The rising star of fado, the emotional musical genre which does for the Portuguese what tango does for the Argentines or flamenco for Spain. Mariza's vocal qualities are frequently compared to the legendary fadista Amália Rodrigues, who set the exacting standard by which her successors are judged. Already successful in Portugal, Mariza appears set to make her international breakthrough on the world music scene in 2003 with the release of her second album.

Fado deals in saudade, the untranslatable cocktail of loneliness and nostalgia said to lie in the deepest parts of the Portuguese soul, and is almost best thought of as poetry set to music. Traditionally, the singer is only accompanied by a Portuguese and a Spanish guitar, but several of Mariza's songs add a cello, a piano, and even a burst of the traditional adufe drum from the Beira Baixa region.

The style was looked upon with suspicion in some quarters after it became appropriated and diluted by the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar. The Estado Novo fell in 1974, but it took rather longer for the certain stigma surrounding fado to dissipate; now, however, a new generation of fadistas has emerged, and strong fado elements also permeate the music of groups like Madredeus.

Mariza Nunes was born in Mozambique in 1975, but when she was three years old moved with her parents to Lisbon, where the family opened a restaurant and fado house. Lisbon, alongside Coimbra, has always been the cradle of fado, although Lisbon's take on the music is specifically working-class. (Fado in Coimbra is more the affair of professional men, with emphasis on the 'men'.)

The first female fadista is supposed to have been one Maria Severa, who performed in the Mouraria district in the 1830s. Mariza comes from Mouraria too, and among her repertoire of fado standards is one of Amália's regulars, Há festa em Mouraria (There's a party in Mouraria).

Inspired by the music she heard every weekend, Mariza began to sing fado from the age of five, and - so the story goes - her father used to draw her cartoons to help her remember the lyrics. Although she went on to dabble in jazz and blues, fado remained her first love, and her big break came in 1999 when she appeared in a nationally televised concert in memory of the late Amália, who had just died that year.

Mariza has a strong claim to be the Amália Rodrigues of the twenty-first century, with a mournful voice sounding much older than the woman to whom it belongs. Her first album, Fado em mim (Fado in me, 2001) contains six well-established fado numbers and six composed especially for her.

She's learnt from the pop divas, too, and is instantly recognisable, with a wardrobe of diaphanous black or white dresses and a distinctive bleached-blonde, inch-long Marcel waved haircut. Her hair is the only aspect of which one of fado's elder stateswomen, Amelia Proença, disapproves.

While most of her songs are as melancholy as would be expected, Fado em mim contains the occasional love-song to Lisbon to lighten the load, not to forget her version of Oiça lá o senhor Vinho, a song from the village festivals of northern Portugal about, unsurprisingly, what happens to you when you drink too much wine. One might hope that a few of her new songs would become standards of the future, especially the powerful Oxalá (If only), an elegy to Portuguese heritage itself.

Her best showcase, however, is perhaps her version of Barco negro (Black boat), a traditional fado about a sailor's wife. Waiting on the beach, she refuses to accept that her husband will not be returning home, despite the warnings of the village's wise old women; the song begins and ends with her unsettling wail of 'São loucas' - 'The women are mad'. To base Barco negro around the adufe drum, as Mariza does, instead of the guitars might have made Amália wince, but it's not as if she'll find out.

Mariza's gospel began to be spread abroad in November 2002 when she appeared on the British music show Later with Jools Holland, becoming the first Portuguese artist to do so. She had been supposed to appear on an edition of the show the previous month, but had a previous booking from the Portuguese president, Jorge Sampaio; in November, thanks to a mystery throat infection which struck down Bjork - one of few singers with a comparable vocal range - Mariza was called in at twenty-four hours' notice.

In early 2003, she was voted Best European Act at the Radio 3 World Music Awards organised by the BBC. She has since played several dates in the UK and the rest of Europe in preparation for her second album, Fado curvo, released in May 2003 with an emphasis on new compositions.

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