São João del Rei

I spent the second week of my trip to Minas Gerais, Brazil (third week of June 2010) living with Carol’s husband at his house in the mid-sized city of São João del Rei located 200 kilometers south of Belo Horizonte. Guilherme is a professor of guitar at the Universidade Federal de São João del Rei and proved to be an excellent host and we had several helpful discussions in the chilly June evenings.

While Gui taught private lessons and classical guitar history classes during the day, I took the opportunity to research, watch World Cup futebol and explore the city by foot. We arrived Monday morning, June 21st and after Gui departed for work, I tried to capture the central location of his apartment within the city. Visually, Gui’s apartment is surrounded by 7 different Catholic churches.

São João del Rei

North

São João del Rei

West(ish)

São João del Rei

East

São João del Rei

South(ish)

But physical geography is not the only interest here–the sonic geography is truly captivating. Each of these churches, as well as several others not pictured, has a bell tower, and over the years (centuries, in fact), they have worked out a system in which each church takes turns ringing out its messages to the city. Saturday evening became a favorite time for me to sit in Gui’s apartment and simply absorb the soundworld of secular weekend street life mixed with the sacred bells.

Gui explained that the bell ringing repertoire has been studied by several musicologists, and after a few nights, it became apparent that the diverse sounds emanating from these churches deserved the attention. Gui told me that some churches had developed a system of ringing by which church-goers could discern important news. For example, researchers claimed that church-goers could hear in the ringing that not only had a fellow worshipper died, but could hear in the sound the age, gender and disposition of the person to such accuracy that many could conclude the identity of the deceased!

Another style of ringing required collaboration between a pair of churches. One evening, after a series of what I would describe as typical bell-ringing from 2 or 3 churches, I began to hear 2 bells of different pitches ring out in short, crisp and syncopated rhythms–a very different sound from the typical long and droning tones of the previous churches. After about 30 seconds, I realized that two ringers were imitating the agogô bells–two tubes of metal ringing with one high and one low pitch–often heard in many styles of samba music! Incredible.

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