Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Holy Week Shriek

Splendid in bright red or deep black uniforms, banners embroidered and shoes shined, each bearing up under yards of braid and tassel, they are the Confraternity Bands. They played in the name of the Sweet Name of Jesus the Nazarene, the Most Precious Blood of Our Savior Jesus Christ, the Seven Words of Jesus on the Cross, and the Concord of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. 

Floorboards and flags vibrated, children screamed, ladies and men alike wept into their handkerchiefs. It was Sunday night in the heart of Castilla, and the drum-and-brass corps were in town, from Valladolid, and Bilbao, and all over Leon. I have seen many typical things in my years here, but I think I have never heard anything more Spanish. It´s the start of Holy Week in Sahagún -- the VII Certamen Nacional de Musica Procesional marched up Calle Constitucion and packed out the auditorium. I went with Julia and Paco and Fran to hear the street music of Holy Week.

There were five bands, each part of a confraternity, a Catholic devotional group. Sahagun has at least four that I know of, a couple of them dating back to the 16th century. 

But these bands were Big Time, from big cities. Their confraternities have hundreds of members, and date back 500 years or more. It´s the confraternities that put on the massive, solemn Holy Week parades, with their life-size statues of weeping Virgins and beaten Christs, snarling Jews and creeping Moors. It´s the confraternities that put on creepy robes and pointy hats for their Holy Week penitential marches through the streets, carrying the massive statues on their shoulders from church to church.

By watching which holy image is marching past, you can mark out the events of Jesus´ final days: Palm Sunday has Jesus on a donkey. The Last Supper and Agony in the Garden appear on Thursday, and Good Friday brings them all out, in chronological order:  Christ Tied to a Post and Beaten, Christ Carrying the Cross, Veronica Wiping Jesus´ Face, the Crucifixion, the Descent from the Cross, (featuring a gruesome dead Jesus with articulated shoulders). Each has its accompanying Blessed Virgin, dressed in splendid, ever-changing array. And in bigger cities, each statue combination has its sponsoring Confraternity.   

Way back when, the confraternities marched in deep and awe-ful silence. A few still do.
But Spaniards love passion and guilt, blood and tears, uniforms, crowds and parties and group activity. Mix these all up and you get a Good Friday procession (Or maybe a bullfight). It is hard to have all these melodramatic portrayals without some suitably dramatic music.

And so was born the Confraternity band: dry, deep drumbeats, swirling, shrieking trumpets. Pour on some militaristic costumes, shining with epaulettes and fringe, and a surplus of talented amateur musicians, in a country where every town has a music school and community chorus, band, and orchestra. The 40 or so members of each group are not professionals, but three of the four bands were obviously very disciplined, precise musicians, well-led and dedicated to their craft. They are men and women of all ages and sizes, electricians and beauticians, Moms, doctors, and farmers. I marvelled at the practicing they must do, and the patience that must demand of their neighbors. I wondered how they could play this stuff while marching. In the rain. With hoods on their heads. Penance indeed.  

Patience. The Spaniards are patient. Each of the bands played four selections, while a videotape of a Sahagun Semana Santa played on the giant screen behind them. Over and over, five times at least, the pasos passed through the streets, while the Sweetest Name of Jesus guys from Leon shook the dust from the rafters with their drumming, and the Most Precious Blood boys from Valladolid blew bugles, trumpets, and cornets into a climactic blast that stopped dead -- and left a single silver horn note screaming off a single dry drumbeat. It takes guts to play this music. It´s music for crucifixions, garrottes, autos de fe.
The Seven Words had the fat, lush sound of saxes and trombones and clarinets, a big band I almost expected to shift into "Sing Sing Sing." A class act all around.   

They saved the best for last. The Sacred Heart Band of Cornets and Drums drove down from Bilbao in their severe black uniforms, and waited for hours while the others did their nut. They stepped onto the stage and kicked into a flashy modern arrangement called "Silencio," and just kept at it, turning up the volume, the pitch, til the poor peregrinos sleeping in the albergue upstairs shouted for mercy. Not even the cornets hit a flat note. They played without music-sheets, from memory -- two small men bent at the knees, backward from their waists, and threw all their breath into their fussy little horns as the big drums bashed behind them. Bilbao brought down the house. Three hours later we escaped, wrung-out and red-eyed.

And Palm Sunday´s not for another week.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Glory that is Torre

We were still in our road clothes, under-dressed.  Three concrete Graces stood in the geraniums, simpering across the patio. James Dean leered back in black and white from the facing wall. All four of them glowed pink, lit from below by hidden lights. We went inside.

This might have been a villa once, but now it´s "Los Años 50," a cushy hotel bar in the hilly El Pinar neighborhood on the edge of Torremolinos, a town not noted for taste. "The 50´s Bar," I thought -- sock hops, poodle skirts, Whisky Sours -- this would be a weird Spanish take on American pop culture. But I was wrong. The 50s this bar refers to is a mix of flocked foil wallpaper and chrome-and-crystal trim, with Brigitte Bardot posters and overstuffed chairs in the bathrooms. We tucked ourselves into a corner of a 7-foot velvet-striped sofa, ordered G & Ts from the sparkling Swarovski-studded bar, and watched the evening unfold.

It was splendid, deluxe, absolutely fabulous. We were just in time for the music, a little electronic combo set up in a corner by the bar. A big woman dressed for a wedding wailed love songs while a gray little man tapped out bongo beats on a drum machine. From across the room a sun-tanned, double-breasted wise guy watched from deep in his chair, his fancy watch poised just so beneath his starched cuffs, his ankle crossed over the opposite knee. He was, obviously, the boss, and he was lovin´ those sentimental boom-chaka ballads.

