#6 Vesperata: the musical identity of Diamantina as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Following last week’s meeting with musician and researcher Wander Conceição, Wander kindly offered to  meet me for a second session, to continue our conversation on the historical development of musical heritage in Diamantina. 

In the last session, Wander took me through an overview of how Diamantina contributed to the development of Brazilian music (mainly Baroque and Bossa Nova) since the 18th Century. 


From this historical context, we started this session by talking about the impact of UNESCO World Heritage for Diamantina, and vice versa. The town of Diamantina was named a site of UNESCO Cultural Heritage  of Humanity in 1999, and one of the aims through this inscription, was to preserve and revive the musical tradition of Diamantina. As a result, an important musical tradition was reborn – the Vesperata, a musical performance by the military brass band which developed in Diamantina from the late 19th Century to early 20th Century (photos shown in the video above). 


Vesperata, now held approximately 16 times per year during the months from April until October, is without a doubt, a unique identity of Diamantina. It is a performance in which musicians play from the balconies at Rua da Quitanda (a street in the town), surrounding the audience. This performance structure, incorporating architectural elements of the buildings, was one of the aspects which I attempted to explore through my piece for this year’s Vesperata. 


So, I asked Wander: how did the Vesperata develop to begin with? 


The following is what Wander told me: 


During the period of late 19th Century to early 20th Century, there was a tradition for entertainment called ‘Retretas’. Because there was still no electricity in Diamantina at that time (electricity came around 1910), the only form of entertainment was outdoor shows, which were held in the late afternoon. The military police band performed a piece called La Mezza Notte (Midnight Song) – which is believed to have come from Italy. The composer has not been identified, but on the manuscript of this song, it is inscribed ‘O. Callini’. In order to perform this song as part of the ‘Retretas’, the military band placed the musicians on the balconies, and this was how the performance structure was established. 


From the 1930s, new form of entertainment came into town: the cinemas in the 1930s, and social clubs in the 1940s. Therefore, this tradition of military band performances was eventually lost. In the 1990s, when Diamantina considered to apply for the UNESCO World Heritage of Mankind, it formed a committee of local experts. They asked: what tradition of Diamantina can we bring forward? To this, one committee member who was a Catholic priest (who was also a musician and a participant in the Retretas) recalled the long-lost tradition of the military band performances, and suggested this to be revived. Furthermore, he suggested this event to be called ‘Vesperata’, a word which he derived from ‘Vespers’ (the Latin word for early evening prayer). This was the beginning of the Vesperata. 


With an original word ‘Vesperata’ which is exclusively used for this particular music tradition in Diamantina, it is clear that this music tradition is an important part of Diamantina’s identity. It not only played a significant part in the inscription of UNESCO World Heritage Site, but also had a social impact, by bringing people of Diamantina together and contributing to tourism.  


La Mezza Notte 

As Wander is the co-author of his book La Mezza Notte - O Lugar Social do Músico Diamantinense e as Origens da Vesperata (La Mezza Notte - The Social Place of the Musicians from Diamantina and the Origins of the Vesperata), I was curious to know more about the original piece La Mezza Notte, and whether it was still performed. According to Wander, the last time this piece was performed was in 2003, and there is unfortunately no recording. Although he has previously suggested this piece to the organisers of Vesperata, inevitably the programme has been up to the decision of the committee, and the focus has been on more ‘popular’ pieces which would attract a wider audience. 


Well, as a musician still new to the Vesperata, I would like to make a personal request to the organisers, as I am sure it would be interesting for many of us to hear this piece which established the structure of Vesperata! In this meeting, we discussed some possibilities for making this request. I hope this revival happens in the near future!