After participating for a week in a group singing Portuguese Church Music from the 1500s in a Church in central Lisbon, I spent Easter Week 2014 travelling to various centres in Southern Spain watching for opportunities for Good Listening. Quite the outstanding event in each centre – Cordoba, Granada, Málaga, Seville – was the Easter Week processions, which are really important in the Catholic culture of the country, and attract many visitors. Although the music played for these is funereal, to make up for it the Flamenco tradition is still very much alive, I am glad to say.
The Processions are made by religious brotherhoods or Fraternities, many very old-established, and are done as a sign of penance. The members wear long cloaks called nazarenos, and a head-dress of a different colour which covers a tall pointed hood (reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan gear). Only the eyes of the nazarenos can be seen, and their footware – some go barefoot. The procession is opened by the senior members, and they all bear huge long wax candles – only a priest may go bare-headed.
The high point is the “paso” or “float”, which is a religious symbol, depicting the Sorrows of the Virgin Mary, or scenes from the Passion of Christ – like the Last Supper, the Scourging, the Carrying of the Cross, and the Crucifixion. However, quite unlike Carnaval floats, many of the statuettes are very old, carved from wood, and sometimes dressed in very heavy and richly embroidered capes. On the float itself there are huge numbers of candles before and aft (with a candle-lighter with a stepladder closely following). Here is a description of two floats of the Real Hermandade del Santo Via-Crucis (founded in 1917) who process in Granada: “The first is Jesus Christ carrying the cross to Mount Calvary (José de Mora, 18th century). The float is of gold-plated wood by Prados López (1947). The second is Doloroso by Antonio Asensio de la Cerda (c. 1770) under a maroon velvet pallium, which is also the material of the robe by Sebastián Marchante. The Silverwork is by Ramón León. The robe of those accompanying (the capirote) is a purple tunic, with yellow hood.”
The floats are carried, in short stages, along the streets of the old quarters of town, which are often narrow and cobbled. In Granada the carriers were invisible, being all under the float itself, which has long hangings on the sides, so you just see some pretty battered sandals or tennis shoes. I counted 4 parallel lines of 6 bearers under a typical float. However, in Málaga the floats were much bigger, and the bearers carry big beams, and are visible manning at the front and rear as well as at the sides. I counted 8 columns of 50 bearers for the float of the Last Supper, without knowing whether there were people under the float as well!
As you may imagine, manoevering one of these huge and heavy floats through narrow streets, is a challenge. There is a drum band to mark a very slow boom – pause – boom – pause with almost no adornment, as a funeral procession. This keeps all the bearers on the same step, and the float sways gently from side to side. The key moments (which are followed by applause from the onlookers) are the original uplift – with bell and voice commands to get everybody making the lift together – and getting round corners, where those at the front do half-steps to the left, and those at the back half-steps to the right, and those in the middle mark time. Not surprisingly there is a rest about every 5 minutes!
Another part of the procession maybe made up by women dressed in black, wearing the
peineta and mantilla a tall hat with a black lace veil. Make-up and high heels are common – the latter another challenge when walking slowly for hours on cobbled streets!
There is usually music from quite a complete marching band – trumpets, tubas, flute, oboe, clarinets, and the players use little sheets of music clipped to their instruments. The music itself is mostly slow traditional marches. I was surprised by how youthful were most of the band members –good for keeping up the tradition!
Perhaps the most impressive thing is the strong appeal to the Spanish of making and watching the processions. It seems every village and town has one at least, and in the large centres like Seville perhaps six Fraternities parade every night of Holy Week, on different routes, from late afternoon to 4 in the morning, and all ending in the main Cathedral. The people line the routes 3 or 4 deep (very few bleachers are put up) although at key points you can hire a chair. You see groups of friends, whole families including baby in the push-chair – and the hotels and restaurants are jam-packed: it seems everybody is there.
When one of the most doleful floats passes, there is a deep hush… but when the procession pauses, chatter begins again, and small boys rush out to catch the drip from the candles, to make a ball of wax. And next morning the streets are deserted until 11 in the morning!
It is easy to see the ancestry of Rio’s Carnaval parades in all this. Mix in a strong African influence (with strong rhythm and colours) and supplant the religious motives with every day themes, change solemnity for irreverence, enveloping capes for scanty costumes, and you have the beginnings of the samba schools….
We went to see traditional Flamenco singing and dancing, because there is no shortage of touristy shows. The elements are very rhythmic guitar, usually with dissonant chords, very skilled hand clapping, a wailing long-phrased singing almost without words, and dancing which emphasizes graceful movements of the arms and hands while tap-dancing and stamping. In the most “authentic” show, the atmosphere was like a ritual recounting of a gypsy tragedy – deadly serious, building up a big charge of emotion as the music and dancing intensified. An important part is the dress – women’s dresses are tight-bodicied, with various levels of flaring on the large floor-length skirt. Colours for the women are red and black, starting with the lips and hair, repeated in the dress; for the men, all black. I was struck that all the dancers are slim and athletic – not surprising when you see the effort that goes into it!
So ……this holiday edition is rather more like On the Beaten Track!