Giacometti, or The Ethnomusicology that Undermined the Regime

Testimony of an Ethnomusicologist who Experienced the Portugal of the 1960s and 1970s
Carnation Revolution
Le Chant du Monde
Leva Leva
Michel Giacometti
Salazar regime

How to find a voice in times of censorship? In a personal yet historical essay, the ethnomusicologist Anne Caufriez captures the subversive potential of cultural production and transfer. She tells the story of another ethnomusicologist, Michel Giacometti, who spread the words of resistance in Portugal during the 1960s and 70s while recording fishermen’s songs. The Salazar regime, which was in power at the time, wanted to keep Portugal from progress for decades and was indifferent to the poverty and illiteracy of the rural population. One of the regime’s means to stay in power was the rigorous secret police PIDE, which was also hot on Giacometti’s trail.

In her essay, which was first published in French and Portuguese as a part of FLEE Project’s Leva Leva: Litany of the Portuguese Fishermen, Caufriez remembers how she got to know the Portugal of the late 60s, as well as becoming an acquaintance of Giacometti. At the same time the ethnomusicologist draws a nuanced image of the Southern European country during a time of dictatorship.
The Essay is part of our ongoing focus theme Petri Dish.

Text Anne Caufriez

The Sintra Mill and the Fishermen of Cascais 

I came to Portugal when I was very young. For the holidays a university friend of mine took me to the home of her mother, who was a painter. She had bought an old windmill in the Sintra region, which she had named Moinho do Gato (Cat’s Mill). It was a beautiful whitewashed windmill with pale cloth sails that fluttered in the breeze. My friend’s mother found that the hill upon which this mill stood was the ideal setting for her easel. She lived in a small house on the outskirts of the property, from where you could see Sintra’s majestic Pena Palace in the distance. We were deep in the countryside, and every day at sunset a goatherd would bring his flock back into the fold along the path beside the mill, greeting us warmly as he passed. Then the tinkling of the goats’ bells would fade away and the goatherd’s silhouette would disappear in the dust rising up from the path.

One day the mother suggested we join her for a trip to Cascais in her white Renault 4: she knew a Frenchman there who ran an art gallery. It was none other than Michel Giacometti! He had recently opened a painting gallery with a partner in his house in Cascais located at 23 rue des Navegantes (this was in 1967). He received us warmly and explained his new gallery project to us. But Giacometti was in a hurry that day; as my friend’s mother explained, his real job was recording fishermen’s songs. This intrigued me to no end.

“Extraordinary? If you only knew how seasick I was on that boat! I was so sick that my tape recorder seemed to be turning of its own accord.”

For me, the life of the fishermen of old Cascais (many of whom still lived on Giacometti’s street) was a new world that I was also in the process of discovering. I—who hailed from a gray northern country—found the colors of their fishing boats so beautiful as they bobbed up and down on the indigo sea, and these old fishermen with tanned skin, came back from the sea exhausted and would grill their sardines on Giacometti’s street, using a fan to make the embers glow in their little tripod grills. Back then there was a real atmosphere to the streets of old Cascais: women dressed in black calling loudly to one another in the street and hanging hand-washed clothes on lines strung across the windows; a seamstress pedaling at her old sewing machine with the window open; gypsies selling swathes of fabric; the morning cry of the woman selling fresh fish, her basket balanced atop her head; alley cats; the lottery ticket seller; the pawnbroker where fishermen’s wives went to leave their jewelry in hope of better days to come…. And then there was the market gardener’s stall where chickens pottered in the sawdust, hoping to get a peck at some vegetable fallen from the table, or a few grains of corn. 

The magical setting of my friend’s windmill with the recurrent passage of the goatherd, and the lively atmosphere of these fishermen’s streets of old Cascais, exerted such a fascination on me as a foreigner that I decided to stay in Portugal for three years, temporarily abandoning my university studies, which I would complete later. I understood not a word of Portuguese, and I had no idea of the socio-political context I was getting myself into….

