As we were walking on the streets of Manresa the other day, going to the Fira Mediterania, we heard the high nasal notes of the typical instrument – the gralla. As the notes spread in the air people from all over began to gather on the placa. It was at Sunday brunch time. Only in Catalunya timing has its own special schedule, thus it was right about the time people were waking up and going out with the children. There was the market spread on the big Rambla with wine-tasting, cheese, the (in)famous Fuet (sausage; the word also means a Whip, making this the favorite salami for the S&M lovers 🙂 ).
There was the Fira (the exhibition of contemporary entertainment art so clowns, Medieval characters and Arab dancers were spread around the main streets performing).
And the gralla.
If anyone has ever heard the gralla, they could never remain impartial to it. The sound is sharp, slightly off-tune, and high-pitched. In short, it catches the attention of the even most inattentive audience.
Several groups of people stood out from the crowd of by-passers. Those with white trousers, and identical shirts – some red, some green, some blue – the three different collas (groups) of Castellers who were going to perform that day.
The first group got ready. A huge number of people assembled around an invisible axis, to make a cicrle. The command was given. Four people climbed the showders of the crowd. Then four more. And four more. All standing on the showders of the ones bellow.
5 minutes later and 6 floors up, a slim blond girl, about 6 years old, was nimbly climbing to the very top. A few seconds later, she proudly lifted her arm, and the crowd broke out in loud cheers and applause.
This is one of the most celebrated and cherished Catalan traditions – the building of human towers, up to 8 levels high, by groups of men, women and children from often three generations.
As I stood below and watched the human castle dismantle, bodies gracefully gliding down, bodies like water over smooth stones, I realized that my knowledge of this tradition was absolutely pitiful. When did they start doing this? Where did it come from? I’d lived in Barcelona for an year now, and I was still relatively clueless. How embarrassing!
Research and Google can bring up connections never anticipated.
Little did I know that Catalunya and Bulgaria were so closely related.
The tradition is hardly medieval. Actually it started in the 1800s and it was closely related to, surprisingly enough, the Slavic groups in Former Communist East Europe known as the Sokols.
Those were common guests of different cultural and sport festivals throughout the Eastern block, while in their home countries this was not only a physical activity but also a way to spread mass-based nationalist idologies (suprisingly enough, something that also is vaguely happening here in Catalunya considering the missunderstandings between the different Spanish regions).
The first reference to a colla castellera (castle-building group) dates back to 1805 possibly in Valencia and th Balls de Valencians, a dance where people constuct a small casstle (far less impressive then what we see today). Now, as much as before, the Castellers have remained a community of different generations, friends, families and neighbors, which serves to unite and inspire within.
However, as with every such endeavor, the rivalry between the earliest colles had become so heted and violent in the 19th century, that they were forbidden to compiting publicly in the Valls. This is when Vilafranca del Penedes became the favorite sport for the competitions to take place, and in 1948, Vilafranca had its own group – the Castellers de Vilafranca. The earliest formations grew out of pre-existing professional associations – farmers, guilds, etc. – and was a 19th century equivalent of competitive team-building.
The movement became even more heated in the mid and late 19th century when people got so motivated that records were set and broken daily by enthusiasts and daring amateurs. Castles got higher and more intricate (casteller nomenclature is a language in and of itself, but generally castles are named according to how many people make up a tier and how many tiers make up the castle, i.e. a “quatre de vuit” (four by eight) consists of four people per tier making up a castle of eight tiers). Some of the records set in this period remain unbroken to this day.
As the Castells is a very demanding organization both physicly and mentally it should come to no surprize that the Cuban War, and WWI as well as several epidemics put the community on hold. Further, young people were more attrackted by other rising sports and enterntainment, thus the castells were only kept alive by Vilafranca’s officials who would organize competitions during the town celebrations (Festa Major).
The Spanish Civil War is also to blame for the disintegration of most of the Castellers groups and even if many regrouped shortly after it ended, the second golden age of the Castellers did not start until 1981 on the Diada De Santa Ursula in Valls. Two rivaling collas started an unprecedented buzz and inspired a growing, unstoppable wave of casteller activity. Niners” started cropping up all over the place. New colles sprung up in areas that had no casteller tradition whatsoever; the custom spread like wildfire throughout Catalonia, even reaching the shores of the Balearic Islands. Some of these new colles started setting and beating records, irking more than a few purists who didn’t like being usurped by newcomers, particularly those from areas not traditionally linked to castle-building.
The unquestionable leader of the collas remained the Castellers de Vilafranca, which in 1998 managed to build a 10 tier castle. As the media started to cover the castellers performances and success, the interest in the collas was increased and nowadays, new colles join almost every year. The castellers are a veritable symbol of Catalunya.
The musical element of castle building – a high-pitched wooden flute and percussion – is more than mere entertainment. When buried deep inside the pinya, it is almost impossible to know what is going on above. The musicians – grallers (flautists) and a tabaler (percussionist) – play at very specific stages of the building process, letting everyone know when the “enxaneta” (top) is climbing the tower, when the “aleta” (wing) is given and when the dismantling of the castle has commenced. Without these musical clues, a significant number of the castellers would have no idea of what is happening above them, and the building process would probably collapse into chaos.
Nowadays, it is easy to catch a casteller performance. They are a mainstay of popular festivals such as the Mercé and the Fiestas de Gracia in Barcelona and almost every Fiesta Mayor throughout Catalonia. Although Tarragona, Alt Camp and the Penedés are the traditional home of the castellers, the custom is so widespread by now that you’ll find colles throughout Catalunya. Word travels fast and far: the castellers have even awakened interest on the other side of the world. In 2010, a selection of colles will be performing at the World Fair in Shanghai. Nothing, however, beats seeing these human towers on their home turf, particularly when you happen upon them by chance. If you’re wandering through Barcelona or visiting Catalan towns, look for colorful shirts and thick black belts – the trademarks of the casteller -, follow the unmistakable tune of the gralles and tabal for an encounter with one of Catalunya’s most original and entertaining traditions.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5MYRfiI5xc – Video of Castells Building