Last fall, Beau Bledsoe posed with his guitar inside the Kansas City Museum, where the Northeast resident has performed many concerts and offered outreach and education programs. Photo by Jim Barcus
From his home state of Arkansas to the Iberian Peninsula, the classically trained guitarist and Ensemble Ibérica founder finds musical riches to study and share.
Kansas City’s Renaissance man plays the Baroque guitar. And the Turkish oud, the Portuguese guitar, the classical guitar, the South American charango. Oh, and he has a lute on order.
Beau Bledsoe is a first-rate musician, a first-call collaborator, and founder of the region’s most eclectic new concert series, Ensemble Ibérica.
Along with playing multiple instruments (his extensive collection includes standard guitars and folkloric instruments from around the world), he’s also a presenter, promoter, administrator, travel agent, grant writer, photographer, educator, graphic designer, arranger, talent scout, booking agent, ambassador, tour guide . . . Bledsoe’s multitude of skills supports his responsibilities as artistic director of Ensemble Ibérica, member of Bach Aria Soloists, facilitator for Artist INC, and family man.
Ensemble Ibérica is his first non-profit venture, pulling together his many musical and cultural interests while allowing him to stay closer to home. With two young children, touring isn’t a reasonable option, so he localized his international scope.
Bledsoe, a classically trained guitarist, was always interested in music styles from other cultures, starting when he explored his school’s LP collection. “That’s what got me into the more Spanish style sounds . . . All of that classical guitar rep is so nationalistic; peel off the first layer and you’re dealing with folkloric music.”
“And here I am going through the same process today. I’m interested in cultural anthropology issues in music . . . what’s the real thing under the ink on the page, right? They never teach you that in school.”
He continued his education by immersing himself in the cultures of Mexico, Brazil, Portugal, Spain and Turkey. “My goal is to kind of get to the dinner table as soon as possible, to really get into intimate situations and make deep, deep connections that I can rely on for decades.”
For Ensemble Ibérica, that means bringing international artists to Kansas City, joining the core group of locally-based musicians. “I usually try to have a special guest who is an authority in that genre, and more often than not they come from somewhere else,” he said, though sometimes he gets lucky, with experts based in Kansas City or at least in the United States. Coordinating international visas is a large part of his administrative duties and a large part of his administrative headaches, too, but it’s always been worth it, with their very first show — the very first authentic fado show in Kansas City, with fado specialists flown in from Lisbon — selling out.
As the series has grown, so has its offerings. Along with the regular series, Ensemble Ibérica offers pop-up concerts throughout the year. There’s an educational outreach component, and beginning last year, an exclusive guided tour of the music, food and culture on the Iberian Peninsula. Last year was incredibly successful, and this year most of the spots were claimed before the trip was announced to the public.
Playing tour guide came naturally to Bledsoe. “When people come to Kansas City I really like to play tour guide. I take people to the (Mutual Musicians) Foundation, and take them out for barbeque, and I do this great tour of all the tile work on the Plaza. It’s all from this Mexican town that I know really well, so I do a little tour about all of the little scenes depicted in the tiles (and) where they are located.”
It’s this sort of a detail-oriented passion that makes Bledsoe a successful musician and leader, and another skill set he helps develop in other artists when he serves as a facilitator for Artist INC. He started as a participant in the program, which assists artists with professional development and business skills, in one of its first iterations.
“A big component of that was simply goal setting, which was a real mind blower for someone like me.” From that experience came Fado Novato, a group trying to learn fado (a dark, deeply emotional and stylized form of cathartic singing from Lisbon) from books and recordings. The group put their fledgling non-profit skills to the test and coordinated an immersion experience in Portugal, which was a personal and artistic success. Bledsoe and fellow guitarist Jordan Shipley rolled that experience into what is now Ensemble Ibérica.
Now in its fourth season, the series has established a reputation for variety, consistency, and exceptional music-making. “There is a group (of regulars) that will come out, even if they don’t know what the hell it is, because they trust the Ensemble Ibérica brand,” said Bledsoe. “They are guaranteed to learn something. Even if they don’t know what it is, it is going to be something interesting . . . each program is going to be a nice adventure . . . something I would like to go see myself.”
That sense of exploration and discovery is what Ensemble Ibérica hopes to encourage in local school children, too, with their outreach programs.
Having grown up in Arkansas, Bledsoe values the impact of arts education outreach. Ensemble Ibérica presents two programs, bringing Spanish and Mexican music and dance presentations to local schools in a tiered system, charging the more affluent schools and putting that money back into the program in order to serve schools in poorer districts. “It’s cool, because that’s the reason I started playing music. Someone came to my school, which was not in a very good area.” That someone was Michael Carenbauer, guitar professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and shortly thereafter Bledsoe started taking lessons with him. “I was a young American guy and MTV just came out and I wanted to be a rock star.”
With all this talk of folkloric-this and indigenous-that, Bledsoe is currently tapping into a perhaps unexpected realm of cultural heritage: the music of the Ozark hills from the 1940s and ’50s. “I want to see what it’s like to deal with my own vernacular. I’m from Arkansas and I know these songs. I know what the words mean and it’s super comfortable. So I bought a Telecaster.” He recently formed a country act called Slim Hanson and the Poor Choices.
“Playing music for fun is really enriching. It’s kind of a new thing for me. It makes you, like, little-kid happy, (because) you take out the commerce of it,” he said.
“I like these things that take a lot of research. I really want to learn music from Missouri and my home state, things my grandma listened to, and I would really like to get past the stigma of hillbilly music. I like that music as much as all the other music I listen to.”
Having music as his vocation and hobby is not surprising, given that he takes his guitar on vacation, too. “I like to practice …You know, going to the beach and sitting there with an exotic drink — that sounds horrible!”
On that first trip to Portugal, though they originally went to study fado authentically, the media treated them more as cultural ambassadors, leaving little time to study the music they’d come to learn.
“We were so inundated . . . that I really didn’t get to practice my lessons. So I worked in a vacation for myself to Spain afterwards, just rented a little house in this town I like to go to and I just practiced.” He had recorded all his lessons, just his teachers and him in a café. Since then, one of his teachers, Sidónio Pereira, has died, and Bledsoe now has an invaluable archive of his method of playing.
“I learned Portuguese guitar in Spain, on my vacation. I was really happy, you know?”
“It was an odd realization the day I knew that my hobby, my pastime, was that I like playing music.”
With his own kids, though, he doesn’t push music. His son loves to draw, so that’s what they do. “I found music on my own . . . It has a special feeling that way.”
2017 brings more variety and more challenges. Ensemble Ibérica will release an album of jazz saxophonist Matt Otto’s compositions and they have a collaboration with rock band Making Movies in the works, along with “a big, fat tango show” planned, and a concert exploring the musical connections along the Mayan spine in South America.
Like the explorers sent out from the Iberian Peninsula to discover new worlds, Bledsoe presents each authentic performance with fresh enthusiasm and engaging context, urging: “BE GENRE-LESS!”
Slim Hanson and the Poor Choices
Jan. 7, 10 p.m.–midnight, The Ship, 1217 Union Ave.
Ensemble Ibérica: The music of Carlos Gardel
April 21, 8 p.m., Musical Theater Heritage, 2450 Grand, Ste. 301 (Crown Center Shops, Level 3)
Ensemble Ibérica: Tierra del Sol
May 15, 7:30 p.m., Musical Theater Heritage, 2450 Grand, Suite 301
For details about these and other future shows, and a June 27–July 4 Spain trip focusing on food, flamenco and wine, visit www.ensembleiberica.org.