeks, calling her his "little girl." Mariza settles down at a table with her husband, João Pedro Ruelo, and begins to relax as the patrons go back to their meals. "I feel at home here," she says.
It's a rare opportunity for Mariza Nunes to relax in familiar surroundings. After a stint in the recording studio, she is soon back on yet another European tour, launching in the U.K. this month. The melancholic melodies of Fado are as much a part of Portugal's national identity as, say, flamenco is part of Spain's (even if neither is a huge commercial success). Yet this Mozambique-born songbird has become a sensation across Europe. Current comparisons in European media between Mariza and the legendary Amália Rodrigues are completely credible; the world has met its next great Portuguese fadista. Her debut album, Fado em mim (Fado and me), released in November 2001, sold 20,000 copies in a matter of weeks, and has since gone on to sell 100,000 copies worldwide which is huge for a Fado record.
Now she's selling out venues, from London to Bangkok, normally reserved for the biggest rock and pop acts entirely appropriate, because Mariza's stage act is too electric and expansive for staid chambers and opera houses. Traditional Fado performers stand almost perfectly still, only occasionally shrugging their shoulders, but Mariza moves almost constantly, prowling like a cat one moment, gliding like a ballet dancer the next. "I can't be like a stick," she says. "I feel the music and I express myself."
More unconventional still is her singing style, which blends Fado's high-octave wailing with subtle jazz shadings. Her influences include gospel, soul and rock if the mood strikes her, she will even sample Pink Floyd. Her stage persona is pure pop diva: with her hair and diaphanous evening gowns, she could be channeling Barbra Streisand or Céline Dion. Even the deeply conservative Fado establishment has taken her to its bosom, despite her tampering with the form. "If I were young, I would sing just like she does," says the celebrated fadista Amelia Proença. "The only thing I don't like is her hair, but she is so good it doesn't matter."
Back at the Petisqueira, the momentary hush of Mariza's entrance is replaced with a hubbub of excitement over the evening's unbilled entertainment. It's Fernando Maurício's 69th birthday, and friends have gathered to honor the man known to aficionados as Rey de Fado, King of Fado. Mariza rises to call for silence and announce the night's most anticipated performance. When Maurício begins to sing, she can't help humming along. As he finishes, she joins the chorus of lusty cheers Bem! (well done!) Fadista! The King of Fado waves and throws her kisses from across the room. It is a silent acknowledgment, from one generation of Fado royalty to another.