Feature: Cante Alentejano
One of the great but little-known musical forms of Portugal, Cante Alentejano is a powerful choral tradition with deep roots – dating back to Renaissance-style Gregorian chants of the 15th century or perhaps even earlier (some scholars believe it a cultural legacy of the Islamic presence in the country). Though popular in the first half of the 20th century, it had fallen out of fashion in the post–WWII years. All that is slowly changing, as word has gotten out about this once endangered art form. In 2014 Unesco recognised Cante Alentejano as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (just as fado had been honoured in 2011), which has sparked interest both far and near in rediscovering this music.
Cante Alentejano is sung by a choir without instrumentation, with two soloists singing in different keys. It is traditionally associated with rural life – the farmers and labourers of the Alentejo – who sing of hardships, lost love, loneliness, poverty and other topics overflowing with tristeza (sadness). Despite the sorrowful themes, the many voices singing polyphonic works create a moving experience, full of power and even joy. Choirs consist of up to 30 singers and can be all male or all female but are rarely mixed.
The Baixo Alentejo remains the epicentre of the resurgence of Cante Alentejano. A new cultural centre, Casa do Cante, in Serpa is a good place to learn about this tradition (check the website for choral events in other parts of the Alentejo). If you can track it down, check out Sérgio Tréfaut’s film Alentejo, Alentejo, an award-winning feature-length documentary from 2014 that explores this rich music.