In 1995, for the first time since buying a ruined farmhouse in the Alto Minho region of Portugal four years earlier, my wife Diane and I had three whole weeks summer holiday, including a memorable weekend. Preparing the Friday evening meal, we could hear hymn singing in the air; thin voices of supplicant women sounding very eerie from inside our remote house in the woods. Outside it was more distinct, but we had no idea where the sound was coming from and by bedtime it had gone. On Saturday morning, music as different as chalk and cheese boomed out across the valley. This was Minhoto folk music, with its assertive lively melodies sung by alternating male and high-pitched female voices sometimes rising to shrieking pitch, followed by a chorus accompanied by an incessant concertina. It’s an “in your face” kind of music, but in a valley full of echoes, it was not easy to locate. By the time it went dark, the sound had changed again to Portuguese pop, and there were flashing lights on the other side of the valley. We didn’t want to miss this so jumped into the car and drove in the direction of the lights, which naturally got brighter as we approached.
There is something magical about the combination of bright lights and pop music that draws children to fairgrounds and quickens the steps of football fans moving along the dark terraced streets of northern English towns towards floodlit stadiums. Our destination was a festa popular just getting underway. The focus of such festivities is always the parish church and this one was raised up from the main road. What had caught our attention was a triangular frame of twinkling white lamps strung over the church porch with fluorescent lighting streaming from the interior through the open door. Climbing up from the road, the church itself was surrounded by a tall granite wall that sparkled in the moonlight. Inside the boundary, on rows of dining chairs, were elderly men in suits and women in dark dresses, listening to the music and attending to their devotions whenever they felt the need. With a big chestnut tree behind and, beyond that a mountain with a full moon sitting on top, it put me in mind of a work of 1830 by the English painter Samuel Palmer called “Coming from Evening Church”: moon, sky, mountain, tree, and church so close as to be almost touching; an intimate little world enveloped in darkness.
Entering the Chapel of O Senhor dos Aflitos, we noticed that the effigy of the saint was casually dumped on the chapel floor, as if arm-weary bearers had dropped him at the first opportunity. (Effigies have a hard time in the Minho. Jose Saramago has a story about a life-size papier-mâché St. George stationed in Braga Cathedral who took pride of place when strapped to a horse during church processions: “As befits one who rides to do battle with dragons from time immemorial.” On one outing, the newly shod horse slipped on the tramlines in the city center, unseating the saint who fell heavily in the roadway. In their distress, the devout spectators made so much noise they disturbed a family of rats living in the saint’s innards that fled the toppled effigy, scattering amongst the crowd. Shame and indignation followed and St. George was never allowed out again). In the Minho, these little chapels tend to be unadorned and rather somber places for most of the year but spring into life during festivities. Bunches of lilies and irises from the processional float were unceremoniously scattered about the floor.
The pop music was coming from a banda on a scaffolding stage. These bands are usually semi-professional musicians on summer tours. A typical lineup consists of a male singer sounding like Ricky Martin, backed by two flimsily-clad young girls and a rhythm section; sometimes the lead singer is female or there are both sexes fronting the band. It is upbeat Portuguese pop mixed with slow tempo romantic ballads, but many of these musicians are versatile and can turn their hand to folk music or Brazilian samba, especially in the bigger festivals in towns and cities. Before buying a house, we explored north Portugal by train, spending a few nights in some of the main towns. In Braganca, we saw a folk troupe performing in a park, followed on stage later the same evening by a Brazilian samba band. There was a stunning looking girl amongst the folk singers and there she was again in a flouncy “Brazilian” dress. It eventually dawned on me that they were the same people.
There had been rockets firing into the sky and exploding like mortar shells on the scrubby hillside opposite since the previous evening – a practice now forbidden because of fire risk – but it was difficult to work out exactly where they were coming from. All was revealed on a walk through the cobbled pathways of the hamlet before joining the festa. Huddled together in an alley a little way from the center of activity were a group of middle-aged men setting off the rockets. Suddenly coming across them, their sly looks gave me the impression of a group of schoolboys caught having a smoke behind the bike shed.
