Ensemble Iberica brings fado to the flatlands

07/02/2014 1:09 PM

07/05/2014 8:01 PM

Fado, which derives from the Latin word for fate, is the Portuguese music of longing, nostalgia and loneliness.

For years, you could hear it only in the fado houses of the back streets of Lisbon, but recently authentic fado musicians have been bringing the art form to select cities in the United States, usually those that have Portuguese communities.

Guitarist Beau Bledsoe and his new group, Ensemble Ibérica, will present “Fado, the Soul of Portugal” on July 12 at the Polsky Theatre at Johnson County Community College.

The ensemble will be joined by Portuguese fado singer Rodrigo Costa Félix and his wife, Marta Pereira da Costa, who plays the Portuguese guitar, and guitarist Pedro Pinhal.

Fado is thought to have its origin with Portuguese sailors who took the mournful songs of African slaves and Moorish traders and made them their own.

In the 19th century, fado houses began to emerge in the poorer neighborhoods of Lisbon, where the finest singers would perform. For years fado was a symbol of national pride and was promoted by the fascist dictatorship that ruled Portugal from the 1930s to 1974.

Because of fado’s association with the fascists, older generations often rejected it, but it has been rediscovered and embraced by younger people, and fado is once again thriving.

Indeed, the world is discovering its beauty and intensity. Former President Bill Clinton is a fan. After making a state visit to Portugal in 2000, he said, “I’m going to promote fado music all over the world.”

“It doesn’t surprise me,” Bledsoe said. “The (Rolling) Stones are really into fado. They go to Lisbon a lot. Prince hires a fado singer often. She’s named Ana Moura, and he’s done some recordings with her. Fado is very popular in areas with big Portuguese populations or former Portuguese colonies. There’s a town in India that has fado. Mariza, one of the big fado stars right now, is from Mozambique. And there are fado houses in Brazil, for sure. But it’s not well-known with Americans. This is something that I and the musicians I’m working with are trying to change — to bring this art form to a larger audience.”

Bledsoe, who grew up in Arkansas, came to Kansas City in 1993 to pursue his master’s degree at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance. He remained in the city after graduation and has become a vital part of Kansas City’s music mix.

It would be fair to say that he’s our Jordi Savall, blending the highest standards of classical music with intriguing folk collaborations.

Bledsoe is intensely curious about the music of the world, with a special interest in the music of the Iberian Peninsula.

“I try to see him whenever I can,” said Emily Behrmann, general manager of the Performing Arts Series at Johnson County Community College. “The most recent thing I’ve seen is when he goes to La Bodega in Leawood on Sunday evenings, and he occasionally brings his wife (Zhanna Saparova), who is a flamenco dancer. That’s been a lot of fun. He’s a very soft-spoken person, but he has an intense quality in his performances. I’m just really impressed with that.”

Bledsoe has had an interest in fado for several years, but last summer he decided to get serious. He took his colleagues, vocalist Shay Estes and guitarist Jordan Shipley, with him to Lisbon to study fado at its source. It was there that he met fado singer Félix.

“Everybody here was really surprised about these three Americans who had no previous connection with Portugal, let alone fado music, and they suddenly started to sing and play fado,” Félix said. “They were a huge success while they were here, and they got to know just about every fado singer and every fado musician in Lisbon. Everybody was very curious to meet them. They were amazing.”

Bledsoe was surprised to discover that he and his colleagues were the only foreigners studying fado in Lisbon.

“I just assumed there would be other foreigners studying it because it’s so common when you go to Spain or Argentina to see other people who are trying to learn how to play the music,” Bledsoe said. “But no one apparently has ever come to Portugal to learn how to play fado. The project I took there was the first one. They don’t export fado to general audiences. It’s something that is traditionally only their thing.”

So it will be a rare treat to hear fado at the Polsky Theatre, especially performed by Portuguese musicians who are steeped in the genre like Félix.

“My father used to own a fado house, and so from a very young age I was accustomed to seeing fado singers and musicians at parties,” Félix said. “But I only started singing it when I was around 17. I sang other stuff. I had a band that I used to sing covers with, but after falling in love with the poetry of fado, I started to fall in love with the music and then just started singing it immediately.”

According to Félix, audience participation is very important to a fado performance, but not by clapping or performing any outward action. The audience participates through its intense focus on the performance and the subtle energy it sends to the performers.

“You’re supposed to be in total silence when you listen to fado so that you’re able to hear the small nuances of the singer and how the singer interacts with the guitar player,” Félix said. “There’s a famous saying: ‘Let there be silence, let there be fado.’ And sometimes people react. They react in terms of either crying — it happens all the time in fado concerts — or they’re happy and they’re laughing. Those emotions have a very strong influence on how we perform. If we don’t feel that energy flowing, it doesn’t happen the same way.”

Bledsoe is hoping to create the atmosphere of the fado houses in the Polsky Theatre, which he describes as the best thing about fado.

“It’s a really, really heavy experience,” he said. “It’s completely quiet. You can hear a pin drop. They’re these tiny, intimate situations where there’s maybe 30 people at the most. It’s a fantastic way to listen to music. If anyone can go to a real fado house in Lisbon, they should do it. It’s an unforgettable experience. Talk about catharsis.”

Félix, who has performed only a few times previously in the United States, mostly in the Boston area, hopes his performance will give Kansas City a taste of real fado, and perhaps make some devoted fans of the genre.

“It’s a very introspective kind of music,” he said. “Normally the singer sings with his or her eyes closed because we sing for ourselves. Sometimes it can be aggressive, but it can also be very sweet and mellow. Fado is not only the name for a kind of music, but it’s also a moment. Fado sings life and all its magic.”

8 p.m. July 12. Polsky Theatre, Johnson County Community College. $20. 913-469-4445 or visit www.jccc.edu/performing-arts-series or www.ensembleiberica.org.

Venue Visitation: Variety Concert

Venue Visitation will present its second annual Variety Concert July 11 at Visitation Church.

This year’s concert will be bittersweet. It will be dedicated to Beatrice Santner, the founder of the Venue Visitation series, who passed away on April 18. A star-studded lineup of musicians will honor Santner, who was greatly loved and respected in the community.

Among those scheduled to perform are cellist Ho Anthony Ahn, vocalists Victoria Sofia Botero and Sylvia Stoner, violinist Susan Goldenberg, pianist Wayne Hawkins and organist Jan Kraybill. I will be the emcee for the concert. It’s a benefit for Venue Visitation and its programs.

7 p.m. July 11. Patrons’ cocktail reception at 6 p.m. Visitation Church, 5141 Main St. $15-$50.

Patrick Neas is program director for RadioBach.com. You can reach him at pneas@jccc.edu.

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