A Society Stuck in the Past 

One day I decided to go and knock on Giacometti’s door (the doors in the street only had a knocker) to ask him what exactly it was that he did and to tell him that I wanted to listen to the fishermen’s songs. It was comforting to speak French. He played me the ‘Leva, Leva’ of the fishermen of Portimão, and I found his recording extraordinary. “Extraordinary?” he asked. “If you only knew how seasick I was on that sardine boat! I was so sick that the reel of my tape recorder seemed to be turning of its own accord.” I couldn’t help but be impressed. I said to him: “The next time you go to record music at sea or in the countryside, let me know, I’ll come along to see what it’s like.” 

“Don’t talk to anyone!”

It was then that he told me about his work as an ethnomusicologist, but advised me not to do what he did because he worked “with no safety net,” as he put it, and he assured me that he received no support from Portuguese institutions, let alone from a government that only saw him as an “eccentric” foreigner—oblivious to the fact that he would later play an active part in bringing down Salazarism. It is important to point out that, at this time, universities weren’t offering any courses in the human sciences or art history, let alone ethnology…. The works of the celebrated French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss were not allowed to be published or sold in Portugal. Similarly, the equally celebrated French choreographer Maurice Béjart had his show in Lisbon cancelled because he had remarked in an interview that a free press was essential. The regime escorted him to the border and deported him! They didn’t dare imprison visiting foreigners. 

My friend’s mother had suggested we go for a drink at La Brasileira, a beautiful old café in Chiado in Lisbon, to meet a certain Victor. She knew his sister, a famous Portuguese poet. Victor was a young man of our age, but he was dressed up to the nines, sporting a suit and matching silk tie, which made us laugh. What a surprise for him to meet these two foreigners in a country as closed in on itself as Portugal was at the time! It was only much later that I discovered that, beneath his dandy appearance, Victor was a major figure in the resistance to fascism. The opposition had cultivated the art of consummate disguise. 

Another day, in a pastry shop, I met a girl of my own age and arranged a meeting with her in the hope of becoming friends. At the time many educated Portuguese spoke French, and one man sitting at the next table called me over and, in hushed tones, advised me to be careful. “But why,” I asked. “In our country there is one secret police for every five inhabitants,” he said. “That girl could be one of them and might be trying to find out what you’re doing in Portugal. Don’t talk to anyone!”

I began to realize that Portugal was not the ideal country I had imagined.

I had indeed noticed, when I bought Le Monde or Le Nouvel Observateur, that the binding of these newspapers betrayed the fact that some pages had been removed. One day I asked Giacometti, whom I met from time to time on the terrace of the Hotel Baía in Cascais, why certain pages of these French newspapers seemed to have been cut out. “It’s censorship,” he replied. “You can’t say what you want in this country, and even the letters you receive are opened before they get to you.” “How,” I asked. “Steamed open by the censors,” he explained. I began to realize that Portugal was not the ideal country I had imagined.

A Clandestine Struggle to Defeat Fascism

Opposition parties and unions were prohibited, and Lisbon was surrounded by a ‘red zone’ of communist workers, some of whom lived on the other side of the Tagus. But in reality these unions and parties held clandestine meetings, placing themselves in great peril by doing so. The big landowners of the Alentejo (south of the Tagus) recruited hundreds of day laborers to cultivate their land, paying them a mere pittance. The Alentejo was a place of confronting contrasts: on the one hand you had the (usually absentee) owners of latifúndios, who led a life of leisure, and on the other, the peasants who worked from sunrise to sunset but lived in unbearable poverty.

The Alentejo was red—red as can be! This was the doing of the militants of the Communist Party (CP), whose general secretary, Álvaro Cunhal, had been imprisoned for many years in Peniche, in a fortress where at high tide, the sea water came into his cell, rising to waist height. But he had succeeded in an exploit that made him a hero: he had escaped from the prison in a car that Hitler had given to Salazar and had subsequently gone into hiding. The workers and peasants were members of the CP (as in Italy). When resistance to Salazarism was in its infancy, the CP was seen as the great party that would unseat the regime. It acted in the shadows. It was only later that some intellectuals and artists distanced themselves from it and rallied to the nascent Socialist Party. 

It was only much later that the protagonists of these political movements realized how ideology had blinded them.

