Year of Grace, Day 214. A Catalan tradition — human towers or castells

Soon after the tasting meal of arrossejat at midday yesterday, six or seven groups of mixed ages and genders, similarly dressed in white trousers but with differently coloured shirts, a different one per group, marched into the port of Ametlla de Mar where around a crowd of 400 – 500 had assembled for the local gastronomic festival. They were ushered in with the sonorous sounds of oboe-like instruments dating back from medieval times – – traditional Catalan shawns called gralla — and a small drum called tabal. I assumed, never having seen the spectacle before (the festival announcement had mentioned them), that these were the castellers, – groups who erected human towers called castells (Catalan, ‘castle’) – a spectacular feat of physical strength, endurance, balance, and group solidarity unique to Catalunya.

Catalan shawm called gralla.

Catalan shawm called gralla.

Catalan drum called tabal

Catalan drum called tabal

In no time at all, the castellers sorted themselves out in twos, each helping to encase themselves around the middle with long black tasselled sashes tightly lapped several times. Or rather, it was the person who wound him or herself into the sash, known as faixa, pulling tightly against the other who secured the other end just as tautly.

There was a variation on winding that I observed –- flipping the fabric into a twist midway, so as to create a subtle bump in the back, and perhaps a change in direction of fabric stress on the sash. The sash, a part of traditional Catalan folk wear, originally served to warm the kidneys, but for castellers, serves not only to give support to the back and stomach muscles, but also as footholds for ascent (though less so for descent).

Tying up the end of the sash was also a matter of individual preference in some of the castellers, some simply tucking the ends in, and others choosing an elaborate twist. Over the black sash went one or two red twisted kerchiefs.

Then the formation of the castells –- the human towers –- began. First the base, called pinya, whose members consisted of robust castellers. The ones in this core group – at the very middle and the ones that bore the most weight – raised their hands in the air then clasped each other’s hands as they hummed in unison. Others them joined behind each of the core castellers at the periphery, until a sizeably wide foundation had been built. The pinya also serves as a safety net, in the event of accidents.

Once the foundation was stable and ready for the upper levels, the shawms began their piping, accompanied by the drumming of the tabal, a signal that subsequent levels could proceed. Three castellers in bare feet then climbed up over the foundation, using the shoulders and sashes of the lower group as foot- and toe-holds.

Another three castellers then came up from different directions, again using the backs of the knees, the sashes, and shoulders and hands of the previous level to balance on. And so it went, and the last to ascend were two children, no older than 5 or 6 it looked to me, a boy and a girl, protected by safety helmets, climbing up swiftly with no hesitation – – there was no time to lose. I was watching the little girl with awe – she used her knee to propel her onto the first level casteller’s sash, then shoulders, and using the casteller’s hands, on to the next, and the next dizzying height. So unflinchingly brave for ones so very young. Please click on the video below.

One child balanced at the very summit, legs straddling the shoulders of castellers below, as the other climbed over and raised one hand with four fingers out (for the four bars of the Catalan flag), then just as rapidly, both climbed down, now sliding down the backs of the castellers’ legs swiftly to descend. At the very foundation, they went straight into the waiting embrace of proudly beaming (and I am certain extremely relieved) parents. The other levels soon followed suit, exercising the same care and precision with which they were erected. The disassembly of the castell is apparently more accident-prone than its erection.

A very moving spectacle, and one that could not have been achieved without endless practice and solidarity and mutual trust and reliability. Many of the castellers hugged each other tightly and intimately beforehand, evidence of the closeness of their friendships, and as well of the potential fatal risks associated with this Catalan tradition.

The last castell was in fact halted just at the pinya stage, and a short pause of dancing to the local marching band’s music ensued among the castellers. It was a very hot day, and the forceful midday sun and the physical strain were likely to be overwhelmingly challenging. Only when the castellers had had sufficient respite did they come together again for a final castell.

I was glad to have been witness, at such close range,  to these incredible achievements from the casteller groups, local Los Xics Caleros from Ametlla de Mar, Els Xiquets del Serrallo , and Els Castellers de Vila-Seca (please click on the castellers’ sites for more info).