Bridgewater Hall, Saturday, 6th February 2010

Current Portugese fado queen Mariza is not an obvious contender for best known singer in world roots music so it was an unexpected and very pleasurable surprise to see that the event was extremely well attended with the audience coming from as far afield as Argentina, Brazil, France and Spain, not to mention all parts of the north-west. Mariza cuts a quasi-supermodel figure with a tall and slender frame, futuristic ash-red dress, closely cropped blond hair and theatrical gesticulations that an actress at the Royal Exchange would be proud of. However, it is her voice that everyone is here to sample and what a distinctive diction it has too. The clarity of the delivery is simply astounding and takes one’s breath away even if the lyrics are entirely in Portugese (bar one song as an encore).

Accompanying the fado diva are three guitarists on collectively mandolin, acoustic lead and bass, and they teak a leaf out of the three great guitarists tour (Paco de Lucia, John McLaughlin and Al DiMeola) with the spotlight on them dressed in black and sat on stools on either side of the stage with the lead guitarist in the middle. Providing occasional accompaniment are a drummer/percussionist and pianist who also doubles up as a trumpeter. Part of the genius of Mariza’s repertoire is to constantly mix up these elements to provide endless variety for the listener. Mariza entertains the audience between numbers with her excellent command of English and on one number explains why a song is devoted to her native city of Lisbon where fado reigns supreme. The uptempo number has the audience immediately clapping while the mandolin player delivers a refined solo. On other compositions Mariza reveals the intimacy of fado with a beautifully excecuted ballad and one that indicates just how fado has become the Portugese man and woman’s take on the blues. Sometimes with the quintet in full flow the music takes on jazzy overtones and Mariza comes across as the logical modern day inheritor of Amelia Rodrigues’ mantle as the undisputed all-time fado great. This is particularly noticeable on the songs where the trumpeter plays a muted harmon in the style of late 1950 and early 1960s Miles Davis and where sheer sophistication simply oozes out of the ensemble sound. A good deal of credit should also go to the multi-percussionist who manages even with hand drums to create layers of sound that compliment Mariza’s vocals to perfection and blend in ideally with the guitar trio, no easy feat for a drummer.

The audience are very appreciative of the fact that Mariza in her introductions goes to some lengths to explain the reasoning behind her recordings and in particular the latest album’ Terra’ from which much of tonight’s repertoire is taken. At one point Mariza departs stage to rightly allow the three guitarists to take centre stage and engage in what is referred to in Portugese as ‘guitarrata’, with the bassist soloing while the other two accompany sensitively. The tempo suddenly increases a notch and we then find the trio playing in unison with a distinctly gypsy feel and the music taken at a rapid tempo. The mandolin player solos displays great dexterity until Mariza finally re-appears on stage and the guitarists are introduced in turn by her. Crucial to understanding the logic of fado is the concept of ‘saudade’, which Mariza translates as ‘longing’ and is one of the recurring themes of the fado songbook alongside love and lust. That she manages to convey this to the audience while reciting a song devoted to nineteenth century female poets in Portugal is testimony to her unquestionable communicative skills. Mariza recounts how her early childhood was spent in Africa (Mozambique to be precise) before she returned with her family to Lisbon. She then takes the audience to the south of Portugal with a song that has all the flavours of Spanish flamenco and at a brisk tempo then invites the audience to clap along which they respond to immediately. The warm rapport with the audience is all too evident and Mariza responds to this by descending the stage and singing among the audience, much to the latter’s delight followed by a mandolin solo con mucho gusto before there is a deliberate paused silence and then a dramatic vocal re-entry by Mariza once again on stage. The singer has a complete command of proceedings and to a standing ovation this seems a wonderful way for the evening to come to a conclusion.

However, all is not yet finished and to a second standing ovation, Mariza and the band return on stage at which point the singer then calls out to the audience to determine where precisely in the world they come from. For the first time Mariza starts to sing in English, a heartfelt rendition of ‘I’ve been crying over you’, before, as a second encore, the mandolin and lead guitarist go close up to Mariza in the middle of the stage to create further initmacy and the singer commences for the final time a classic mid-tempo groove of a song with the audience clapping throughout. A marvellous way to conclude an evening of Portugese soul music projected straight into the heart of Manchester.

Tim Stenhouse

Astral Travelling Since 1993