This Marxist-Leninist tendency must be situated in the context of the beliefs current at the time. The CP was considered more or less everywhere as the only operational body that could lead the people out of exploitation. Everyone believed it, from Italy (with the secretary of the CP, the Sardinian Enrico Berlinger) to France (with Georges Marchais and the workers’ struggle movements—but France was already a democracy). In Spain, on the other hand, it was republicans and anarchists (coming out of the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39) that made up the anti-fascist movements. It was only much later that the protagonists of these political movements realized how ideology had blinded them, when they were confronted by the realities of communist society. Some years later they would begin to discover its hidden horrors, in particular through Solzhenitsyn, who dared to speak about the Soviet gulags. 

Like all intellectuals of his time, Giacometti fell strongly under the influence of this ideology although he couldn’t stand the idea of being defined by a political party and therefore was not a card-carrying member. Indeed, in later years when democracy returned to Portugal, he would acknowledge with characteristic lucidity that terrible things had happened in communist countries. In France some great writers such as Aragon and Claude Roy were members of the CP. Giacometti was good friends with Claude Roy and with Julio Cortázar, the Argentine writer who had taken refuge in Paris.

In this ideological context the French Communist Party even supported the creation of Le Chant du Monde, a new record label dedicated to popular and traditional music from around the world, which released some of Giacometti’s first recordings. The label was later taken over by the CNRS ethnomusicology research team at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, and for years afterwards served to disseminate music recordings made all over the world by CNRS ethnomusicologists. In the same communist spirit, an equivalent series of records was released in Italy, the ‘Albatros’ collection.

The Revolt of Intellectuals and Artists

In parallel with the clandestine struggles of workers and peasants, the city of Lisbon boasted its own secret life: that of the circulation of ideas seeking to liberate the country from dictatorship, and that of artists of the ‘Left’ (the only alternative to the extreme Right), a milieu that I entered gradually and with the utmost discretion. The role I played was to bring into Portugal books banned by the Salazar regime.

But one day the PIDE in Cascais grilled me about why I met Giacometti on the terrace of the Hotel Baía…. The PIDE were watching him.

A Portuguese painter friend of mine who was opposed to the regime had fled the country in the back of a truck and lived his whole life in exile in Italy. This saga had made quite an impression on me. So, between 1968 and 1970, I travelled frequently to Paris to raid the Maspero bookshop, buying up as many books as possible containing new political ideas, books by ethnologists, sociologists, and even books by ethnopsychiatrists which spoke of the psychological ravages of colonization. Then I got clandestine trade union leaflets through to refugees from Salazarism in France and Italy, who received them like biblical messages…. 

When, on my return from Paris, I arrived at the Portuguese border, although the border was controlled by the political police, they were not suspicious of me because I was deliberately dressed like a typical innocent girl. Portugal had been a closed country for more than thirty years, so the PIDE (the regime’s secret police), who were not very well educated, had a rather naive view of young foreign tourists. But one day the PIDE in Cascais grilled me about why I met Giacometti from time to time on the terrace of the Hotel Baía; I pretended I didn’t understand Portuguese and told them it was because Giacometti spoke French…. The PIDE were watching him. 

These books and their new ideas, which were circulating freely in France at the time, aroused all the more curiosity among Portuguese intellectuals and artists because they were banned by the regime. It was 1968 and Paris was full of intellectuals who had already been promoting unprecedented ideas for some time. After Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus, avant-garde ideas had been developed by Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Raymond Aron, Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Alain Krivine, and Gilles Deleuze.

Ethnologists began to oppose colonization and the genocide of Native Americans when, later, Daniel Cohn-Bendit mobilized students to challenge the established order and join the workers’ cause. This led to a general strike throughout France, which brought about the fall of General De Gaulle. What was happening in France at that time was of great interest to Giacometti, who hated De Gaulle because of French Algeria, the country where he had lived as a child and as a youth. He had supported Algerian independence avant la lettre, a stance which saw him expelled from the French grands écoles in Algeria.

