Art of making cattle bells, a symbol of Alentejo
In the plains of the Alentejo, more precisely in the village of Alcáçovas in Viana do Alentejo, one can still hear the distinct sound of the cattle bells that wander the pastures. The melodious music is rooted in the identity of the Alentejo since the 18th century, when the masters of making cattle bells began to emerge in the region.
The art of making cattle bells, a musical instrument primarily associated with pastoralism, was classified by UNESCO (in December 2015) as an Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. This tradition was practically extinct due to industrialisation, the introduction of fences to control the cattle and the decreasing number of shepherds. It is believed this art has also disappeared because it is a time-consuming, technically-complex craft and it takes several years to master all the artisanal parts to manufacture this object.
In the past, the cattle used a bell of different size according to the season; and the greediest cow would use the “male bell” (chocalho macho, bigger and of more bass sound), so that the shepherd would know when the animal went to eat the neighbour’s grass.
In times gone by, when there was no television to entertain, evenings were filled with groups of people that made the clappers, the collars and the “cáguedas” (personalised clasp of wood, horn or cork that avoided the opening of the leash), everything for the bells.
Nowadays, there are only a dozen craftsmen dedicated to making this piece and only four of them under 60 years old. These masters make the bell from a polished iron plate (that varies in thickness depending on the size of the cowbell) which is carved cold on the anvil with the aid of a hammer.
It is said that one doesn’t need to be a musician, however, the master needs to have a good perception of the sound so that it is pleasing to animals and shepherds. Nevertheless, the artisan also tries to maximise the sound in each piece, so that it can be heard at a distance. In a final phase, the piece is polished, and the wood clapper, the cowhide collar, the brass buckle and the “cágueda” are placed on it.
This is a knowledge of unparalleled importance. Mar d’Estórias in Lagos intends to dynamise the preservation of this art and share the history of this craft.
To know more about this craft, visit Mar d’Estórias at Rua Silva Lopes, Nº 30.