The Setubal Music festival takes place over 6 days in late May. Setubal is an ancient fishing port half an hour’s drive south of Lisbon. In Roman times it produced fish paste (garum), in the 19th and 20th centuries it was a major factory port for canned sardines. It’s town centre is a pretty amalgam of baroque and later buildings but its outskirts and port areas have suffered from industrial decline.
The Music Festival was started in 2009 as a City initiative with the Helen Hamlyn Trust to invigorate fringe communities while providing a focus for professional music making. The guiding principle is that visiting musicians must perform on stage with local community groups but the standard should be professional. A high proportion of the music is by living composers or music animators.
Director: Ian Ritchie
Saturday 25 May 2019
Museum of the Work of Michel Giacometti
Setubal community groups, students and teachers
Head Space Ensemble
Animated by Merit Ariane Stephanos
This was an event that, on paper, looked like a modest community Saturday morning song concert but then turned out to be a highly inventive and hugely moving piece of musical story-telling. Tough old blokes like me were choking back the tears at the end – not because of the drama but because of the extraordinary achievement of the performers.
Many of those telling the story in song and movement of life in the sardine canning factories, that dominated Setubal for a hundred years, had considerable disabilities. Others were very young. Partnered by a combination of music professionals and community animateurs, however, the difficulties they faced were soon forgotten as the power of the story and the energy of the songs triumphed. It was a morning when all the festival’s aspirations came together and were utterly vindicated. While some participants might have had limits, these were soon shown to be irrelevant to a cleverly imagined and immaculately delivered show.
Although the professionals of Head Space Ensemble had only been with the other performers for a few days, the local groups had been rehearsing the movement, reciting and singing for months. The performance was given in the museum devoted to the typographer but also Setubal chronicler, Michel Giochometti (not the Italian sculptor) but the building had been a fish factory and many in the audience had family connections to it – and the harsh realities of sardine processing which would break every labour law in Europe today.
Merit Ariane Stephanos guided the whole extravaganza with the utmost sensitivity but also with the huge energy needed to keep her disparate forces, often standing on different floors of the museum, in tight order. She is a performer who crosses all the dividing lines (as she showed throughout the festival) between singer, actress, academic and director. Her brilliance is such that, if she had chosen a ‘normal’ career, she would have been a world star. As it is, she demonstrates in everything she does the politics of cross-cultural connection, the necessity of valuing every individual regardless of their origin or circumstance.