Portugal’s unique manufacture of cowbells, known here as the “arte dos chocalhos”, has been listed as “Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding” by UNESCO.
The traditional craft, going through hard times due to the use of other techniques to identify cattle, was distinguished at a meeting in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, on Tuesday (December 1).
“I’m very happy to see the thing that I loved the most in life being distinguished. It was my art, I worked with pleasure,” Gregório Sim Sim, one of the oldest “chocalheiro masters” of the Alentejo, told RTP.
“I never thought this day would come,” said another craftsman José Maia.
The bid for UNESCO recognition was headed by the village of Alcáçovas with the support of Viana do Alentejo council.
“The art of the cowbell-making is an important part of both the heritage and the sustainability of the town of Alcáçovas. It is also a key element in the identity and social cohesion of the town’s inhabitants,” wrote Bernardino Pinto, the mayor of Viana do Alentejo, in the UNESCO bid.
“Chocalhos” come in many shapes and sizes, and are mainly used by farmers to locate cattle when they are out grazing on pastures. The unique sound of each cowbell allows farmers to easily identify their animals, craftsmen explain.
The bells are, however, becoming rarer by the day.
Lusa news agency has pointed out that Alcáçovas is one of only seven places that still produce “chocalheiros” in Portugal. The others are Bragança in the north, Tomar, Cartaxo, Estremoz, Reguengos de Monsaraz and Angra do Heroísmo in the Azores.
The scarcity of “chocalheiro masters” is blamed on “changes in the monitoring of cattle” and a “lack of interest by younger generations”.
The craftsmen hope that UNESCO recognition will help breathe new life into the sector, and encourage young people into following in their footsteps.
Portugal has received a number of UNESCO listings in the last few years, all of them promoting local traditions.
In 2014, Cante Alentejano, a form of music in the Alentejo relying solely on polyphonic singing, was also named UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Two years ago, the distinction was given to the Mediterranean Diet in a bid supported by Tavira council – and in 2011, it was Portugal’s traditional Fado music that received the UNESCO seal.
By MICHAEL BRUXO