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Old and new worlds unite in Mariza's soulful fado

Portuguese star Mariza glided onstage Saturday night -- 6 feet tall and sinewy, wearing a particolored couture ball gown that showed off her bare shoulders, glittering black beads at her throat. With her platinum-bleached hair punk-short and tightly marcelled, she looked like a fantastic, elongated cross between Gwen Stefani and Grace Kelly. Those striped fuchsia leggings peeking out under her petticoat? Weimar-meets-Baby Gap, a la the Dresden Dolls.

But it's hard to compare Mariza's clarion voice or charismatic stage presence to anyone else's.

Mariza sings fado, the traditional soul music of Portugal. Almost two centuries old, fado is usually described as "Portuguese blues" and is known for its spirit of melancholic yearning.

Fado literally means "fate," and maybe this lilting, melodic style was Mariza's destiny. The Mozambique-born singer grew up in Lisbon hearing people sing fado at her parents' cafe. She reportedly began singing at the age of 5; before she could read, her father drew cartoons to help her remember the lyrics.

Recently, Mariza has had a remarkably rapid rise. Since her recording debut just three years ago, she's sold hundreds of thousands of her first two albums. Last year, she was named best European artist at the BBC Awards for World Music.

At the Berklee Performance Center Saturday night, Mariza sang like an old soul: full-throated and passionate, using self-confident, baroque flourishes to heighten the sense of abandon.

But she's clearly no traditionalist. For decades, fadistas dressed in black and stood still while singing. Mariza couldn't stop moving, using gestures to express meaning and floating into R&B slow-groove dance moves. "I break rules, and you like it," she remarked to her appreciative audience at one point.

She also said she didn't think fado should express only sadness: "It includes all the types of feeling," she declared, including happiness, jealousy, and love.

Indeed, she shifted from bravura, Flamenco-esque solemnity in "Cavaleiro Monge" ("Monk Rider" ) to boulevardier-style playfulness in other songs from her 2003 CD, "Fado Curvo." The glamorous singer could also be a flirt, flashing huge eyes that were somewhere between Bette Davis and Betty Boop.

The concert featured one instrumental number in which the three backing guitarists showed their chops (the show was at Berklee, after all). And in true pop-star fashion, there was a costume change: Decked in black taffeta with lavender accents, Mariza certainly looked like the diva she's become.

Standing ovations produced several encores. In one, the well-known "Uma Casa Portuguesa," the audience sang along and blew loud kisses in her direction. (She coyly kissed back.) In another, Mariza sang in traditional style, just like in the tavernas back home: With no mike, her voice soared through the hall on its own.


At: Berklee Performance Center, Saturday night

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