Dr. Welson Tremura closed the door of his University of Florida office. Explaining Folia de Reis, the Brazilian celebration of Christianity’s Three Kings, to someone who has never so much as heard of it would require demonstration.
Three guitar chords rang out from his computer and he picked an ornate, decorative mask from atop his file cabinet. He held it to his face. As percussion pounded and priests sung praises in Portuguese, he swung his arms back and forth and moved his feet in accordance.
“He blessed this rose and gave it to me,” he later said, holding out a plastic-wrapped flower and reminiscing on his homeland.
Currently serving as an Associate Professor in the School of Music and the Center for Latin American Studies at UF, Tremura’s research focuses on how music can communicate and engage music participants to fulfill their religious aspirations. He found a microcosm of that in Folia de Reis.
This July, he delivered a paper on that research titled “Folia de Reis: Culture and History in Traditional Music” and organized an international panel called “Social Transformations of Musical Communities through Technological Crisis” at the IX Congreso Chileno de Musicología at Universidad de Santiago in Santiago de Chile.
Tremura is a frequent attendee of musicology conferences around the world, traveling as far as New Zealand in the past, but this was his first time visiting Chile.
“It’s important for UF and for our students when we professors go to something like this so we are exposed to something outside our comfort zone,” Tremura said. “It was a good thing they called us because it gave us a chance at more visibility for the program, for the university, and I think it’s a win-win.”
Folia de Reis is an old tradition that takes place between Christmas and Epiphany. Practitioners participate in musical ensembles and travel, singing praises and blessing families they encounter.
“The music of Folia de Reis is a music practiced by the ordinary people of Brazil’s interior,” Tremura explained. “At the conference I was trying to come up with an issue that deals with how technology is affecting participants and how they do their traditions.”
According to Tremura, the music has been passed on through oral tradition in Brazil’s rural areas. But with the rapidly increasing influence of modern technology, many of its practitioners have been invited to perform on larger stages and in front of wider audiences. He believes this could have more wide-ranging effects on cultural dynamics and people’s relationships with their faith.
“My issue is how technology is affecting how those practices continue to exist or their existence in the future,” he said. “Even change in some aspects of how they write their own lyrics. In the Folia de Reis tradition the words are mostly concerned with family, social aspirations, health of family members, anything that brings them some sort of connection with the divine.”
His panel also featured two other professors, Trevor Harvey from the University of Iowa and Laurie Ruth Semmes from Appalachian State University, with different areas of research. Technological crisis and its relationship with music and culture was the unifying theme of their papers.
Tremura believes technology can be used for good, but if Internet users share words, images or videos of a tradition without also providing proper context, it can have detrimental effects on the tradition itself.
“I criticized technology because if technology is not used to explain historically what the tradition is about, it could give the wrong impression or image,” he said. “Technology is good as long as an educational element is linked.”
Although Folia de Reis is but one religious celebration of which many Americans have likely not heard, Tremura uses it as a conduit to explore the usage of digital technology in performance and global technology and the inclusion of world music as a core discipline and collaborative method for teaching.
Tremura is a frequent traveler for concerts, presentations, and interdisciplinary projects around the world. He directs the Brazilian Music Institute and is the co-director for the University’s Brazilian music ensemble “Jacaré Brazil.” Most recently he actively performs with the Alachua Guitar Quartet, the renowned Ahn Trio and the California Guitar Trio.
His most recent academic publication: Brazilian Folia de Reis: With An Open Heart: A Spiritual Journey Through Song is available in paperback. You can find more information at http://arts.ufl.edu/directory/profile/1205/ and www.welsontremura.com.