“This is my life, making adufes.” José Relvas, the last adufe maker, or at least the oldest. Yes, the region of the Historic Villages of Portugal is a must-see attraction also for its immaterial heritage…
Clear blue eyes the color of the sky over Idanha’s plains, skin tinged by the sun and by years of work that took him all over the world, and long locks of white hair that give him a certain mystical air. José Relvas is a charismatic man who speaks excitingly about his art. “Making adufes runs in my blood. I learned from my dad, and he learned from his, and so on. It is a long family tradition that I think will end with me because the new generation is no longer interested in this.”
José Relvas explain this to us while he threads another adufe that he has on display at the small crafts and organics fair in the millennial Idanha-a-Velha village.
Under the sign of King Wamba and descendents, the village is celebrating another event in the “12 in series Aldeias em Festa” cycle, which takes entertainment and culture to the 12 Historic Villages of Portugal throughout the year. A cycle of debates and conferences, workshops, shows, and lots of entertainment breathe life into one of the most splendid and interesting villages of Beira Baixa.
For José Relvas, this is another opportunity to show his artwork, which he shares with visitors through a workshop so that they can learn a little about this millennial instrument.
The adufe, or the Arabic version of a tambourine, was introduced to the Iberian Peninsula between the 8th and 11th centuries. The instrument is classified as a bimembranophone, a percussion drum from an undetermined period, and as one of the oldest instruments that is still played with some representation to this day.
The adufe is generally square-shaped with a wooden frame. It has two well-stretched membranes (sheep or goat skin or, in the absence of these, cow hide) that cover the entire box. Inside is has zills, seeds, and now bottle caps, which give it its special timbre.
It is played in most of the Castelo Branco district, mainly in Idanha-a-Nova, Monforte da Beira, Malpica do Tejo, Caféde, Paúl, and Póvoa de Rio de Moinhos. This instrument is played by women (adufeiras) and accompanies the procession songs of Beira Baixa, such as Senhora do Almortão, Senhora da Azenha, and Senhora da Póvoa. It should be played with two hands and the fingers must be very loose as the left hand holds the instrument and the right hand produces the rhythm.
The adufe gained dignity and cultural relevance with the work done by the Corsican ethnomusicologist Miche Giacometti, who “discovered” one of its most important interpreters – Ti Catarina Chitas.
But the secret to its survival may reside in the art of its fabrication. “The adufe’s traditional construction is disappearing, and nobody seems to care,” explains José Relvas, who has made adufes for over 40 years in his small workshop in Idanha-a-Nova.
“My family always worked with hide and adufes. They tanned and treated hides for halters and pack saddles for mules. Forty years ago, there were two thousand on this land.”
Now the mules, like the adufes, are on their way to extinction. Nevertheless, an adufe made by the calloused hands of José Relvas is not a mere object for decoration. It is a musical instrument with a unique sound. “I sold adufes to all four corners of the world and to great Portuguese musicians. It was at one of the first Festas do Avante that my work began to receive recognition and fame. Today, I sell to anyone who asks for one. I make about 300 adufes a year, in all sizes, since its shape is always the same. A square wooden box with hide stretched over and stitched to it. It seems simple, but it isn’t.”
José Relvas explains that the secret to making a good adufe is correctly choosing and treating the materials, from the wood for the box to the hide for stretching. “An adufe’s sound may vary immensely with the way the hide is stretched and stitched, and it also changes over time and due to weather. A good adufe can last decades. I have one that is over one hundred years old.”
However, more than the chosen materials, what truly makes a good adufe is passion and dedication. José Relvas shows us the mark of his art, inherited from a long cultural line from the time of the Saracens. “Do you see this callous on my hand where I can stick a needle for stitching adufes or put out cigarettes? This is what makes a good adufe.”
The adufe is thus an icon of the Historical Villages of Portugal, as well as other knowledges and traditions that mark the identity of this territory. Its preservation demonstrates once again the reason why the Network of Historical Villages of Portugal has received the BIOSPHERE DESTINATION certificate (the first networked destination in the world, and the first nationally, to receive this distinction). It is that in this territory one of the priorities continues to be the preservation of the customs and traditions of the local people, who in the end make this destination unique and authentic.