Despite my connection to the Alentejo, on the maternal side, Cante Alentejano was never truly appreciated by me until I came to study in Évora, in 1997. Although my parents instilled me with a great musical taste, Cante Alentejano was not included in the family musical collection.
It was probably because it was very rare, at the time, to find phonographic records of groups from Cante Alentejano and because Cante Alentejano was not highly valued, even by the locals themselves. It was music associated with taverns, rural work and sung mainly by elderly men, always with a glass of wine in hand.
Alentejo was seen as an underdeveloped region of the country, which stubbornly maintained the rural and community traditions of the past. The jokes told about the Alentejo were common. Generally, they were about laziness, the lack of willingness to work or the ingenuity of the locals, and these, in my opinion, conditioned the view that most Portuguese had about Alentejo.
Among the Beatles’ records, Tina Turner, Abba or Rod Stewart, my parents also listened to very good Portuguese music, such as Fado, Sérgio Godinho, Fausto, but what really caught my attention was Zeca Afonso.
The best-known music of this authentic genius of culture and the humanist spirit of the 20th century in Portugal is the famous “Grândola Vila Morena”. Since it was used as a password in the April 25 revolution, it has itself become a symbol and an ideal of the collective spirit of an entire people that had freed itself from decades of dictatorship and tyranny.
When I was a child, what impressed me in this song was the strength, simplicity and the spoil it conveyed to me, because it was only sung by voices, without the use of any instrument. The lyrics were unusual, because they were about nature, friendship, people, union, self-determination and freedom, in a utopian place, but which was very much alive and present in the voices that sang it.
The alternation between a soloist and a polyphonic group was impressive. Generally, soloists in music are the ones who stand out from other elements for their virtuosity, whether in voice or playing an instrument.
In this case, at “Grândola Vila Morena”, Zeca Afonso is the soloist who seeks to lead the group of voices. Firmly but apparently shy, he was not looking for prominence in the group of voices, but for their union, as if this voice embraced and connected all the other voices, as if it were a symbiotic embrace. Through music, the importance of the collective and the group over the individual and the altruistic role that each has to achieve a common good is valued.
At least, in this song, that utopia is achieved and lived. In my opinion, the “Grândola Vila Morena” is the best introduction to what Cante Alentejano symbolizes.
The feeling that Cante Alentejano conveys is always the fraternal embrace of the voices that come together to reach the sky. Whoever watches is touched and taken on a journey induced by the depths of the human soul, which takes us to the highest forms of connection, communion and harmony with all men, nature, god, universe and, above all, with himself.
It is impossible not to be impressed when you see a group of country men, arm in arm, unshaven, singing verses about droplets of water, their mother, butterflies or blackbirds. Cante Alentejano, more than a cultural experience, is a mystical experience.
What Is Cante Alentejano?
I would like to share with you part of my master’s thesis, defended in October 2015. My thesis is entitled “Cante Alentejano as a product of cultural tourism” and, in part of my research work, I tried to find a simplified characterization of this cultural heritage of humanity, as distinguished by UNESCO in November 2014.
The true spirit of Cante Alentejano can never be explained. It can only be felt live and in our Alentejo!
<<Alentejo singing is another sound
It’s a voice that is built as an instrument.
But it’s not sing without – it’s sing with.
The Alentejo song is more from the inside.
Voice inside out almost plaster almost lime
Nail on the white: this is the rhythm.
The sing of the Alentejo is in a spiral
From logarithm to logarithm.>>Manuel Alegre, “O Cante”
A Heritage From Ancient Medieval Monasteries
The Cante Alentejano is a genuine cultural manifestation of the Alentejo. The known written records date from the end of the 19th century, but their origins and manifestations are much older.
Cante Alentejano is not only a song but poetry, of equal importance. It was passed down through the generations by memory and orality.
It is thought that its origin lies in sacred Christian music, with musical influences from Fabordão, a typical song from the Middle Ages. It will also have Arab influence and even more remote influences, with pre-Christian evidence, especially in poetry. In the Middle Ages, Fabordão was a song that served for profane and religious use, widespread throughout the country.
In the 15th century, in addition to Fabordão, there was the emergence of schools of classical polyphony, which disseminated Gregorian chant. As Alentejo singing is a polyphony, it may have suffered from these influences.
In Cante Alentejano, poetic structures called Modas are sung. Modas work as a chorus and are sung interchangeably with Cantiga, which are usually made up of adaptations of popular poetry. The structure of Modas can be varied but it is more common to find a structure composed of “Cantiga-Moda-Cantiga-Moda”. Unlike Moda, which must be respected in its original lyrics and melody, Cantiga can be altered by the group or by the soloists, depending on their inspiration, vocal capacity or suitability for the moment.
In technical terms, Cante Alentejano stands out for its polyphony and the absence of instruments, generally comprising two soloists and a choir. The first soloist, called Ponto, gives the orientation of Moda, starting it in the musical tone and the theme that will be sung. Then Alto, the second soloist, with a higher pitched voice, in a higher tone, enters the music, singing in the first notes, preceding the choir. This is traditionally formed by men, although nowadays there are some mixed and female choirs, these appearing mainly after the 1974 revolution, with the consequent female emancipation.