Like most of my generation brought up in the north of England, putting rockets into empty bottles – standing on backyard walls, lighting the blue touchpaper, and retiring just like the instructions said – had been child’s play, but this was man’s work. These guys were holding the rockets in the palms of their hands, putting a lighted cigarette to the fuse and then, with one arm outstretched, waiting until they hissed away. Including the stick, these missiles were more than a yard long with a thick body of explosive. The villagers were obviously enjoying themselves and grinned widely at me as I stood watching the rockets fly into the air, waiting for the bang a few second later. It’s obviously a dangerous way to have fun, illustrated by the number of elderly men in the villages with missing fingers and thumbs, but the ones setting off the fireworks were probably the most responsible adults in their community, operating far away from the excitable crowds with no sign of children or young people around them.
The wooded drinks hut was serving vinho verde tinto dispensed from five-liter plastic flagons into cups like shallow soup bowls; in those days, few local people had a taste for the branco. It’s easy to please the Portuguese by admiring homegrown produce, but there was no need to feign fondness for the light red bubbling into the pots. Diane was not as enthusiastic as it is high on acidity and soon requested the white, which came conventionally in a glass out of a bottle. That rather characterless Portuguese lager was also available, but in those days we stuck strictly to the wine.
Taking up a position on the edge the crowd, surrounding the rough earth quadrangle that served as a dance floor, our foreignness – coloring, clothing and tendency to brisk walking –attracted attention. Most annoying was the continual staring, an intrusiveness we have never gotten used to. (More recently, we met some fraught tourists from the north of England, in the town of Valenca de Minho. With characteristic candor, the first thing they said was: “Aren’t these people nosy? They do nothing but stare at you.” After years of facing down locals in numerous cafes and restaurants, we knew what they were going through). Though intensely curious, the adults were too shy to talk and dispatched their children – whose knowledge of the English language they greatly overestimated – to quiz us about where we came from. Watching warily as these would-be young ambassadors skipped across the dance floor to report back, we acknowledged the parents’ presence with reassuring waves. After a few drinks had gone down, the night warmed up and uninhibited conversations with all kinds of people sent our heads spinning and flummoxed our interlocutors. On other nights, we would have a go at the energetic, bouncy kind of waltzing they all do, but not this time. We had covered enough ground already.
As the years passed, there were times when differences of opinion with neighbors meant we saw less of them, but reconciliation was always guaranteed at festas. Within a few miles of our house are four lugares or hamlets which hold their own, paid for by local subscription and reliant on the voluntary activity of a handful of people; our neighbors attend them all and go farther afield as well. For the small farmers, ‘lavradores,‘ of the Minho, festas have always been an opportunity to get away from the backbreaking labor of the farm and enjoy themselves once in a while. They are a chance to make business deals with other farmers and feed merchants and sometimes settle old scores with villagers after quarrels over land ownership, the cause of some bitter disagreements.
Whether Minho farmers are at home, working abroad, or simply migrating for work with the seasons, the tradition is for the wife or lavradeira to do the bulk of the land work, as well as bring up children and tend animals. For her, festas are a rare opportunity to have some time for herself and a quiet word with her saint. For teenagers, they’re an opportunity to get the girl or boy of their dreams in their arms on the dance floor, often a first step to marriage and a farm of one’s own. With all these stored-up expectations, it’s not surprising that festas populares are emotionally charged and sometimes end in tears and, even after a night’s partying, the animals still need attention at first light the following morning.
