Watching Shay Estes sing fado, no one would guess that the Kansas City jazz singer was introduced to the 200-year-old style of Portuguese urban folk music only a year ago. Estes doesn't speak much of the language, either, but as she sings, her hands flow with the Portuguese vowels, shaping the story she's telling. She understands fado.
"On an emotional level, it almost instantly made sense to me," Estes says. "It tells a story that almost every single person can relate to, unless you've lived a life without any sort of pain or any sort of great joy."
Estes is one-third of the Kansas City trio Fado Novato, whose name translates to "fado beginner." The group also features Jordan Shipley on classical guitar and Beau Bledsoe on Portuguese guitar. The three musicians traveled to Lisbon to perform at a fado festival in June after securing funding from local and national arts organizations through Artist Inc. The project sought to document Fado Novato's journey from greenhorns to fadistas.
The intrepid trio might be the world's first fadistas with no connection to Portugal, other than a love of the music, which requires a Portuguese guitar, a classical guitar and a singer. Singers in the genre typically have an important story to tell, relating often-mournful experiences of the sea, lost love and the lives of the poor. Such emotion seems appropriate for this style of music.
"Fado means fate, but you don't use it in the same way you use destiny," Estes explains. "To be full of fado is the same as a person who's full of the blues. You've seen so much life and you've experienced the fullness of the range of human emotion — not just the bad parts, but the happy parts that are so ecstatic that they become painful almost."
The way fado is performed also hearkens back to this sense of fate. The members of Fado Novato played for the first time in Lisbon only 48 hours after arriving there. They were jet-lagged from their 4,000-mile trip, but that didn't matter at the fado house. According to Estes, a fadista going to one of these clubs and not singing "isn't really going to fly."
The crowded fado house was quite different from a Kansas City bar. When the lights went down, it meant someone was about to sing — maybe someone famous, maybe someone from the neighborhood. Anyone who talked during a performance got kicked out.
"Your eyes adjust to the low light, and there's not a peep from anyone," Bledsoe says of the experience. "There's definitely a public catharsis taking place. Then they'll turn the lights on again, and everyone goes back to partying. And this goes all night."
Fortunately, the group had spent months memorizing and rehearsing many fado standards and was ready to perform. But once in Lisbon, they realized how little they actually knew. Estes describes the Portuguese people as warm, friendly, humble — and brutally honest. Their early critiques sounded like backhanded compliments: "That was amazing. That was incredible. You guys are not very good at this."
"They were so excited about how much we cared and how much we were trying," she says. "They could not wait to tell us every single thing we did wrong so we could get started doing it right."
In order to do it right, Estes, Bledsoe and Shipley embraced the fado lifestyle. Fado is deeply ingrained in Portuguese culture and is passed down in an oral tradition from generation to generation. In this way, it occupies the same social space as the American blues. The group got to know entire families of fadistas, many of whom took the three Americans under their wing and helped them gain access to the fado community, which Bledsoe says has approximately 100 people at its core.
"It was very surprising to them that a couple of Americans who had no attachment to their country chose to seek out the music and culture of one tiny city, when there's so much else to choose from here already," Estes says.
As evidenced by its devotees, fado has a way of sucking people in; Estes says it's "like a drug." At least one member of the group immersed himself in fado a little too fully during the group's stay in Lisbon. After one too many late nights, Shipley, the youngest member of Fado Novato, wound up in the hospital. "The literal diagnosis was 'no more fado,'" Bledsoe says.
But the hospitalization was only a temporary setback. Thanks to the support of the fado community, Bledsoe and Shipley each received lessons on their respective instruments — Shipley had purchased a new guitar specifically for the project, and Bledsoe had a Portuguese guitar custom-made by a KC-area luthier. Meanwhile, Estes learned how to fine-tune her pronunciation of Portuguese vowels.
"It almost sent me back to my early days when I was more of a storyteller," she says. "I think that was one of the best lessons I learned, was just to return to the roots of honoring the story more than anything else."
Because the story is so central to fado, the music is designed to be shared. One of Fado Novato's eventual goals is to give the music a Midwestern home by opening a fado house in Kansas City. Estes and Bledsoe would love to see more KC musicians embrace the art form.
Plans are temporarily on hold, however, until Shipley comes home. He fell hard and fast for Lisbon, and has remained overseas. The time for Fado Novato's next step may be uncertain, but Estes knows Kansas City is definitely the place.
"If there's any community that can relate to [the Portuguese] level of humility, cultural pride and generosity, I think it's Kansas City," Estes says. "I can't imagine another city where artists will be like, 'Come sit down and play with me and drink with me and dine with me. Come be my friend, and let's take this musical journey together. Let's make something.'"