8 October 2016

The Human Towers of the Castellers

No one is quite sure but at some point in the 18th century someone in the Valls, near the Catalonian city of Tarragona dreamed of a tower of a castle (castell in Catalonian).  Yet he may not have been an architect or an engineer: his tower was made of people.

It was an idea that took off.  It developed throughout Catalonia – even spreading as far as Majorca – and has for the last few decades been enjoying something of a renaissance after many years of prohibition under General Franco.  Although it is popular throughout many parts of Spain, you have to go to its birthplace to find the most skilled castellers.

To the casual observer, it may appear that there are no set rules when building (and taking down) a castell, but that cannot be further from the truth.  To begin with, the castell must be built in strict succession and among those who make up the teams there are different names to indicate their particular function.

Could the building of the castells have come from the Catalan desire for self-determination?  The enxaneta is the person who clambers to the very top of the castell.  The tower is considered complete when he or she raises their hand, four fingers proud in the wind.  This is often said to represent the four stripes on the Catalan flag.

Once this is done, the enxaneta can climb down – the other castellers then follow in order until all of them have reached the safety of the ground.  Of course the castell, like any other construction of this size must have firm foundations and that is where the pinya come in.  These are the people, mostly men, who create the base of the castell and give it the strength to support the enormous weight of those who will form the other levels.

The pinya have to be strong – not only do they support the weight of the castell, if it falls they are the human safety net upon which all the higher castellers will land.  This is not an activity for the faint hearted by any means. Yet the power of the pinyas is highlighted by the vibrant colors of their teams and dazzles the eyes.

The pinya are also those who decide the success of a tower, giving directions.  They form the ground level first and give the signal for the castell’s progress to continue.  As this is done a band will play, even though most watching the event are hushed in to silence, willing the castellers to succeed.  Speed is now of the essence.  In order not to put inhuman strain on the pinya the succeeding levels are quickly assembled.

Many thanks to Vimeo film maker Mike Randolph for his marvellous record of this year's festival in Tarragona.

Although the construction of the castell is by far the part which engages the crowd the most when it comes to the disassembly then the time arrives when many accidents have happened over the years.  When it is being built, sometimes a rising can be attempted which is where, instead of clambering, each successive layer of the castell is lifted in to place.  As with any finished piece of construction, it looks easy once it is finished but this is hard work not without its dangers.

Four or five levels are the norm but it is said that the record is seven layers.  Imagine the stress and weight against those at the bottom of the castell.  They always wear the kit of their team of castellers, white trousers, a bandana and a colored shirt which often bears the emblem of the team.  A final flourish is the black sash but this is worn as much for use as for decoration. The castellers climb barefoot and the sash has its uses in their ascent.

It is known as the faixa and is used to support the back – plus it is also used as a foot or a handhold by other members of the team as they clamber up the castell.  The length of the sash is often dependent on where the casteller will end up in the tower – the higher they go the shorter the faixa tends to be.  For the pinya it can be extraordinarily long.

You may think that the fatality rate among castellers is relatively high compared to, say, tennis.  In thirty years there have been two deaths which, while tragedies, is a testament to the care and effort the team put in to ensure everyone’s mutual safety.

There are qualities which are looked for in new members of any team – and this makes up the motto of castellers in general.  Strength, balance, courage and reason are all prerequisites of a casteller – or in Catalan Força, equilibri, valor i sen.

There is also a sophisticated nomenclature which is used to describe the number of people who will be in each level of a castell as well as the total number of levels.  There are also names for the styles of formations that are to be built.

So, here is to the castellers - human towers extraordinaire!