Live review

REVIEW: Mariza at the Royal Festival Hall (2018 EFG LJF)

Mariza, London 2018
Photo credit and © Roger Thomas

(Royal Festival Hall, 17 November 2018. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Dominic Williams)

I don’t think the audience at this Mariza gig was expecting to hear jazz, any more than her audience at Celtic Connections next year are expecting tartan trews and bagpipes. We had come to hear Mariza, the great exponent of traditional Portuguese fado, do her stuff. So, why should this be part of London Jazz Festival? I’ll try and explain.

Fado is a traditional Portuguese style of music, sung in stylised, dramatic and declamatory style and usually accompanied by guitars. The lyrics are often about “saudade” or ” longing”,  the melancholy Portuguese equivalent of “the blues”. Indeed, you could say that fado is to Lisbon what the blues is to New Orleans.

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Fado is folk music but it is not up-country rural music; it comes from the dockside bars of Lisbon and reflects Portugal’s past as a great sea-trading (and slaving) nation. Fado has multicultural influences from Africa, America and places in between. In fact Mariza’s own backstory, as a mixed race immigrant from Mozambique, is arguably more authentically fado than a pure Portuguese ancestry would be.

Fado does have some structural differences from jazz. Apart from the unfamiliar instrumentation, fado is modal, rather than chord-based music like mainstream European jazz. That may be one reason why the further towards the equator you go, the more permeable the barriers between jazz and folk become – but I’ll leave that to musically-trained people to argue.

While fado itself has become stylised, you do not have to go far in any direction, geographically or musically, to find links to music with obvious connections to jazz. Eastwards into the Mediterranean, you meet Elina Duni (Partir) coming towards you. South into Andalusia, you encounter Amina Alouai (Arco Iris) and her Moorish/Spanish/Portuguese fusion. The boat takes you to Cape Verde where Cesaria Evora (Café Atlantico) inspired a new wave of singers of morna, the Cape Verde equivalent of fado. From there, Carmen Souza (Creology) could sing you along the old sea route westwards across the Atlantic. Or you could fly with fado to Brazil and sing jazz (Carminho Canta Tom Jobim).

None of these excursions are exercises in dry musical ethnography. They lead to music that is very much alive and growing its influence on jazz, but also in some sense fado-related. It would be wrong to say that fado is the root from which all these styles sprang, rather that they are all part of the same complex musical current flowing westwards across the Atlantic over the last 400 years.

Less directly, after the death of Amalia Rodrigues in 1999, it was Mariza who not only led a national revival of fado but popularised it on the international stage and sparked a wave of interest in allied musical forms – including parallel Spanish/ Creole music from the likes of Leyla McCalla (A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey). By becoming acknowledged as one of the stars of the world music circuit, Mariza has opened the door for other singers from different cultures.

On the night, Mariza played material from her nearly 20 years of recording, with an emphasis on the traditional favourites. Even when she sang more modern material, it was mostly stylistically similar. Only a couple of songs from her forthcoming album hinted at a more radical change of style. Her band had a traditional line-up, comprising Portuguese guitar (a 12-string instrument, shaped and sounding like a mandolin but played guitar-style), guitar, bass guitar, accordion and drums. They sat dressed in black, lit by individual spotlights, surrounded by darkness like Mastermind contestants, to emphasise their virtuoso status. Incidentally, they were each given generous namechecks in Mariza’s pronounced Portuguese accent, which I failed to decipher – apologies.

From the beginning of her career, Mariza broke the mould, with her trademark platinum blonde hair and her arm tattoos, but in other ways, she is very much a diva – the heels, the frock, the expansive arm movements, the appeal to the audience’s emotions, the singalongs. That’s part of the reason she can sell out the Royal Festival Hall.

Half the wildly enthusiastic audience were Portuguese speakers and probably had no interest in jazz. For them this concert was a celebration of national culture and perhaps the saudade of exile. They and the rest of the audience could enjoy the evening on its own terms, as the chance to see the pre-eminent star performer of fado in peak form. Everyone went home happy, even if they did not get some of the Portuguese jokes. But if you do want to think about the wider historical and musical context of fado, the links to jazz are certainly worth exploring in more depth.

Categories: Live review

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