SAO TOME and PRINCIPE: When I first saw Tchiloli on the streets of Sao Tomé, I wondered how a medieval European tragedy could become a cultural tradition in the remote islands of Sao Tomé off the coast of the Gulf of Guinea.
This theatre tradition is a re-enactment of the medieval Portuguese play Charlemagne and the Marquis of Mantua. The plot revolves around Don Carlota, Emperor Charlemagne’s son and heir, who murdered his best friend, Valdevinos, nephew of the Marquis of Mantua, during a hunting expedition. The emperor is then forced to arrest his own son, much to the queen’s chagrin.
The everlasting tradition of Tchiloli
For over 500 years, Tchiloli has been a tradition on the islands of Sao Tomé and Principe. The art of Tchiloli was brought to Sao Tomé by the owners of sugar plantations displaced from the island of Madeira for their entertainment and other Portuguese settlers in the 16th century by Baltasar Dias, a blind poet from Madeira.
The people of Sao Tome gradually adapted the Portuguese Renaissance text by incorporating African elements such as local traditional rites, values, costumes, choreography, musical instruments, and dances. It’s fascinating that a story about betrayal, death, passion, moral depravity, and justice has emerged as one of Africa’s most important forms of expression.
Tchiloli is a performance that combines drama, dance, and music. Tchiloli actors, mostly men, act out some of the stories associated with Charlemagne’s reign. They also bring to life some historical episodes from the battle between the Moors and the Christians.
The actors wear frock coats embellished with multicoloured ribbons, sequins, cocked hats, masks, and white gloves.
The actors dance to the music of the orchestra, which consists of flutes and percussion instruments, as they enact episodes. These types of dances are crammed in between acts.
The importance of music
Music is an important part of the show because it provides a backdrop for the dancing. The orchestra consists of bamboo flutes, various types of drums, and sucalos (a native instrument made of a basket with seeds inside).
Tchiloli actors, on the other hand, are professionals who hone their skills in a variety of roles. Such abilities and knowledge are passed down from generation to generation.
Tchiloli cannot be compared to Indian classical theatre forms that reenact the Ramayana or Mahabharata by any stretch of the imagination. However, it emphasizes the triumph of good over evil, morality over depravity, and justice over injustice.
The stage plays are usually six hours long, but there are shorter versions ranging from one to three hours that are performed on street squares or during religious and social festivals.
Auto de Floripes is an ancient festival held on the tiny island of Principe on the 15th of August. On this date, the smallest city in the world – Santo António do Prncipe – transforms into the world’s largest stage for a few hours, telling the storey of Moors and Christians. Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, the festival drew visitors from all over the world to see Tchiloli.
Tchiloli is the only performing art of Sao Tome that symbolizes the synthesis of African and European traditions and illustrates the coexistence of two different cultures.
Sao Tome is trying hard to maintain and nurture this cultural heritage by popularizing it among the younger generation. Tchiloli is already part of the tourist circuit of the country for international visitors.
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