The opening weekend of the much-loved Portuguese festival celebrated its 20th anniversary with four evenings of free concerts in the seaside town of Porto Covo
The small seaside resort of Porto Covo on the beautiful Alentejo coast is just two hours south of Lisbon and for the last five years its residents – both permanent and the many visiting ones – have been the lucky beneficiaries of some top-class musical entertainment, courtesy of FMM Sines (aka the Festival Músicas do Mundo Sines). Remarkably, the opening programme, which runs over the course of four evenings, is completely free – a legacy of the council's initial desire to make the event a ‘public service festival and a celebration of the public space.’
There’s no denying that the organisers make the most of the space available to them as the festival stage becomes the focal point over the duration of the four nights. It’s erected in front of the town’s sole church on Largo Marquês de Pombal, the main square adorned with a pair of towering palm trees, encircled by restaurants and pop-up bars – a compact yet ideal festival site.
As the hour approached for the opening concert by fadista Aldina Duarte, a mixture of sun-kissed and sandy-looking tourists returning from the beach joined a sizeable number of hippies together with local residents doing a Portuguese version of the passeggiata – large family groups of all ages convening in the square to socialise and listen to the music. The setting sun and blue skies belied the fact that there was a distinct chill in the air and Duarte had to battle against an unseasonably cold wind as she sang her classic soulful fados. It wasn’t exactly the most dynamic of openings but possibly one to appeal to the older, local generation who sat huddled with shawls in seats set up in front of the stage, while the rest of the crowd packed in around the square.
After a short changeover – and the removal of seats – it was time for something altogether different: Lekhfa by Cairo-based group Maryam Saleh, Maurice Louca and Tamer Abu Ghazaleh. It took a while for the group to warm up, and they started rather tentatively but their sound built in intensity while the crowd swelled in size and immersed themselves into the band’s intense and hypnotic electronic groove. Lekhfa’s eponymous debut album (a Top of the World in #134) was acclaimed as ‘one of the most important Arabic recordings of the decade’ – their live show certainly had promise and got a resounding endorsement by the enthusiastic crowd.
Lekhfa ©Mário Pires
Thankfully the weather felt a little warmer on the second evening as Cypriot trio Monsieur Doumani – tzouras (bouzouki) player Antonis Antoniou, trombone and flute player Demetris Yiasemides and guitarist Angelos Ionas – took to the stage. It was their first time performing in Portugal and they really engaged with the crowd who danced along enthusiastically to their socially-minded folk songs with quirky titles such as ‘I Tossed an Apple’ and ‘That’s What the Kitten Wants’. Given the warm reception they got, it would seem a dead cert that they’ll be returning to Portugal again soon.
Following on from the three Cypriots were another trio – the Como Mamas – from Mississippi. Within no time, Porto Covo's intimate square had transformed into something resembling a Baptist church congregation, gathered for a full-on gospel celebration as the three singers' proclamations of ‘I’ve Got Jesus!’ and ‘Count Your Blessings!’ were chanted like mantras. This was life-affirming stuff, even for the most die-hard atheists in the crowd.
The closing act on the Friday night was most definitely booked to get people dancing – Fogo Fogo (translates as Fire, Fire) are a five-piece from Lisbon whose high-tempo, non-stop party music proved a hit. From a funky version of ‘Soul Makossa’ to Bitori’s funaná classics, this was a celebration of Cape Verdean music and had people dancing in the streets before they made their way home to bed.
The remaining two nights featured music ranging from Polish klezmer trio Kroke; American bluesman Robert Finley; Turkish psychedelia from Baba Zula; a potted history of the hurdy-gurdy, courtesy of Brigada Bravo & Díaz and Colombian mavericks Meridian Brothers, whose relentless synth-heavy rhythms infected the crowd who pogo’ed into the early hours.
Sines, birthplace of Vasco da Gama ©Jo Frost
Following on from the initial four music-packed evenings in Porto Covo, the festival moved 20km up the coast to the town of Sines (home of 15th-century explorer Vasco da Gama, viceroy of India). It’s described a little unfairly in the guidebook as being an ‘unprepossessing place’; admittedly the proximity of a huge industrial site and oil refinery don’t look too promising but the actual town, with its horseshoe-shaped bay overlooked by a castle has plenty of charm. The first two days act like a warm-up while the main stages by the beach and within the grounds of the castle are set up. On the opening evening, TootArd came onstage as a trio – reduced in size from their album line-up – possibly to make themselves a more feasible touring outfit. They appeared on the tiny free stage squeezed into Largo Poeta Bocage, adjacent to the castle. “Are you ready for some funky Arabic camel grooves?” yelled Hasan Nakhleh, lead vocalist and guitarist who got a resounding affirmative answer from the gathered crowd. Joined by his brother Rami on drums and a saxophonist, the trio wasted no time in getting the locals clapping and singing along to songs such as the title-track of their album, ‘Laissez Passer’, named after the travel documents they’re given in lieu of passports. Hasan explained that they were “stateless people” from the Golan Heights which made it very difficult to travel, unless you got an invite from a festival such as FMM Sines. His simple song descriptions gave some insight into challenges they face coming from the Golan Heights and the ongoing problems of the Middle East – somewhat in contrast to their music which is cheerful, easy-going and infused with catchy reggae rhythms.
TootArd ©Mário Pires
Later that evening, the programme moved to the Centro de Artes de Sines, an award-winning, post-modernist arts centre designed by architect brothers Francisco and Manuel Aires Mateus. The black box interior provided the ideal stage and acoustics for another trio, Širom, from Slovenia. The assembled array of instruments laid out on the stage – from banjo, balafon and various percussive instruments – gave an indication to anyone unfamiliar with their music that we were about to be taken on an extraordinary sonic journey, or as the trio themselves call it: ‘folk from a parallel universe.’ With very few spoken interruptions, the ensuing hour of exquisite music was a revelatory experience for the many festival-goers who left the building smiling. When I commented on the joyful atmosphere that seemed to permeate through FMM Sines, the artistic director Carlos Seixas' reply was simply, “the festival is happiness.”
Širom ©Mário Pires