On summer Sundays and paper suits

It’s a summer Sunday in Porto. A logical move – going for a stroll along the oceanfront. Living in a city by the sea, one can hardly think of nicer way to spend a sunny weekend morning! So, here I am in the neighbourhood of Foz, where the river meets the ocean, and which, within the city, has a distinct cultural identity. Foz is among the most desirable locations to live in Porto, and those of us whose residences are elsewhere love coming here over and over again, for strolls, festivals, gastronomy or nightlife.

This Sunday, it seems all the city strollers decided to unite: the streets of Foz are turning into rivers of people! And it seems the strollers have taken over the roadway, too, as cars cannot pass.

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Hmmm, what might this be all about?

People line up in the shade along the sidewalk, and the music starts. I approach, too, with my camera ready to register this curious event I stumbled upon. And here they come: dozens of ladies and gentlemen, bishops and kings, children, maids, fishermen and their wives, in a parade that revives local traditions, ways of life, monuments, and reminds of prominent people that marked the history of Foz.

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As if we have gone back in time: they are all dressed in beautiful, elaborate, colourful, sometimes even theatrical clothes from the epochs long gone.

The parade doesn’t seem to be very disciplined: here and there, participants step out to wish a good day to a friend or to take a photo or two for their family albums. Quite a few approach to greet an elderly lady who has chosen a nice, shady spot right next to me. Being the participants just steps away, I realize: those wonderful dresses and suits, all the equipment and details, even their shoes, are all made of paper!

I find out that I am in the middle of the celebrations of St. Bartholomew, traditional of Foz, and that the paper suit parade happens to be their highlight. Some claim the tradition is over a 150 years old, others say that it goes just 50 years back, and that it became constant from the early 1990s. I won’t be investigating much into the dispute: maybe it is for the best not letting the truth get in the way of a very nice story!

The parade ends in the sea, but not all the participants dare to have a swim. Despite it is late summer, the ocean is unpleasantly chilly. The bravest ones dip in the ocean in their paper suits until they fall apart.

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This summer day in Porto remains so unique and memorable: the parade theme and the paper suits will be reinvented over and over in the years to come, yet in my mind there is nothing ephemeral about this Sunday.

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“Porto Desconhecido”

What’s heritage without the actual people it is meaningful to? What’s tradition if it isn’t a living thing reinforcing one’s sense of identity and belonging?

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These were the questions that came to me naturally after the “Porto Desconhecido” exhibition and conversation some weeks ago in the Soares dos Reis museum. “The unknown Porto” made public some local stories, memories and customs thanks to a number of caring stakeholders – common people, young and old, who worked together in representing their traditions (celebration of the day of Saint Rita in São Nicolau neighbourhood in Porto) in an animated film, as much as the people from cultural institutions who came up with the idea, gathered the stories at various points in Porto and organized the logistics.

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The conversation was meant to contextualize the activities done and inform on the work, gathering museum experts and other participants at the stage: acknowledging that both parties were equally important for the success of the project! After the short film projection, it was endearing to see the exhibition, with pieces of scenography created with love and care for the city and its traditions by São Nicolau social center users.

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Bonding the people between each other and with their city, as well as unpretentiously reminding us, the observers, of what living heritage values are, that was the message of “Porto Desconhecido”.

Phonambient

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Some months ago, I wrote about a project named “PortoSonoro” here on the blog. That great idea, mapping contemporary acoustic urban heritage and making the data available to researchers and to general public, has now expanded: the “Phonambient” has been born.

I found out more about it some time ago in Casa da Música in Porto, during an eventful week in February dedicated to the project presentation. The musicians and researchers behind “Phonambient” are linked to the cultural association “Sonoscopia”. They value intuition, creativity and research equally: the project contains a combination of scientific and artistic components, and offers a fresh view onto the city life of today.

Besides the presentation, a talk I had with Gustavo Costa, one of the main people behind “Sonoscopia” and a PhD researcher, was valuable to understand the project relevance and its current scope. “Phonambient” is, briefly, and extension of sound mapping ideas of “PortoSonoro” to other cities in Portugal and abroad, as well as exploration of possible (artistic) uses of the sound archives created.

The “Phonambient” people are experts in recording sounds, and it is crucial even nowadays when sound recording devices are inexpensive and widely available. They are interested in various forms of artistic transformations of the acoustic archive they created, and that is what the Casa da Música event was partly about (imagine, one could find out what plants from around the city have to “say”!). However, the point of the project is also to make the urban sound archive available to other researchers and artists, to be used freely. This can be of great value for anyone who explores contemporary city: linguists, for example, among many others, as the archive contains a section devoted to local expressions and slang. And once in the future, thanks to this archive, it will be possible to reflect on the soundscapes of today.

“Phonambient” is an open, collaborative platform: the “Sonoscopia” teams work with local teams in each of the cities where the project has expanded (besides Porto, for now those are Braga, Tondela, Castelo Branco, Guarda and Fundão, plus one international partner city – Abu Dhabi). So, there is a possibility for the idea to grow and transform, independently of its initiators.

Right now, the project is expanding in geographical terms, as well in terms of abundance of data acquired. And that abundance is a big challenge: the huge amounts of data need to be filtered and organized, and it takes time and effort in terms of their categorization.

In a word, the value of “Phonambient” is that, being open to collaboration, these artists/scientists simultaneously keep creating and envisioning future research territories.

Find out more:

The Almalagues experience

A little while ago I undertook a study trip to Almalagues, a village near Coimbra. The journey was wonderfully organized by my colleague, Antonio João, who has a special interest in this place: his research is dedicated to the Almalagues weavers.

For me, this trip was an exciting encounter with living intangible heritage, since Almalagues has been an important weaving center for centuries and the tradition has still been maintained, even if on a much smaller scale. The museum in the center of the village is more of a meeting place for local craftsmen and other inhabitants. It’s principally their home, with the door open for the rare visitors aside. A guest like me not only could pass by freely, but also could touch and try everything, taste a few local drinks and ask questions on “how it once was”. Or how it still is for some! A home is more proper word to describe this place than a museum, as their target group are the hosts rather than visitors, as we were received just as we would be at someone’s home, and as… it looked like one! Someone’s grandparents’ home, to be precise.

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The weaving room was that one particularity of an Almalagues home that made their everyday life so special.

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A number of beautiful, thick, textured pieces displayed are for sale – they come with a price tag, though. But hey, doesn’t our consumerist world need to rethink the matters of quality, duration and meaningfulness? Don’t those Almalagues pieces also have a whole collective memory woven in?

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If anyone has a doubt about those rhetoric questions, I’d recommend to experience the weaving process themselves, to feel the level of patience, creativity and physical force needed for this job. I was lucky to try it, and from that moment my respect for these wonderful makers grew exponentially.

So, best of luck, Antonio João! Your mission is bigger than Almalagues and touches more general contemporary values (or lack thereof). And I am sure that the weavers are here to stay!

An item and its discourses

5529_1There is a huge problem about the cultural scene of Porto – the problem of what to choose among so many things happening around!

I will be keeping an eye on the diverse and imaginative initiative of the Porto City Hall named “Um objeto e seus discursos”, that started in March and will be going on weekly until the end of 2014. I already attended one event  last Saturday, that somehow got to span the vast space between 19th-century feminine fashion, higher education and the current economic crisis in Portugal!

Link: http://www.umobjetoeseusdiscursos.com/

P.S. It was also enchanting to see the audience was very diverse, all ages and backgrounds!