The first African revolts had begun with struggles for independence, and with intellectuals such as Aimé Césaire, Léopold Senghor, Francis Bebey, and others at the forefront. And then there was Che Guevara in Latin America, who wanted to export the ‘revolution’ and who was greatly admired among the Portuguese resistance. There were Mao and Ho Chi Minh, heroes to Giacometti, and the Brazilian writer Jorge Amado, who in his novels described the life of children living in the streets (as they still do in the great Brazilian cities today). Jorge Amado was the most emblematic opposition writer of Brazil, a writer who fought against the colonels. A model for Portugal! Salazar’s use of torture was indeed compared with that of the Brazilian colonels, who were even more brutal.

Colonization and the Atlantic Alliance

The political context in Portugal was quite different, however: one of the great drivers of resistance to fascism was opposition to the colonial wars the country was waging in Africa, which obliged young men to do five years of military service (in Angola, Mozambique, and São Tomé and Principe in Cape Verde, location of the famous Tarrafal concentration camp, a prison for opponents of the colonial wars and of the regime). This is why the 1974 coup d’état was carried out by army colonels, bringing democracy back to Portugal—the ‘Carnation Revolution.’ 

“Michel, you’re a real carbonari!”

One of the things the PIDE did was to keep a close eye on the movements of anyone thought to be ‘suspect,’ and they held files recording all the details of their movements: who had met whom, where and when. Gatherings of more than three people were forbidden, as were strikes or demonstrations in opposition to authority, even a foreign authority such as the US embassy, whose CIA agents silently roamed the country. This was in keeping with the Atlantic Alliance, the alliance of the ‘West’ against the communism of Eastern Europe, for which Salazar was a keen advocate. Indeed, he had named the regime’s radio station Rádio Ocidente

Giacometti was afraid of being arrested by the PIDE, who had the objectionable habit of coming to arrest opposition figures between 4 and 6 in the morning when everyone was asleep—and they always arrived with dogs…after which it was the jailhouse and torture, and attempts to extract information about resistance fighters and their organization. Giacometti had built a carefully concealed hideout in his house to evade the PIDE. Sometimes, when he felt threatened, he jumped into his old Skoda and fled to the Spanish border. He had never been a member of the Portuguese CP, but he was a fellow traveler. He was an ‘international revolutionary’ in the vein of Trotsky, a man who wanted to free the people from ignorance and exploitation wherever they were suffering. He had therefore learned to outwit the secret police and to dupe those in power so as to get what he wanted from them.

So much so that his collaborator, the famous composer Fernando Lopes-Graça, used to say to him: “Michel, you’re a real carbonari!” Which was the highest compliment anyone could have paid him since, on account of his Corsican origins, Giacometti felt himself to be more Italian than French. But he was very much French culturally, and in his way of thinking and acting, and had never lived in Corsica (although he spoke Corsican and Sard). The only possessions he had taken with him into exile in Portugal were records of Corsican ‘Lamenti’ (lament songs) and Sardinian guitar songs.

He set off in the middle of winter with his wife—who, like a good bourgeois, was dressed in a fur coat and heels—but his car broke down….thus began the odyssey of Giacometti’s life in Portugal.

In reality, Giacometti had been orphaned and raised by an aunt and her husband, a colonial official of the French state in Algeria. A couple that could hardly have been more ‘pied noir’…. They always walked with a gun under their coat—to “defend themselves from the arab scum,” they said, which revolted him. Following his dismissal from Algerian Higher Education, he left Algeria and took to the road, touring the Mediterranean Basin and living on odd jobs until he landed up in Paris in the theater company of Roger Planchon (1931–2009), who directed the municipal theatre in Villeurbanne, the first ‘people’s theatre’ in France (which later became the Théâtre national populaire). 

Giacometti’s Arrival in Portugal

It was while treading the boards of Planchon’s theater that Giacometti met his wife, Isabel Ribeiro, a rich Portuguese woman from Lisbon. He had pneumonia at the time, and she treated him because she was a nurse (but had a keen interest in the arts). Giacometti’s doctor advised him to go and take the air of the Atlantic Ocean to help his recovery, and this is how he ended up in Portugal at the end of 1959. He lived for some time in his wife’s family’s bourgeois home in Travessa de Santa Catarina, near Chiado. But this life did not suit him.

