Tuesday, February 17, 2009

TUNAS! And I don't mean fish!

As a former HS band geek from back home, I felt that I had to present Portugal's equivalent to our marching bands. These musical groups are called Tunas, found mainly at universities all over Portugal as well as in Spain (where they first started) and all of Latin America. Their origins seem to date back to between the 10th and 13th century, from medieval troubadours and minstrels who had to sing and perform to make money to live on or upon their return home after a long journey or vacation. The name name "tuna" then supposedly comes from the French roi de Thunes or "King of Tunis" which was the title used for leaders of such vagabond groups. But there are still several other argued theories as to the origin of the name, even specific to the Portuguese tunas. The first Portuguese tunas were organized in the 19th century in the famous university city of Coimbra after a visit from a Spanish tuna of Salamanca. The tradition of traveling university tunas (to raise money for survival) eventually spread to the rest of the country. Virtually every university now has an organized tuna, usually representing a specific major. There are non-university tunas for older members or alumni but they are a lot less common (more predominant in Spain).

The traditional Tuna "uniform" is definitely more formal than a marching band uniform but can range from very classic medieval attire to a more modern black suit from the 16 and 17th century Iberian students attire. Portuguese tunas mainly use the modern version with a white collared shirt, skinny black tie and long, narrow coat. Instead of pants, girls wear either knee or ankle-length narrow black skirts with black stockings and conservative black pumps. The outfit is always completed with a large, ankle-length black cape wrapped around the entire body like a vampire or folded and slung over the shoulder when warmer out. Others like to proudly display their badges from previous Tuna festivals all over their capes for some added color to their black ensemble.

In Tunas, you won't see any of the musical instruments played in a normal marching band, string instruments are actually the main ones used, consisting of classic acoustic guitars, lutes and bandurrias for most Tunas around the world. However, Portuguese Tunas normally opt to use mandolins and a special Portuguese guitar (used in Fado music) instead of the latter two as well a tall bass. Tuna performances are usually done in an auditorium of the hosting university for the Tuna festivals or competitions scheduled all throughout the year or outside on the streets when raising money for the group. There is no marching involved but the groups will mark time together swaying back and forth to the music in a semi-circle with a someone usually banging on a rope drum or tambourine to keep everyone together. All tunas sing in their performances as well as incorporating flag work and rhythmic tambourine dancing, which makes is easier for students to join with no musical instrument experience.

My boyfriend Miguel happened to be one of these students and did the flag work for his Economics Tuna, called "ForTuna" which was the first Tuna I was introduced to on the first day of my first visit to Portugal 2 1/2 years ago and have been following and learning about them (Tunas)ever since. Now I know what you band geeks are thinking when you read about a "straight" male doing flag work or color guard hahahahaha and trust me, I gave him enough crap for it in the beginning :p But I came to learn that it's not really like color guard at all here, most Tunas only have one flag person (for holding their Tuna flag) and it's normally a male position and they can do some pretty challenging moves performing solo in front of the circle. Girls usually opt to practice the rhythmic tambourine dancing instead along with guys as well and these dances can be quite skillful and impressive to watch! The music Tunas play in general ranges from upbeat classic and modern songs to slow and moving Fado lullabies with vocalist and instrumental solos.

One of the most entertaining part of Tunas is the social celebrating involved before and after festivals and throughout the year and at Tuna dinners hosted at some (unfortunate haha) local restaurant. Though unlike regulated marching bands, drinking is a big part of the Portuguese Tuna culture hahahaha, combined with lots of wild singing and chanting toasts. But it's all in good fun and very rarely are there any problems caused by their celebrating. Beer is the Tuna drinking staple which flows like water at festivals and dinners. Some Tunas are found already half drunk (or worse) by the time they get on stage to perform. This may not make for a very skillful performance but it's certainly an entertaining one! Some "rules" are involved with drinking during Tuna dinners such as "Right Hand is Penalty" meaning one can only hold their drink in the left hand and if caught in the right, they have to chug the whole thing. Members will also be randomly singled out and are chanted on by the group to chug their drink with a traditional "initiation" song for being a part of the group. The drinking continues then after dinner and after the festival is over to celebrate awards and normally goes ALL NIGHT, the stamina that these kids have is incredible hahaha :p

After attending many dinners and festivals of my boyfriend's Tuna over the past year, I've grown to love and appreciate the unique differences these musical groups have compared to my background in marching band. At the same time though, I can also relate in their excitement and anticipation when waiting to perform or waiting to see if they won an award, especially since their Tuna is a smaller one like how my HS band was so I've come to share in their common experiences of triumph as well as loss and/or frustration when judging was believed to be unfair. I recommend to every American, especially you band geeks, to find a Tuna performance to watch if you visit Portugal, as an experience so significant to Portugal's culture is something not to be missed!

You can find a lot more detailed info about the history and traditions of Tunas on Wikipedia or in Portuguese on Wikipedia:


  1. Hi Andrea,

    i'm amazed. Small world. I was following you on twitter because of catavino (i'm from vinhoacopo.blogspot.com) and came to find an American woman going to Tuna Festivals... i played for a Tuna for over 10 years, precisely the Tuna that are the "godfather" of your boyfriend's Tuna.

    I think that we'll see each other in some festival.


  2. Hahaha indeed what a small world! I know, it is quite surprising to find an American, let alone a non-Portuguese at Tuna functions! And 99.9% of the time I am the only foreigner there, it kind of makes me feel like some cool spy hehehe:p I'll have to check out your blog then, maybe we will see each other soon!

  3. You should come to the El Açor Festival, next week in the Azores.

  4. Another excellent post! I am a former HS band geek, playing the clarinet, drums, oboe and also color guard captain. My daughter was Drum Major during high school and played clarinet both in HS and college. I loved marching band and still go to watch The Pride (The University of Arizona) perform during band day. When we finally make it to Portugal, this vegetarian is going to love Tunas!