Portel Colloquium 2011


Portel, Portugal, December 1-5, 2011

Pan-Mediterranean Poetic Competitions and their Music:
Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Practice

Sponsored by

Study Group for Mediterranean Music Studies
International Council for Traditional Music [UNESCO]
INET-MD Universidade Nova de Lisboa
Câmara Municipal de Portel
Sistemas do Futuro

Program Committee: Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco (New University of Lisbon), Ed Emery (SOAS), Caroline Bithell (University of Manchester), Marcello Sorce Keller (University of Malta).

Local Arrangements Committee: Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco (Universidade Nova de Lisboa), Paulo Lima (Universidade Nova de Lisboa and Câmara Municipal de Portel).



This Colloquium we had in Portel (Portugal) was devoted to a discussion of “Pan-Mediterranean Poetic Competitions and their Music: Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Practice” following upon a welcome suggestion by Ed Emery (SOAS, London). It was co-organized by Marcello Sorce Keller (University of Malta), Salwa El-Shawan Castelo Branco (Instituto de Etnomusicologia – Centro de Estudos em Música e Dança, Universidade Nova de Lisboa) and Paulo Lima (Universidade Nova de Lisboa and Câmara Municipal de Portel), and generously sponsored by the “Câmara Municipal de Portel,” also with the support of  “Sistemas do futuro : multimédia, gestão e arte”.

Participants invited to present papers were Maria José Barriga (Universidade Nova de Lisboa), Fernando Cabral (Sistemas do Futuro), Fabio Calzia (Conservatorio di Musica, Cagliari), Ed Emery (SOAS, London), Francisco José Gomes Damasceno (Laboratório de Estudos e Pesquisa em História e Culturas — DÍCTIS/CNPq), Paulo Lima (Universidade Nova de Lisboa), Marco F. Lutzu (Conservatorio di Musica, Cagliari-Università di Roma La Sapienza), Ignazio Macchiarella (Università di Cagliari), Nicola Scaldaferri (Università degli Studi di Milano), and Marcello Sorce Keller (University of Malta). Discussions about papers and presentation, as well as about future activities of the Study Group, greatly benefited from the contribution of our Vice-President Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco (Universidade Nova de Lisboa).

A novelty in this Colloquium was that papers and discussions were given more time than is usually allowed in conferences, and this “slow-pace” approach proved to be productive as well as enjoyable. Also a novelty it was that a few video documents were presented and commented, in-between papers: Ed Emery presented a document about the Basque Bertsulari, Marco Lutzu one analytically describing the intriguingly complex compositional process of the Sa Repentina, and Marcello Sorce Keller a videoclip of Maltese Għana Spirtu Pront. The small number of participants made it unnecessary to have sessions governed by a chairperson. We all sat around a large table, and presentations as well as discussions could be extremely informal and spontaneous.

Papers Presented

Marcello Sorce Keller opened the Colloquium by putting together a wide-angle picture: poetic and musical competitions have existed in many cultures and often in different layers of the same culture (“Musical Duels in the Art-Music of the West and in Traditional Practice”); how they may occur in oral environments, in the low-brow end of literate traditions, or even in high-brow repertoires. Among orally transmitted repertoires, where they are by far more frequent, musico-poetic duels achieve an intriguing balance of elements: the ritual, the spectacular, the improvisatory dimension, the active involvement of the audience.

Ignazio Macchiarella then took over (“The Indispensable Irrelevant Element: Oral Poetic Duels and Music in Sardinian, Corsica and Central Italy)” explaining how according to nearly all Sardinian, Corsican and Central Italian oral poets (and their listeners) music is an almost irrelevant or minimal element within poetical duels. Wgat really counts is rather “pure poetry”, ideas and their  poetic elaboration within metric and style constraints. And yet those very representatives of the tradition concede that it is practically impossible for them to improvise poetically in the absence of music. It is a paradox of sorts that Macchiarella used to assess the basic role of music in the overall construction of improvisatory poetic discourses.

Francisco José Gomes Damasceno (“Cantadores e Cantorias at the Gateway to the Urban Northeast Brazil: Three experiments”) brought us a contribution from an area geographically remote from the Mediterranean, and yet related to it, as Luso-Brazilian traditions in so many ways reveal their connection to the other areas where romance languages are spoken. It was a set of reflections on the musical experience of three elderly “repentistas” singers from Northeastern Brazil whose lives exemplify the multiple aspects that music assumes in their milieu and how they embody knowledge acquired through music-making, and the most intriguing issue at stake here is how the rural space and the urban space of the city mark their musical practices.

Fabio Calzia brought us back to Sardinia (“Sos Muttos de Carrasecare: Carnival Poetic competitions in Lodine, a small Village in the central Sardinia”), telling us about Lodine, a Shepard's village in the center of the Island where the 380 inhabitants are tied to one another through a complex pattern of kinship. Music and poetry are very important for the life of this community, regulated by continuous challenges based on physical strength as well as vocal and poetical skills. His paper described how the community is brought together during the Carnival Festivals through poetic improvisation.