There are some small differences between singing in the different regions of the Alentejo. The Alentejo regions associated with Cante Alentejano are located south of Serra de Ossa and Serra de Portel and north of Serra do Caldeirão, being more present in the interior of Alentejo than along the coast.
It should be noted that there are important concentrations of traditional groups from Cante Alentejano in the Lisbon region, located mainly on the south bank of the Tagus River, originating in the diaspora of the Alentejo people, in the great migrations that occurred between the 30s and 70s of the 20th centuries, for the large industrial belt that developed in that region.
The origin of Cante Alentejano can be found in the corner of the Roman Church, that is, in the so-called Gregorian chant, and in no other Portuguese folk music this influence is as noticeable as in Alentejo music.
It is choral, polyphonic music (here it diverges radically from Arab music), and usually sung by men, factors that give these songs an expression of gravity and epic grandeur, while transmitting nostalgia, whether through melody or poetry. Anonymity, in terms of creation, is one of its characteristics, due to the fact that orality is the preferred means of expression.
The musical folklore of Alentejo is the expression of sentimentality based on nature, everyday life, religiosity and even a philosophical component.
When you hear a Moda you have the impression that we are facing a sacramental auto.
Many of the lyrics are dedicated to Christian worship. Another part of the sacred side of the song corresponds to the intimate relationship that the land and the Alentejo man has had for centuries.
The poetry of this song, although apparently naive, is rich in images and ideas, extensive and profound.
The themes are diverse, and in addition to religiosity and spirituality, they speak of love and work, from customs to homesickness, to the different feelings of human nature, from social relations to emigration, to humorous, sarcastic and scathing songs. They were sung in public places and spontaneously.
In the last decade, Cante Alentejano started to be more publicized. It was strengthened through associativism and the desire for recognition as a heritage. There was a greater involvement of the Alentejo communities in the valorization of their traditions. Singing Schools have sprung up all over the Alentejo and in the Lisbon region, to preserve and disseminate this heritage, registering enormous success among young students.
The elevation of Cante Alentejano to Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity shows recognition and reinforces Alentejo identity and culture.
The Tradition In Alentejo
The Cante Alentejano traditionally was an informal and spontaneous event that occurred more frequently in the Alentejo fields, associated with traditional agricultural practices, such as harvesting, weeding, olive harvesting, grape harvest, cork, etc.
It was common to hear Cante Alentejano through the paths and trails that agricultural workers used between their dwelling places and the estates where they worked. This movement was done on foot, where men and women came to travel long daily distances. These groups of people were mixed, giving rise to forms of expression that include men and women simultaneously singing the same Moda.
With the mechanization of agriculture, the aging of the population and the migratory waves that originated a marked depopulation of Alentejo in the last decades, the practice of Cante Alentejano associated with the work in the field has disappeared.
Fortunately, there are places with traditional Cante Alentejano expression practices, such as traditional festivals in the streets or in churches, and taverns.
Taverns are a place where the expression of this intangible cultural heritage has maintained its authenticity and where it is still possible to enjoy it in a genuine way.
Another place where Cante Alentejano was traditionally sung was at the Alentejo fairs and markets. The role of the muleteers, who were itinerant merchants who traded their products from land to land since the middle ages until the mid-twentieth century, played a very important role in transmitting and safeguarding this way of singing, spreading the new Modas among different locations. .
Other places where Cante Alentejano has always had a strong cultural expression, were in the celebratory moments and liturgical and religious celebration. It has always been very common to associate it with important moments in the Christian religious calendar, such as singing the baby Jesus, at Christmas, Kings Day, Easter, festivals of popular saints and celebrations of the patron saints of Alentejo localities.
It is sung in the streets, squares and churches of the localities of Alentejo, associating the popular celebration with the way of living and feeling the religiosity of the Alentejo, which is very unique and authentic, with unique characteristics and aspects in the national context. It is also possible to find this cultural expression in weddings, baptisms and funerals held in the villages and towns of Alentejo.
It could also be heard, in the past, on the river paths of the Guadiana River, the Sado River and the Mira River, where it was not uncommon to find groups of rural workers singing on the boats as they moved along the river.
The Cante Alentejano also found expression during the work of the mines, sung by the miners while working.
Currently, costumes are an element of great importance in performance shows, which culturally enrich the scenic level of their performances.
The Singing Groups have autonomy in the choice of their costumes, with the costumes presented by each group being distinct. The most simplistic outfits use a white shirt, black skirt or pants and a scarf or hat as an adornment. The use of traditional capote or Alentejo samarra is also common in performances. It is common to find women in traditional dress of reaper or mondadeira.
In the exclusively male groups, the singers present themselves with historical costumes worn by the people of the countryside until the first half of the last century. In addition to Sunday clothes, used by the classes with more economic power, different types of rural workers are represented, such as the shepherd, retailer, muleteer, miner or cattleman.
In the next article I will talk about my best personal experiences with Cante Alentejano as well as several tips and suggestions for those who want to know this treasure of humanity, as many of our guests have know, in our suggestions for team building and on our tours. See you soon!