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Grupo Coral Os Ceifeiros de Cuba: an iconic Alentejan choir

Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco
p. 139-144

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Grupo Coral Os Ceifeiros de Cuba parading at Cuba’s annual fair, September 1986

Grupo Coral Os Ceifeiros de Cuba parading at Cuba’s annual fair, September 1986

Source: Photo by Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco

1The Grupo Coral Os Ceifeiros de Cuba (literally, Cuba’s Harvesters’ Choir, heretofore the Ceifeiros) was founded in 1933 in the town of Cuba in Southern Alentejo and has been continuously active since then. In the featured photo, the choir parades through Cuba’s streets in celebration of the town’s annual fair, an “invented tradition” that was launched the same year in which the choir was founded (this text draws from an article I've published before: Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco, 2022, “Sustainability, agency and the ecologies of music heritage in Alentejo, Portugal”, Music, Communities and Sustainability: Developing Policies and Practices).

2The Ceifeiros choir was constituted within the framework of the “state heritage regime” of the Estado Novo (the authoritarian regime that ruled Portugal from 1933 to 1974) that was institutionalized and regulated by a network of government institutions operating on the national and local levels, often through the mediation of priests, folklorists, ethnographers, musicians, tradition custodians, among others. In the 1930’s, a performance model that entailed the “disciplining of bodies” (Michel Foucault, 1979, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison), authenticated music and dance repertoires and costumes were selected for the sonic and visual representation of each region of Portugal. Men’s amateur choirs, clad in rural costumes that were in use during the first half of the 20th century during work or on Sundays and festive days, performing without instrumental accompaniment or dance, were institutionalized as the iconic representation of southern Alentejo. An authenticated core repertoire of modas and cantigas (dance songs and solo songs that were widespread in Alentejo since the late 19th century) was selected and adapted for singing in parallel thirds by men’s choirs. During the last quarter of the 20th century, both the repertoire and the performance model were branded as canto Alentejano (Alentejo’s song), cante (the regional pronunciation of canto), or cantar à Alentejana (singing in Alentejo’s style).

3Contrary to the expectations of cultural politicians and intellectuals, following the 25th of April revolution and the subsequent establishment of democracy, the choir movement in Alentejo and among its migrants in the greater Lisbon area expanded significantly (over 150 choirs are currently active) and has been supported by municipal governments. Since the late 1970’s, women’s choirs were formed, modelled after men’s choirs, launching women in the public performance arena.

4Alentejan choirs perform in local and national celebrations on stages, in street parades, and in events designated “Encounters of Alentejan Choirs” where up to a dozen choirs are hosted by a choir in the Alentejo, or in migrant communities from the region in the Lisbon metropolitan area, perform on stage and sometimes parade through the streets. Following the event, choir members and the local community socialize over a meal that is offered by the local hosts that usually ends with informal singing in which all participating choir members and invited guests join.

5In November 2014, cante was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity (ICH), introducing a local practice to the global arena and branding cante as “intangible cultural heritage”. The inscription has had an impact on the ecology of cante and its meaning, a repercussion which needs to be systematically assessed.

6My first encounter with cante goes back to the spring of 1986 when I visited Cuba and heard the Ceifeiros for the first time in a rehearsal, and in moments of intense conviviality and social bonding in taverns, at homes, on festive occasions, and even on the town’s streets where singers strolled, sometimes stopping to sing forming a closed circle, and engaging in singing and deep listening to one another. In all of these settings, I was moved by the intensity of the voices, as well as by the affective dimension and the social intimacy made possible through the act of singing together.

7Alentejo’s heritage discourse is embodied through sound but also through the materiality of the costumes clad by choirs, both representing an iconic embodied referent (Hellier-Tinoco, 2011, Embodying Mexico: Tourism, Nationalism and Performance) of a bucolic “authentic” Alentejo that is “actively sensed” and “rendered meaningful” (Steven Feld and Keith Basso, 1996, “Introduction”, Senses of Place). The story of the Ceifeiros’ costume is illustrative of the Estado Novo’s role in fabricating an “authentic” image for Cuba’s choir, associating it with manual rural labor, and of the dissociation of this visual discourse from authoritarian cultural politics, and the memory of a past of exploitation and suffering. When the choir started singing in public in the 1930s, its members used their “Sunday costume”, usually consisting of a white shirt, a dark vest, pants and a sash. In 1959, the group performed with the harvesting attire which is still in use by the group. As the photo shows, it is composed of a hat with a wide brim, black pants and vest, a light blue shirt with a small checkered pattern, a red kerchief around the neck, and leather boots. In addition, leather protections are worn over the pants and tied to the waist, and each man carries a cloth saddlebag.

8How and why did this change of the choir’s costume come about? The Ceifeiros choir was affiliated with FNAT – Fundação Nacional para Alegria no Trabalho (National Foundation for Joy at Work), one of the Estado Novo’s institutions that promoted social harmony through leisure activities, including music and other expressive practices. According to several choir members, the change of costume was encouraged by FNAT’s director of the Office of Ethnography and Folklore, Mário Albuquerque, who visited the choir in Cuba in 1959, the year the choir adopted the new costume. Similarly, the name initially given to the choir, Grupo de Cantadores de Cuba, was changed in the early 1940’s to Grupo Coral os Ceifeiros, a homage to Alentejan writer Fialho de Almeida’s (1857-1911) novel Os Ceifeiros, a name that highlights the choir as representative of rural Alentejo (Jorge Moniz, 2007, A Folclorização do Cante Alentejano: Um Estudo de Caso do Grupo Coral “Os Ceifeiros de Cuba”).

9The Ceifeiros’ costume conjures up distinct memories and feelings among choir members and other Alentejans. Older choir members often express their pride in the costume which for them represents the materialization of the ideal of an “authentic tradition” and a connection to a past that is dissociated from the hardship of the exploitative manual agricultural labor, and the widespread poverty that characterized rural Alentejo up to the 1970’s and that the older choir members suffered. The younger generation of Alentejans, including those who formed new choirs before and following cante’s inscription on UNESCO’s representative List of ICH, shun rural costumes as they evoke memories of Alentejo’s “subaltern pasts” which they have not experienced and with which they do not identify. While the Ceifeiros continue using the harvester’s costume, choirs constituted by young singers, use informal attire.

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Título Grupo Coral Os Ceifeiros de Cuba parading at Cuba’s annual fair, September 1986
Créditos Source: Photo by Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco
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Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco, «Grupo Coral Os Ceifeiros de Cuba: an iconic Alentejan choir»Etnográfica, Número especial | -1, 139-144.

Referência eletrónica

Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco, «Grupo Coral Os Ceifeiros de Cuba: an iconic Alentejan choir»Etnográfica [Online], Número especial | 2022, posto online no dia 22 dezembro 2022, consultado o 28 janeiro 2023. URL:; DOI:

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Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco

Institute of Ethnomusicology – Center for Studies in Music and Dance; NOVA FCSH – UNL, Portugal

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Creative Commons - Atribuição-NãoComercial 4.0 Internacional - CC BY-NC 4.0

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