Miguel Torga (1907-1995) was a doctor, poet, and chronicler of village life in Trás-os-Montes in northeastern Portugal, a region known for its rugged individualism. One of his stories is about a single family’s disillusionment. Intending to use the occasion to settle an old score with the braggart Marcelino, a husband Nobre wins the fistfight, but at the expense of broken ribs. Seeking a blessing from her tutelary saint, his wife Lucia kneels to open her heart to the image’s glassy-eyed gaze, but succeeds only in grazing her knees on the rough ground. Waking to a cold clear dawn surrounded by the detritus of the night’s excesses, she feels: “an emptiness in her soul, like that of a tenant just after having paid his rent.” Their teenage daughter, Otilia, loses her virginity behind a boulder which, come morning, she could no longer even identify: “In the sanguine faces of those who had covered many miles to get there, there was now the pallor of disillusionment and unconfessed regret.”
The next day there was folk music, which traditionally takes place on the more staid Sunday afternoon. After the excesses of the previous night, the villagers reappeared a little subdued in their Sunday best to see a folk group or rancho perform. It began with mostly young couples in traditional dress walking hand in hand into the area set aside for dancing, led by, one of their number carrying a banner emblazoned with the group’s insignia. There were a dozen dancers, dressed in traditional costume: men in embroidered white shirts, woolen waistcoats with black trousers, and a red sash around the waist; embroidered blouses, full skirts, and white stockings for the women. Performing in pairs, they twirled ‘round beside their partners with arms raised above heads, accompanied by that polyphonous singing and accordion playing.
Truly an idiosyncratic form, especially the high-pitched shrieking sound of the female singer. The lyrics come from the pastoral life of the Minho: songs about the maize cycle, sowing, tilling, harvesting, and the stripping and milling of corn. They would have been sung by women in the fields, on their way to and from work and by seated groups stripping corncobs in the farmyard. Today, there is no singing coming from the fields because teams of women no longer work the land but, when I was talking to a neighbor on the road, a tractor went by with a group in the trailer singing at the top of their voices. Trabalhadoras said my companion approvingly, indicating there was something special about a party of women bursting into song on their way home from work. I knew what he meant as they certainly sounded special to me. As for stripping corncobs, we have often seen a cluster of women sitting on the roadside outside our neighbor Sandrina’s house, stalks piling up beside them, and although we never hear their voices raised in song, they certainly soar in laughter.
Since coming to Portugal, we’ve been regular attenders at festas populares and had some great evenings in amusing company, but there’s a side to them that always makes me uneasy. Coming from a Protestant tradition where the sacred and profane were kept well apart, the seamless switching from piety to abandon can be rather unsettling. I always find myself holding back a bit, wary of being carried away by the prevalent mood, which sometimes approaches delirium. Late at night, the throbbing music from the loudspeakers, the flashing lights and the noise of an excitable crowd is reminiscent of “wakes week” in the Lancashire mill town where I was brought up. Like every other child, I was brimming with excitement when the fun fair came to town, yet there was something about all this frenzy of activity that set my spine tingling. It may have been a fear of being led like Pinocchio into a sinister world of make-believe by the bold-faced animals on the Noah’s Ark or drawn into danger by the reckless gypsy boys leaping from car to car on the dodgems. Whatever it was, it stayed with me and resurfaced with my first festa popular. Perhaps it’s this frisson that attracted me in the first place and kept me going again and again.
Saramago, Jose. Journey to Portugal. City of Publication: Harvill Press, 2000.
Torga, Miguel. Tales & More Tales from the Mountain. City of Publication: Carcanet Press, 1995.
About the Author
Roland Barnes published poetry when he was young. Early in a career in psychiatric social work, he placed an article in an extinct English journal Community Medicine, which re-established his interest in writing, becoming a regular contributor to health, housing, and social services magazines. More recently, he has published in The Oldie and Best of British magazine and is currently working on two full-length manuscripts: In Place of Cotton, about his childhood in Oldham, and The English House, about living in north Portugal. After living in London with his family for most of his life, they have recently moved to Swansea, South Wales, around the corner from Dylan Thomas’s birthplace.