INSIDE A WORKING-CLASS Portuguese seafood joint in the suburbs of Lisbon, the young woman who currently lays claim to the most famous musical face in Portugal is easy to spot. Not because she doesn't belong in such a simple place as this. Quite the contrary. She is extremely unpretentious, insistent upon doing her own grocery shopping and unafraid of getting down and dirty with a little traditional seafood. The reality is that this 33-year-old superstar would stand out in any room. Her striking features, born of a Portuguese father and a Mozambican mother, are in direct contrast with nearly everyone else's you stumble across in Portugal (and in any of its former colonies). And her name, Mariza, has become synonymous with a musical revolution.

"Are you ready to eat the snails?" It's the first thing she says to me, this woman who's one of Portugal's most admired voices, an artist who sells more records in her country than Madonna and whose voice commands silence upon first note. But, really, that's not what startles me. Rather, it's her boyishly short, pressed platinum-blond hair, which is shockingly unique by Portuguese standards. It clashes with her bronzed skin and dark eyebrows, creating a sense of beautiful chaos within the circles she runs, ones that revolve around fado - Portugal's haunting genre of musical poetry that's drenched in sadness. She stops me in my tracks, despite my having seen plenty of photos and videos in preparation for this moment, and I haven't even heard her sing a note yet.

Fado, which means "destiny," is such an indispensable part of the Portuguese culture that you may wonder whether the country would have just acquiesced to Spain were it not for the people's fierce devotion to their national maudlin melodies. Though fado's history remains debated to this day, the general belief is that the musical form - usually sung by a male or female vocalist (known as a fadista) who's accompanied by the melancholic sounds of the unique fat-bellied 12-string Portuguese guitar - was developed by Portuguese sailors who were influenced by Brazilian and African sounds during their travels.

It's complicated to explain, but the gist is that there are 300 or so instrumental fados, from which a head-spinning number of new combinations can be created, depending on the chosen lyrics and metrics (quadras are four rhymes, quintilhas are five, and so on, up to 12 rhymes). Sonically, fado is mesmerizing poetry set to a sentimental soundtrack, and it captivates anyone within earshot. Imagine hearing a gut-wrenching eulogy set to music during the funeral of the most beautiful woman in the world, and you'll have an inkling of what fado sounds like. The Portuguese have such an emotional attachment to their national song that it's not uncommon for tears to be shed during performances, even when the fados are happy ones.

Walking the streets of Lisbon, I find the country's history palpable. After all, Portugal was the last European country to go modern. Today, it remains one of the most richly preserved European capitals, despite having been brought to its knees by an earthquake, a tsunami, and a devastating fire - all on the same tragic day in 1755. The city was rebuilt by the Marquess of Pombal, whose architectural style (known as Pombaline) still permeates Lisbon's crotchety old streets.

The city's two most historically significant neighborhoods, the once Moorish Alfama, with its mesmerizing Arab-influenced mazes of hillside staircases and twisting alleyways, and the tough, blue-collar Mouraria, where Mariza's parents settled after moving to Portugal from Mozambique when she was only three years old, are where fado has thrived for two centuries. Today, though, the bulk of the fado clubs are in Alfama and Bairro Alto, which has cobblestoned thoroughfares so narrow that even Smart cars can't navigate the tight walls.

In Mouraria, Mariza's parents owned a small tavern and hosted fado singers on the weekends. By the age of five, Mariza was singing before a live audience - having had no formal fado lessons. But fadistas will tell you that fado can't be taught at all. Lessons? Get out! You either have it inside you, or you don't; it's something that's passed on from generation to generation. And though she spent a decade in various singing gigs (including a cheesy cover party band in Lisbon called Funkytown, and belting out bossa nova on a Portuguese cruise ship in Brazil), Mariza had it in her. I would spend several days with her before realizing just what that meant, but Lisbon found out one day back in 1999.

Mariza was having a late-night meal at a tavern when an older, steadfastly traditional fado poet approached. "He said to me, 'You don't know how to sing fado. You only sing in English,'?" she recalls. "It hurt me. I was feeling really bad. I said, 'I know how to do it. I'll prove it.' There was a musician with us, and I asked him if he knew any fado. He only knew one song in one tune. I said, 'Okay. Play it.' I sang, and the poet looked at me and started crying, saying 'Whatever day you want, I will receive you in my fado house.'?"

Mariza turned him down at first, still smarting from his earlier comment. But friends kept pushing her to accept his offer to appear at his professional fado house, Senhor Vinho, and she eventually acquiesced. She seized a Monday-night slot, and it didn't take long before the peanut gallery was in an uproar. Until that point, fado had been a staunchly conventional art form best known around the world through the classic voice of Amália Rodrigues, an archetypal Portuguese beauty (long, dark hair; a slightly portly figure; customary dress) who remains the undisputed queen of fado after nearly a century of work. (She died in 1999 at the age of 79.)
Mariza was anything but a typical fadista. Her hair was artificially blond, and she stood out like a pop star at an Amish wedding. She was young, tall, and skinny. She wore Prada over practicality. She turned heads everywhere she went, so you can imagine what happened when she first appeared on television. "Suddenly, here in Portugal, Amália died," she remembers. "I appeared on television around the same time, and boom! I don't know what happened. My album was released, and suddenly it was triple platinum in Portugal. Everybody was crazy, and I was like, 'What is happening?'?"