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Lisbon's Bel Canto

Fado's roots are tangled, though most scholars agree that the music was first popular with a variety of unsavory characters—"pimps, prostitutes, sailors, and bandits with knives," explains Miguel Francisco Cadete, music critic for the Lisbon daily newspaper Público. The songs were often performed in local brothels and taverns, but in the late 19th century, aristocrats began to discover fado clubs in the same way that wealthy whites discovered Harlem jazz clubs in the twenties. Prime minister Antonio Salazar, the dictator who ruled Portugal and its colonies from 1932 to 1968, tried to control fado by demanding that lyrics be approved by the government. But later, ironically, as Salazar came under increasing scrutiny for his brutal treatment of the Portuguese colonies, he embraced fado as a tool for diplomacy, sending Amália on international tours to show off the country's cultural heritage.

By the time the military overthrew the dictatorship, fado had been associated with the right-wing regime for so long that the music had lost much of its popular support. In the nineties, however, the stigma began to fade. "Young people who do not remember the time of Salazar began to discover it, and see it in a new way," Cadete says. But the resurgence has a downside. "The problem," says Lady Argentina, a fadista who runs the legendary club Parreirinha de Alfama, "is that not all of these singers are real fado singers. But Mariza," she continues, "she is the real voice of fado."

A few nights later, we stop into another tiny restaurant, called Os Ferreiras, not far from Mouraria, the working-class neighborhood where Mariza grew up. It's a typical Portuguese fado house: blue tile walls, wine bottles hanging from the ceiling. The place is run by a fadista Mariza calls Aunt Julia, a close friend. The crowd is older and more reserved than the one at Chico's tavern, mostly made up of couples eating dinner and groups of men smoking pipes and drinking scotch. "This place is like home to me," Mariza says.

After one singer completes a powerful verse, Aunt Julia stands up on the other side of the restaurant and begins a stanza of her own. Then another young woman in a red dress gets up, and the three fadistas engage in what's called desgarrada, a freestyle duel in which they challenge one another with increasingly complex phrases and improvised lyrics. As the third singer finishes, Aunt Julia motions to Mariza. At first, Mariza waves a pork rib in Aunt Julia's direction to show that she's busy eating, but Julia is insistent. So Mariza takes a swig of beer, and, on cue—with the half-eaten rib still in her hand—delivers her verse with such vitality and feeling, the restaurant falls silent. Anyone who hadn't noticed the star knows she's there now. Her voice is a marvel—clear, passionate, expressing all the sad dignity that is at the core of fado music. When she is done, the crowd bursts into applause, and Mariza, blushing, goes back to her dinner.

"Mariza does not get to sing in local places like this very often anymore," Ruela says softly, beaming at his wife. "But this is why she sings fado."

JASON FINE is a senior editor at Rolling Stone.

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