sounding out mouraria

What does a neighborhood in transformation sound like? What is the impact of the changes in the its urban and social fabric on its sound environment? To what extent an intervention on the sound environment could trigger larger changes on the urban dynamics of a place? These are some of the questions that inform the post-doctoral research project I am currently conducting in the Instituto de Etnomusicologia (INET-MD) at the Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas (Universidade Nova de Lisboa). This project brings together some of the research interests I have been pursuing in previous research projects, namely the relationship between sound and space, the processes of urban transformation in contemporary cities or the relationship between music and the city.

For this research project, I am studying the historical quarter of the Mouraria. Since 2011 this “traditional” ill-famed Lisbon’s neighborhood has been the target of an urban renewal program (the QREN-Mouraria Action Plan) whose main goals were to “open the neighborhood to the city” and to “create the conditions to attract private investment, new residents and tourists”. I have accompanied the whole process to study how the intervention of the urban and social fabric of the neighborhood has affected its sound environment. I argue that the changes we can observe in the sound domain could be considered simultaneously as cause and effect of the urban revitalization plan underway. In this sense, the changes in the sound environment can be analyzed as a means to regulate and structure the experience of the urban public space. At the same time, these changes in the sound milieu contribute decisively to the production of a new aural sensibility.

The first phase of the research has focused on the role and significance of music in relation to the revitalization and marketing of the renewed Mouraria. In particular, I was interested in studying the “sonic thematization” of the new Mouraria that resulted from this state-sponsored renewal plan. Thus, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in a variety of settings: (1) the revival of fado as a good example of how an intervention on the domain of sound can catalyze the revitalization of a neighborhood; (2) the transformation of an open public square traditionally associated to the harsh realities of immigration into a “multicultural” market and food court oriented towards an urban and cosmopolitan public; and (3) the transformation of a derelict area known for prostitution and illegal drug trade into a “hype” place and alternative hot-spot for a night out. Preliminary analysis of these three case studies strongly suggests that the renewed Mouraria is undergoing a process of acoustic thematization, or put another way, an equalizing process that aims to smooth out the area’s original rowdiness and dissonance.

A second phase will attempt to open the focus and analyze the revitalization of the Mouraria within the larger framework of the transformations that the city of Lisbon has experienced over the last years in order to burst onto the competitive “global urban catwalk” (Degen 2003) and become a favourite destination for international tourism.