The first thing I should point out is that this blog is not about that terrible night in 2005, when I got home after a few too many drinks craving junk food and found only cans of tuna, which I went on to eat. That sorry affair would do well to be buried for all eternity, though it did give me the chance to appreciate why cats have such pungent breath.
But I digress.
It was Friday, effectively my weekend, and I was having lunch with some friends of mine from the Instituto Superior Tecnico, when one of them announced that she was going to watch live tunas in the evening, and wondering if I’d like to go along too. Fortunately, I’ve encountered this phenomenon before, so I didn’t immediately imagine some poor man’s dolphin display, as you may be right now. Tunas are a phenomenon that I believe to be pretty much unique to Portugal. In Portugal’s university culture, students of various ages walk around in unusual, Harry Potter-esque suits and gowns. It really stands out, after living through the British university culture, where things are much less formal. As you walk about downtown, from time to time, you run into little groups of these students, almost exclusively single sex, busking for a bit of beer money or whatever. The thing that’s striking about it is that, first, they are all in their formal gown and outfit; secondly that they play a range of lesser known instruments, like the mandolin and the harmonium. Finally, you also notice that they’re often very good.
Playing a type of music that has a lot in common with Fado – the sorrowful, melancholy music of Portugal – but is often quite a bit more upbeat and even comic in some cases, Tunas are an intrinsic part of university life and culture over here, and in a city like Lisbon with its many universities, they’re pretty much a regular feature of the city. So anyway, when my friend told me that she’d be going to a tuna show more or less directly outside my flat, in the gardens of Alameda’s Fonte Luminosa, I jumped at the chance. I arrived a little late after a busy day and made my way to the beer stand where cloaked students were manning beer and sangria pumps, selling each for 70 cents a glass. A small glass, but still, a crazy price. I found my drink, then found my friend and her friends. It quickly became apparent that this was really quite a big event, with a professional stage set up, a decent outdoor PA system and sponsorship from big companies in the area, as well as the local council.
As well as the music and the costumes, the Tuna performances also involve a variety of dance elements, ranging from athletic jumping and tambourine playing, flag waving/dancing and more. The last groups on were, first, the ladies from the IST and then the men from the same institution and, with my friends being from that university, I was sufficiently biased to believe that they were the best groups of the night.
As I explained to my friend, coming from the UK, the whole tuna phenomenon seems a bit insane, but the atmosphere and the actual music quality was very high, so I’d definitely recommend events like this to anyone who finds themself near to one. Here’s a VERY brief and poor quality video of the event, taken on my (not so) smart phone:
If you want to know more about the tradition, you can read about it in English, here.