Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

The Portuguese tradition of making cowbells is an endangered rural craft. Rudolf Abraham travels to the Alentejo region of Portugal to visit a workshop where cowbells are still crafted in the traditional manner.

article summary —

At 72 years, José Luís Reis Maia, nicknamed el pardalinho, is the youngest of them. José Luís is a master craftsman, who has been making cowbells — chocalhos in Portuguese — according to traditional methods in Alcáçovas, in Portugal’s Alentejo region, for more than half a century. Now this traditional craft is in danger of disappearing.

Once there were many craftsmen like José Luís, supplying cowbells and similar bells for sheep to local herders in the Alentejo. Now the flocks have diminished, people have moved increasingly away from the land, and fenced paddocks have replaced free-wandering herds, eliminating the need to locate the animals by the tinkle of bells. Today just a handful of craftsmen in Portugal continue to keep this ancient craft alive — José Luís is the last of his generation still working. The origins of cowbell craftsmanship stretch back for at least two thousand years — examples of cowbells have been found on the Iberian peninsula dating from the first century BC. Those time-worn bells are of much the same design as the bells still being made today.

The vanishing art of cowbell craftsmanship in Portugal was inscribed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in December 2015, as a tradition in need of urgent safeguarding. At the time it was submitted to the list in 2014, there were only 13 master cowbell craftsmen left alive in Portugal, working in 11 workshops. Of these 13, nine were aged over 70 (the oldest of them was 87) and of these only seven were still working — none of whom had an apprentice. And it takes around five years to train a master cowbell craftsman.

Crafting a bell

José Luís Reis Maia wears a beige shirt with sleeves rolled up, and dark blue chords, his silver-grey hair swept back neatly, his eyes still sharp behind his glasses, his smile infectious. He takes a small rectangular sheet of iron and holds it up for me to see, as if he’s about to perform a magic trick. “Now I am going to make a cowbell for you,” he says.

He sits down on a short, worn, wooden bench from which an anvil and a giant pair of shears protrude. José Luís places the sheet of iron over one end of the anvil. Then he picks up a small hammer, and begins beating it into shape. Watching him work is mesmerizing — he makes the process appear deceptively simple, and his movements are surprisingly quick as he turns a flat sheet of iron into a perfectly shaped bell.

Traditionally, the skills of a craftsman were passed down from father to son — although unusually, José Luís actually learnt from his uncle, not his father. Later, José Luís encouraged his son Guilherme to start helping out in the workshop, as a way to earn pocket money — a clever plan as it turned out, since Guilherme soon found he liked working there, and stayed. Ironically, most of the other craftsmen of José Luís’ generation had daughters, not sons. In a rural society with a traditional understanding of gender roles, that meant that the fathers never passed their skills on to a new generation.

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Rudolf Abraham is an award-winning travel writer and photographer specialising in Croatia and Eastern Europe. He is the author of several books including Walking in Croatia, The Mountains of Montenegro, Torres del Paine and St Oswald's Way, all published by Cicerone, National Geographic Traveller Croatia, and is co-author of Istria - The Bradt Travel Guide. He has also updated the Bradt guides to Croatia and Transylvania, and his work has been published widely in magazines and online.

In 2012 his article on the 16th-century pirates of the Croatian Adriatic, the Uskoks, published in hidden europe 34, secured an award for best travel feature from the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild, of which Rudolf is a member. He is also a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. Current projects include Croatian Miscellany, an ongoing and deeply personal portrait of this southeast European country, as well as new guidebooks to Croatia's islands, Arctic Norway, the Faroes and the mountains of eastern Turkey.

He lives in London. Find out more about Rudolf's work on www.rudolfabraham.co.uk or visit his blog at rudolfabraham.wordpress.com.

This article was published in hidden europe 49.