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Lisbon's Bel Canto

At 2 a.m. on a warm spring night the streets of Lisbon's Alfama district are quiet. Few people are walking about, and the blue-tiled seafood restaurants and after-work taverns have all closed. Except for a breeze that rustles through the purple-flowering jacaranda trees, the loudest sound is the occasional hum of a fishing boat as it trolls up the broad Tagus River. "You think Lisbon has gone to sleep," says Mariza, Portugal's newest fado star, with a mischievous smile. "But not where we're going."

Alfama is one of Lisbon's oldest neighborhoods, a maze of crumbling red-roofed apartments, whitewashed plazas, and Moorish churches covered in blue-and-white tile reliefs. Cobblestoned streets wend their way from the river to the walls of Castelo de São Jorge, the city's centerpiece, sections of which were built by Arabs as far back as the ninth century.

Alfama is also the home of fado—the melancholy acoustic folk music that's as vital to Lisbon culture as the blues is to Memphis or son is to Havana. A blend of North African, Gypsy, European, and even, some believe, Brazilian folk styles, fado originated in the Alfama's rough-and-tumble taverns and bordellos, and in the nearby Bairro Alto and Mouraria neighborhoods, in the mid 19th century.

Portugal's best-known fado singer, Amália Rodrigues, was a national icon; when she died in 1999, Lisboans mourned for days. Now a new generation of young singers—including Misia, Dulce Pontes, Camane, and Cristina Branco—has sparked a resurgence of fado throughout Portugal and found a growing audience in Europe, South America, and the United States. Few, however, have done more for fado internationally than Mariza, the statuesque 29-year-old whose close-cropped platinum-blond hair and formfitting full-length stage gowns make her look more like a character from The Matrix than a folk singer. Mariza's two albums, Fado en Mim and Fado Curvo, have sold a combined 300,000 copies worldwide—unheard-of for any fado singer other than Amália. Tonight, back from a sold-out U.S. tour but still full of energy, Mariza is ready to show me her town, her music.

After a brief introduction, she warns me that we'll have to stay out until sunrise if I want to see "the real fado." The music is easy to find in Lisbon—most hotels have racks of brochures for fado houses, nightclubs, and even river cruises. But the best is performed in hidden dives, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and after-hours haunts. "You have to know where to go," explains Mariza's husband and manager, João Pedro Ruela, over a dinner of fried liver and grilled fish, along with a mixture of red wine and Coke, at the couple's favorite seafood spot, Churrasqueira do Sacramento. "In the touristic places you might see some good singers, but they don't give it all they have."

Typically, only acoustic guitars back a fado singer, who belts out simple songs of suffering, jealousy, betrayal, and loss—songs rooted in the Portuguese concept of saudade, which is often described as "a longing for the unattainable." Saudade is deeply ingrained in Portuguese art and culture, and defines much of what makes fado such fascinating, powerful music—that, and the fact that the music lives on in its original form, virtually unaffected by contemporary pop. With a little late-night hunting, you can still find fado being performed in much the same way it was 150 years ago. "In the places we're going," Ruela says, "you never know, you might hear magic."

Rumbling along stone streets in Ruela's blue BMW long after dark, we leave Alfama's tranquillity for the bohemian nightlife of Bairro Alto, a Portuguese version of New York's East Village or Silver Lake in Los Angeles. Here the city snaps to life: bars blare techno music, 20-year-olds drink beer from plastic cups, smart couples dine at nouveau bistros built into candlelit sidewalk alcoves. Several historic fado clubs are planted in Bairro Alto, notably Café Luso, where Amália first performed 60 years ago, and A Severa, named for Maria Severa, who was fado's first star, in the 19th century. Both clubs are cavernous places that re-create the traditional fado experience for a crowd of mainly tourists.

Heading on foot through the district's narrow alleys, we eventually find A Tasca do Chico, a bare-bones beer hall furnished with sticky picnic tables and framed posters of fado legends. Most nights, Chico's is just a rowdy bar. But two nights a week, the magnanimous (and often inebriated) Chico hosts a fado night, during which a three-piece band—an acoustic guitar, a bass, and a 12-string Portuguese guitar—accompanies singers who step bravely into the middle of the living-room-sized space to show their stuff.

At 2:30 a.m., the club is packed with drunk, mostly under-30 Lisboans. There's no way to squeeze through the front door—that is, until the bouncer recognizes Mariza, who is dressed down in jeans and a T-shirt, with a newsboy cap covering her hair. He pulls us inside and across the makeshift stage, where a middle-aged man in a sweat-drenched white polo shirt is weeping a song to the rapt crowd. Mariza seems reluctant to intrude, but the singer stops, mid-song, to chat. "Hey, Mariza, how are you?" he calls. "You promised me a CD! Did you bring it?"

Over the course of two hours and many plastic cups of Sagres beer, we watch a half-dozen singers—inspired amateurs, established local stars, ragged-voiced old-timers. The guitars provide a densely woven rhythm, with sweet, intricate melodies picked out on the mandolin-shaped 12-string. The singing is intense, marked by explosive bursts of emotion and quieter, plaintive passages. The later the hour, the louder the crowd gets: If the singer is good, people clap and cheer; if not, they join in, crooning along to the choruses and finishing his lines. "This is the fado spirit!" Ruela says as Chico arrives with another round of drinks.

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