One day, at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, he came across a book by Kurt Schindler (an American composer of Sephardic origin), who had investigated his Iberian roots by recording songs from the Iberian Peninsula on one of the first existing tape recorders (in the 1930s) and transcribing them. Among these songs were those of Trás-os-Montes, in the northeast of Portugal. Schindler’s enterprise inspired Giacometti, who decided to travel to the province to find music performed or played by village artists and record it on a little hand-cranked tape recorder. He set off in the middle of winter with his wife—who, like a good bourgeois, was dressed in a fur coat and heels, so he told me—but his car broke down in the middle of the countryside while it was snowing hard and the howling of a pack of wolves could be heard….thus began the odyssey of Giacometti’s life in Portugal.

Giacometti called for a return to popular culture as a spearhead against fascism. And this is why the whole country recognized itself in the melodies and the voices that he gave its citizens to hear.

In order to try to defeat the Salazar regime, which wanted to keep Portugal in the age of the ox-cart and was indifferent to the poverty and illiteracy of the rural population, it was necessary to find some way to pull out all the stops so as to tear down this backward vision of the country, at a time in history when Portugal essentially made its living from agriculture and fishing. The oppressed classes and the intellectuals and artists had had more than enough oppression and dictatorship (a dictatorship that had lasted more than 40 years). It was also high time to oppose the distorted vision of history peddled by Salazar, with its glorious fables of caravels conquering overseas territories, when in reality colonial wars were raging in Africa, costing the lives of thousands of young soldiers. 

Giacometti, a Great Resistance Figure 

If Giacometti became famous in the cultural and artistic life of Lisbon (during the 1970s and 1980s), it was not only because of the originality and scope of his work collecting music from the Portuguese countryside, but also because he sought to introduce this music to the public through television and newspapers, in spite of the censorship of the time. This was the context in which his work as an ethnomusicologist was situated. He called for a return to popular culture as a spearhead against fascism. And this is why the whole country recognized itself in the melodies and the voices that he gave its citizens to hear, since many city dwellers originally came from the countryside and continued to go back to visit their villages. The ties to the village were still very strong at the time.

Giacometti’s role went far beyond his ethnomusicology and his immensely important work in safeguarding popular memory.

On the other hand, native city dwellers were not familiar with the popular culture of their country promoted by Giacometti, such as the poetry of the people’s songs and their talent for crafts. Given his anthology of LP records and the films he made before 1974 with RTP (Portugal’s public service broadcasting organization) and later as director of the PTB (the Plan for Literacy and the Collection of Popular Culture by Students), it can be said without hesitation that Giacometti was a champion of popular culture. His music compilations also had an impact on musicians and singers in Lisbon, who were inspired by his recordings and spearheaded a new trend for Portuguese song—artists such as Zeca Afonso, José Mário Branco, Luís Cília, Adriano Correia de Oliveira…and later, Pedro Caldeira Cabral and Janita Salomé, to name but a few.

Giacometti’s role in the context of the 1960s and 1970s went far beyond his ethnomusicology and his immensely important work in safeguarding popular memory. His work is exceptional and has no equivalent in any of the southern European countries, which preserved their musical traditions (linked to the old technologies of agriculture and fishing) for longer than the (industrialized) North. In addition to his survey of cultural heritage on a national scale—an unprecedented project—Giacometti played a truly dynamic role in the undermining of fascism, constantly traveling around the country to centers and clusters of clandestine resistance, encouraging and advising among illiterate peasants of the Alentejo and educated city dwellers alike. He empathized with their strategies and was able to join them in their struggles while providing them with the structure of his French cultural references and his anti-colonial ideas, giving them precisely the certainty they needed. 

Today’s Portugal is very different: it has modernized its economy and regained its freedom. Censorship no longer corrodes the content of TV programs and newspapers, but traditional rural music has practically disappeared, even if it has been recovered by young urban musicians who offer re-interpreted versions of it at their gigs. On the other hand, creative freedom and the development of institutions make the Portugal of today a young country of prolific cultural dynamism.


Text: Anne Caufriez
Translation: Robin Mackay
Image: Francisco Oliveira, provided by Flee Project

Text Anne Caufriez
Carnation Revolution
Le Chant du Monde
Leva Leva
Michel Giacometti
Salazar regime