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Divas in Our Midst

'Twas a weekend full of the glory of the power of the feminine mystique, and as usual, I can only explain the convergence of so much incredible beauty by stringing together prepositional phrases full of cosmic metaphor: Was it the alignment of the planets, or the healing spirit of some antsy Goddess beneath the city that chose the Rio Theatre as the sacred spaceship in which Les Nubians, Zap Mama and Mariza would share their songs with Santa Cruz, all in one weekend? Only She Who Sets Our Souls and Pants Afire knows for sure, but I believe that She was definitely working her magic on me. Either that, or it was the showmanship and class that these Afro-European women brought from the Old Country. I'm not a big fan of Les Nubians' music--it's a romantic blend of R&B, hip-hop, neosoul and African influences belted out with passion and precision, but it's ready-made for mass appeal, mostly eschewing risky experimentation for so much VH1 gloss. Nevertheless, the sisters won me over with their live performance--with two backup singers and a full backing band, Helene and Celia Faussart, decked out in glamorous African-themed dresses, powered through their set with enough joie de vivre to convince even the most agnostic critic that their shit is for real. They even threw in covers (complete with charming French accents) of Sade's "The Sweetest Taboo" and Q-Tip's jiggyiest jam, "Breathe and Stop." By the time Les Nubians were finished, Zap Mama probably could have bolted without anyone getting too upset.

But Marie Daulne & Co. delivered that absolute Mama-load of theatrics, song and sen-fucking-sational rhythmic jams that I've not felt fill a room so feverishly since Ozomatli's last stop in town. Daulne and her two backup singers came out dressed like divas straight out of The Fifth Element, making robotic gestures as a voice intoned the arrival of the Zap Mama spaceship. And in fact, the Pygmy yodeling sounds coming out of Daulne's larynx sounded otherworldly, while the pounding African rhythms and rampant turntabalism were as earthy and urban as it gets. Daulne's magnetic presence commanded the stage, managing to be both powerful and playful at the same time. Four-part vocal harmonies and even a bit of vocal looping knocked this show into the outer dimensions communal release--and you thought you'd have to wait until Burning Man.

Ah, and then there was Mariza ... an elegant cap to a weekend of great music, Mariza is all the superlatives the critics rain upon her and then some. The Portuguese fado singer's voice is extraordinary, elevating pain to a sacred level. She clothes herself in the veneer of a classic diva, both in her spectacular flowing dresses and in her dignified and subdued manner of addressing the audience. But her Trademark Frosted Waves of Hair hint at the fiery spirit beneath--like the woman she sings about in "Maria Lisboa," Mariza does what she wants, singing strains of fado traditionally reserved for men, and then joking about it with a surprisingly Portuguese-weighted SC audience. With her newfound worldwide fame, Mariza said she is now on a mission to bring the heartbreaking sound of fado to everyone. She's got a bit of an accent, but I'm sure I understood her correctly when she said she is spreading fado "to the Connors of the earth." Needless to say, I was shocked by this singular honor, but dutifully approached the stage to properly thank the diva. A warm spotlight shone on us as I approached the statuesque fadista. I could smell hints of the Taugus River flowing as I inched ever closer; we stood inches apart when our eyes finally met. And then I asked her: "Como fazem seu cabelo como isso?" She merely laughed at my poor Portuguese, and then kicked me off the stage with one of her rainbow stockinged legs. So much for that fantasy.

The Rio Is Alive!

Congratulations to Lawrence Bedford and all the staff at the Rio Theatre--they've been at it for three years now and are still going strong. Happy Anniversary, and keep up the great work!

Mike Connor

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From the August 6-13, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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