The first Portuguese contribution was by Maria José Barriga (“'Cante ao baldão': A Dueling Practice in the Alentejo Region”); a contributions based on fieldwork conducted in the lower Alentejo region, between 1995 e 1999 and which, although summarized in a publication appeared 2003, it still continues as it examines the practice of the “cante ao baldão” (developed during the XIX century in a rather contained area of Portugal) in the broader context of poetic dueling across Portugal, the Mediterranean, Brazil and Hispano-America. Also concerned with the Portuguese region of Alentejo was the contribution presented by Paulo Lima and Fernando Cabral (The 'Desafio' Musico-Poetic Practice in Portugal: A Proposal for a Cartography and Digitalization”). Theirs was the only contribution to tackled questions pertaining t the collection, organization and use of the information available on the practice of musico-poetic dueling.

Marco F. Lutzu at this point lead us back to Sardinia once again (“Antagonisms between Efis and Remo: defining the Sardinian poetic tradition of Sa Repentina”). As it turns out the Repentina is the less known and studied among the professional traditions of Sardinian improvised poetry, characterized by a complex set of metrical and musical forms. Over the last few decades the number of poets, and consequently of public competitions, has been greatly reduced. About five years ago the first investigations with an ethnomusicological approach were carried out and an informal school of 'Repentina' was organized. Lutzu's contention was that the explanation of what the 'Repentina' really is, can be best seen in the antagonistic relationship between Efis Caddeo and Remo Orrù, the last professional poets still active today.

Nicola Scaldaferri (“The singer of tales on stage. Transformation of the Albanian epic repertories and performances from the traditional settings to the competitive contexts”) revisited the tradition of epic singing so famously described by Milman Parry and Albert B. Lord, and explained how nowadays old songs, resulting from formulaic composition, are often presented in festivals and competitions. In this new context they are inevitably transformed, sometimes drastically: formulas disappear, strophic structure is employed, duration is reduced, the quality of singing per se is emphasized, narratives are re-invented, and even the accompanying instrument – the Gusle – is often replaced. The entire symbolic frame of reference is reconfigured.

Ed Emery brought the series of presentations to an end with a contribution where, in addition to the ethnographic, also an historical and literary dimension was present. He examined the possibility that in the sonnet, a characteristically Italian verse form, identifiable continuities could be adduced between the Andalus tradition and the Italian tradition and concluded with a phenomenology of the sonnet as poetic dueling, and also as a manifestation of "correspondence poetry" (or poetry entailing the obligation for a response)– its conventions, behaviors and assumptions.

Discussion at Large

The multi-voiced discussion in-between papers and presentations actually focused on more musical-poetic competitions across more countries and territories than the title of the papers would indicate. It came out of the discussion how, however idiosyncratic each for of musico-poetic dueling really is, still the number of variants they represent is not infinite. In other words, very diverse situations were examined, but a finite number of them nonetheless exists. A typology would be possible  – contexts, creativity forms, use of the body, relationship with the audience. Impressive indeed is the number of strict constraints each traditions relies upon, and how the widespread social understanding of such constraints insures the comprehensibility and appreciation of performances. In fact performances based on confrontation, rivalry, competition are remarkably well comprehensible in their dynamics to those who share the tradition (either in the role of active performers, or as public). The audience knows exactly what to expect, knows very well what the performer is trying to do, and is in a position to assess whether the goal is aptly achieved, with prowess and style.

Another observation emerging from papers, presentation and discussions, is that quick wit and humor play an important and pre-eminent role in musico-poetic dueling. Spectators listen with great attention and participation, precisely because in a matter of a few seconds, they know the punchline is coming. Wit and humor in connection to music and poetry have not received, so far, much scholarly attention. In any further study of song dueling that would have to become a central question for analysis. In those traditions where no form of lashing is expected, the climax of the performance requires at least a striking line, a poetic surprising image which the melodic context is supposed to emphasize or frame for attention. Finally we had to realize, how many traditions of musico-poetic dueling makes use of nonsense syllables, words, or phrases; just like in Balladry (who does not know the refrain: “Parsely, Sage, Rosmary and Thyme”).

More important it was how the discussion, departing from the examples presented in the course of the colloquium, at some point progressed towards crucial questions of music-making at large: the definition of the musical object, piece, or performance, and the very concept of “music” itself, not always recognized by many actors of the traditions in question. On this note, that from the angle of musico-poetic competition  fundamental issues about music-making in general inevitably emerge, the meeting came to an end, with the perception that theme of this Colloquium turned out to be even more intriguing and substantial than anticipated, and will probably deserve to be revisited in the future in some way or form.

Possibilities to publish the proceedings, on paper or electronically, are being considered.

Marcello Sorce Keller


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