The opening of the Summer Olympics in Rio highlighted what is perhaps Brazil’s greatest contribution to world culture: its music.
Although much of Brazilian music is rooted in the traditions of African and indigenous peoples, former colonial ruler Portugal also influenced the Brazilian sound. And the New World and Africa, in turn, left their marks on the music of Portugal.
Ensemble Ibérica will celebrate this rich heritage Monday and Tuesday at Musical Theater Heritage in Crown Center.
“That was the first world wide web, those shipping lanes going back and forth,” Ensemble Ibérica’s artistic director, Beau Bledsoe, says.
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Bledsoe recently made his own trip to Portugal with a group of Kansas Citians to explore the fado clubs of Lisbon. He had been to Lisbon previously to study fado, Portugal’s soul music, but every time Bledsoe goes back he learns something new.
On this trip he acquired four new instruments, which the musicians will play at Lusophone: a Portuguese guitar, a machete de rajão, a cavaquinho and a viola braguesa. (You can view photos of these exquisite instruments at ensembleiberica.org)
“I was able to play a lot socially on this trip,” Bledsoe says. “I thought I would just be taking care of this group, but we would go to fado houses, so I would bring my guitar and play.”
Bledsoe and his Kansas City group also got to hear American-born Nathalie Pires perform in Lisbon. Although she was born in Newark, N.J., Pires has become a fado star in Portugal. She’ll join Ensemble Ibérica for Lusophone.
“Nathalie’s on the Sony label now, and we got to see her give a concert in this huge castle,” Bledsoe says. “She’ll still give me the time of day, so that’s nice.”
Fado, even though it’s deeply rooted in Portuguese culture, has a universal quality and is becoming increasingly popular around the world. Former President Bill Clinton has counted himself a fan since being introduced to the music during a visit to Portugal in 2000.
“It’s an urban folk music,” Bledsoe says. “The word fado literally translated means fate. They’re songs from human beings, so they encompass every emotion and topic that you could possibly imagine.
“There are a lot of songs about the loneliness of the sailors and a lot of songs about how awesome someone’s mother may be. And then your usual unrequited love, the kind of country music topics you hear all the time in music.”
Bledsoe describes many fado songs as “self-referential.” They are often about the city of Lisbon and its neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods of Lisbon, Bledsoe says, reflect the Portuguese love of tradition and respect for “older values.” For example, the city retained its medieval layout after a catastrophic 1755 earthquake that almost destroyed the city.
“They really hang on to their traditions,” Bledsoe says. “Like all of the instruments we’re playing are these evolutionary dead-ends in the plucked string world of chordophones. Even the main instrument of fado, which is the Portuguese guitar, is very much a holdover from the Renaissance, even the technique. They fiercely hold on to these things.”
In addition to Pires, singers Nanny Assis and Angelique Staggs, both steeped in Brazilian music, will join Ensemble Ibérica. Besides fado, Lusophone also will take listeners on a voyage to Brazil for music by the great Antonio Carlos Jobim and from the former Portuguese African colony Cape Verde, known for its melancholy music, moma.
“Music from Cape Verde kind of splits the difference between Brazil and Portugal,” Bledsoe says. “It has the inherent sadness of fado, but with the African influence. That’s what’s great about this series; I learn so much by working with so many different people.”