Portuguese music, Tunas – student troubadours in Portugal

Tunas – student troubadours in Portugal

Porto (0843)If you have visited one of the major cities in Portugal you may have seen groups of students in the street dressed in dark cloaks, singing songs and playing traditional instruments. These groups are called tunas universitárias. The tuna is an Iberian and North African musical tradition which dates back to the thirteenth century and is still prevalent in Portugal today. As in the thirteenth century, tunas are groups of university (and nowadays secondary school) students who sing romantic and sad songs or satiric songs about their university accompanied by traditional instruments such as the guitar, mandolin, cavaquinho (a small ukulele-like guitar) and tambourine. They also often perform a dance, often involving the tambourine.

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Each tuna is part of a faculty of the university and the members of the group wear traditional dark cloaks and will have ribbons tied to their instruments which represent their faculty. They can often be seen performing in the streets of the city raising money for charity. However, in the Middle Ages in Spain the singers were known as sopistas, as they were poor students who had to literally sing for their supper of a bowl of soup (sopa) and many tuna groups still carry a wooden spoon as a symbol of this. By the sixteenth century groups of musicians were playing music for entertainment rather than survival and they became known as tunas. The word tuna is thought to have come from the name of the city of Tunis where a well-known troubadour lived, and is nothing to do with the fish (which in Portuguese is atum). Tunas first appeared in Portugal in the mid-to late-nineteenth century when students at Coimbra University were inspired by the tunas they had seen in Spain. The idea soon spread to Porto University and now tuna groups are all over the country.

The VenusMonti tuna group, made up of a group of students from Lisbon University Faculty of Law, were invited to sing at the Saint Anthony weddings in Lisbon in June 2018 and we were lucky enough to watch them rehearsing ‘Se Tu Soubesses’ (‘If You Only Knew’) before the wedding.

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