Cante Alentejano - traditional male voice choirs of southern Portugal

Grupo Coral de Cantares de Portel "Verão"

1. Grupo Coral de Cantares de Portel "Verão" (Summer)

The words are about working in the hot sun.

This singing style is characteristic of the vast scorched Alentejo agricultural region south of Lisbon. It typically counterposes two lone male voices to a larger male choir singing in unison. Cante Alentejano is usually sung without instrumental accompaniment, or with minimal accompaniment: perhaps from the local version of the acoustic guitar, the viola Campaniça, or the accordion, that 19th century instrument that has made its way into folk music around the world because it is portable, relatively cheap and loud.

Cante Alentejano is at root a popular music performed mostly by amateurs. As with many folk styles, tunes tend to fairly simple, and repeat with variations. The emphasis is on the voices, and the interaction between them. But some innovation has crept in, professional and semi-professional groups have formed, and Cante Alentejano has also inspired singers and composers from outside the genre.

Perhaps the most famous song inspired by the style is Zeca Afonso's Grândola, vila morena. It's relationship to Cante is discussed in Grândola in context below.

In the songs listed here we start at the more traditional-sounding end of the spectrum, then move increasing into more modified and professional territory.

Os Vocalistas "Não te Faças Coradinha"

2. Os Vocalistas "Não te Faças Coradinha" (Don't play at blushing)

Rancho de Cantadores de Vila Nova de São Bento "O meu chapéu"

3. Rancho de Cantadores de Vila Nova de São Bento "O meu chapéu" (My hat)

What's happening at the beginning of the clip is that the accordionist is listening for the key the ponto (the low voice who starts things off) is singing in before starting her own playing. This is one of the duties the ponto normally performs for the whole choir, so there's nothing unusual in that. But it suggests the accordionist hasn't played much with them before.

A Moda Mãe "Bem podia a andorinha "

4. A Moda Mãe "Bem podia a andorinha " (The swallow might as well do that)

Features the strong presence of the viola Campaniça, an acoustic guitar with a pronounced figure-of-eight body shape. It has ten steel strings arranged in five courses, a short fretboard and a high-pitched tone.

A Moda Mãe "Tim Tim da Cuba"

5 A Moda Mãe "Tim Tim da Cuba" (Tim Tim from Cuba (a town in the district of Beja, Alentejo))

The viola Campaniça is used here along with percussion effects and cries to summon up the feeling of travelling on a horse cart.

Cante and the top professionals

Professional musicians are prone to treating folk music like Cante Alentejano as a starting point for their own projects, which may be more musically and lyrically complex. The well-known recording artists included here - Celina da Piedade and António Zambujo, are both Alentejans themselves. As well as the empathy this brings, they also bring additional skills, resources and an audience that amateur performers cannot normally reach.

A major theme of Portuguese music since the 1974-1975 Revolution has been the search for ways of expressing modern Portuguese concerns and experience in popular music, and in a genuinely Portuguese music that doesn't just clone imported foreign models. In this Portuguese artists have had considerable success, in part because they have kept going back to their country's own strong musical traditions, finding in them new ideas and inspiration.

Celina da Piedade and the Vozes do Alentejo "Ceifeira"

6. Celina da Piedade and the Vozes do Alentejo "Ceifeira" (Reaper)

"Ceifeira", which means reaper or harvest man, is a traditional Alentejan song. The innovation here is to add a female voice to the male voice choir - indeed two at one point. This works fine with the traditional style, as it is already adapted to contrasting high and low solo voices. Also the lyrics are about wanting to marry the harvest man.

Celina da Piedade is a virtuoso accordionist, working with other top musicians such as Rodrigo Leão and the music collective Tais Quais, a sort of Alentejan super group. She is also a singer and composer in her own right. At 2:38 this performance goes into a different tune, "Calimero e a Pêra Verde" (Calimero and the green pear), written by Celina, and an array of other instruments come in, including the viola Campaniça. The male choir is then used in an accompanying role.

António Zambujo "Verão, alentejo e os homens"

7. António Zambujo "Verão, alentejo e os homens" (Summer, Alentejo and men)

António Zambujo is a chart-topping artist, with five albums reaching the number 1 spot in the Portuguese album charts, and a sixth making it to number 2.

This song starts with three voices singing in classic Alentejan Cante manner. Then António continues on alone in his own characteristic lyrical, pensive style.

Though this is very different to Cante, some of the melisma or vocal ornamentation he often uses may derive from the Alentejan singing style.

Grândola in context

So while Grândola, vila morena resembles some of the examples above, it is should not be taken as typical of the genre. It's a hybrid, a song composed by a highly-educated musician from outside the tradition - Dr. Jose "Zeca" Afonso, born in Northern Portugal, steeped in the learned Coimbra style and already an experienced composer and recording artist. But he had worked as a teacher in the Alentejo for a period in the 1950s, and while on a visit to Grândola in 1964 was moved to write the song. So it's a tribute to the style, not the thing itself.

With folk music it is often hard to determine the precise authenticity of any example. This is true around the world, and of many folk musics, because a music of the people inevitably tends to get caught up in attempts to mobilise or control the people - politics in other words. In Portugal's case this is particularly so, because music has played a key role in many of its struggles. Church and State and dissident movements have all seized on this or that popular style and sought to promote or suppress or change it for their own ends.

Cante, a cultivated popular music

In terms of participation rates, Cante Alentejano has benefited from state approval from the beginning of the 20th century. Choirs were formed at official behest and competitions encouraged between villages and regions. This was true before the Estado Novo period (1933 to 1974), and certainly the case during it. This indeed may be one reason the official censor did not ban Grândola from the list of songs Zeca was allowed to perform in 1974. It may have seemed like a safe piece of traditionalism, the sort of thing the dictatorship was keen to encourage as opposed to music that carried more dangerous social or political ideas.

But that's not the whole story of Cante Alentejano. You can't separate the music from the people singing it. The Alentejo has long been in the front line of Portugal's social struggles. In the revolutionary period in 1974 - 1975 it was the region with the most land seizures, where locals occupied the land they had traditionally worked, disappropriating the mostly absentee large landowners. Even to this day, Évora, the largest town in The Alentejo, tends to return the PCP, the Communist Party of Portugal, in elections.

Nowadays Cante Alentejano seems to be smiled on by all sides, and you can't assume the politics of those singing or listening to it. It was put forward successfully for Unesco recognition in 2014 as part of the "Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity" (the same status accorded earlier to Lisbon Fado).

Here is a video made to support that effort. It starts with Grândola, but then goes on to explain the tradition behind the music.

Video for UNESCO in support of Cante

Video for UNESCO in support of Cante Alentejano (2014)

See also on this site

Zeca Afonso, Grândola, vila morena and the 25th of April 1974.

Further information

Unesco page about Cante Alentejano, "Polyphonic singing from Alentejo, southern Portugal, inscribed in 2014 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity".

RTP picture of viola Campaniça

Guitar of Alentejo Portugal
Picture credit: Portuguese broadcaster RTP. Licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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