The women clattered in, teetering dangerously on their high heels, every one spectacularly plucked, powdered, sprayed-down and patted into place. Not all were pretty, but each was utterly groomed. The men, too, wore suits cut sharp and shiny, their hair coifed, nails and shoes buffed. Some were tall and cool. Others were toad-like in tight Armani, their fingers too fat for their many rings. Two black men shimmered into the place in white Adidas tracksuits, Gabbana sunshades perched on the brims of their ballcaps. They sipped Martel and jangled their ice cubes, chillin.´ Everyone seemed to know one another. Everyone had something fascinating to say to someone else. All of them chattered excitedly and laughed out loud, hoping to be heard above the bongos, hoping to be noticed. A couple of people danced a complicated merengue. The bartender shook a cocktail shaker, and poured out something pink from a great height.  

Then She sashayed in the door, a 40-something blonde bombshell, a sloe-eyed woman straight out of a Mickey Spillane potboiler. She wore a tiny knit dress and high-heel sparkly sandals, she smiled a porcelain smile, she worked the room. Everybody greeted her with joy and kisses. Her figure was amazingly impossible, her bottom and bosom round as fruit and perfectly cantilevered over a tiny waist. She was an exotic bird in a chromium cage, sparkling in the pink lights. We were dazzled.

It had been a long day´s drive. We decided against a second drink and took ourselves next door to our own villa-turned-hostel, and went to bed. It was only the next day we realized the Años 50 might be a fancy brothel. (I was glad we did not reserve our weekend rooms there -- it was an option on the booking website, but I shy away from places with jacuzzis in the bedrooms.) The Años 50 is too hot not to cool down. I don´t expect that place to be open when I go back again to Torre. 

The following day we went down the hill to join the big O´Gara clan gathering, a 70th birthday party starring many of Patrick´s family members and old friends. Drink was taken, the 5-year-old grandson was chased round the garden by a succession of volunteer monsters. We picked lemons and oranges from the trees out back, cooked up meals, dreamed dreams and reminisced. Paddy and I had driven all the way down to the Meditteranean coast. Two of his sons had flown from England, along with a cousins and aunties and friends. None of us saw the beach.

But we saw one another, something that doesn´t happen so often. We saw a Tottenham Hotspur football game in a pub called Auld Dublin. We shopped for Marmite and Heinz Baked Beans, Basmati rice and Branston Pickle. We had a barbecue out in the yard, with grilled fresh sardines and bream, roast pork loin and watercress salad. It may have been the best barbecue food I ever had.

No hamburgers or hotdogs. I brought the things to make S´Mores, but after the meal no one was much interested in gooey sweet things.

It was three generations of a working-class English family, at play in a down-at-the-heels Spanish beach resort. Someone or other of Paddy´s family has lived there since the 1960´s, and I joined the story only 10 years ago -- and in that time I have witnessed the courtships and weddings and births, jobs worked, quit, lost, won; retirement, illness, death. The family in Torremolinos reminds me of how temporary we are. Health is so fragile, jobs and property so easily lost. Each time we meet there could be the last time. It is precious that way.

Paddy, Sam, Dan, Matt, & Tom -- O´Garas all

I don´t want to liken a hoochie bar to Paddy´s fine family, but there are a couple of things to learn from them both. We have to enjoy the show while it´s going on, marvel at the marvellous wonders, taste the tang of the gin in the glass. We can go back over and over, but we can never hope for things to stay the same.    

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

An Orientation Upward

I am thinking about prayers. Not because I am particularly devout, but just because people keep bringing them up, sending them out, asking me for prayers.

It is hard to write about your own prayer habits without appearing sanctimonious. That is not my intent, OK? I live on a pilgrimage path. Prayer is part of the scene.  

I am not uncomfortable with praying. I grew up in a family that´s on first-name terms with the Almighty, and I still say "grace" before dinner a lot of the time. But as I have grown older, my definition of prayer has gotten a lot wider. It does not occupy a discrete portion of the day. I don´t keep a "sweet hour of prayer." It  happens, in and around the daily doings. It is not hard. It is utterly simple. It is a habit.

I walked out alone this morning to catch up to Patrick and the dogs. I prayed my mindless rosary-type morning prayers, Scriptures worn smooth by years of use, they fit sweetly into the rhythm of a human stride. I walked through town, and thought about the people who live in the houses. I imagined them all out in the plaza in August, playing cards and laughing under the trees. It made me smile. It blessed me. It blessed the town, too, I think.

(Pilgrims pray, and we see many pilgrims passing, more every day. Faraway friends call me up when they´re suffering. They don´t ask for my prayers. They ask me to have a pilgrim pray for them, out there while they walk. No pilgrim, even a total stranger, has ever refused to carry their prayers when I asked. I think this is wonderful.)

Out among the fields and I prayed for rain. The fields are like talcum powder, drought-stricken. They ought to be very green by now, but they are far from it. It is worrying. "Please make it rain," is all I said. "If my lettuces and onions can´t be as nice as Edu´s, at least let them not die overnight."
the "salad patch," spinach planted in November!

Today I prayed for Bob the Canary, too. He is a silent puff of feathers, obviously not feeling well, and heaven only knows what might be wrong with him. He is too young for his battery to expire. I hope it is only Spring Fever, that he will soon again deafen us with his jazz stylings. I love that little guy. "Please let Bob get better," I said. "Fix whatever´s wrong."

When Patrick is out of sorts I tell God to fix him, but I don´t tell Patrick I´m doing it. And when I am out of sorts I grumble at God to fix that, too. I suppose that is a dark kind of prayer. 

Perhaps praying is a healthy inner dialog, a way of ordering the voices in my head.  Maybe it is a coping mechanism in a life that still feels isolated, unstable, and lonesome, even though I chose it myself.  Maybe it´s my inner child, keeping to what she was brought up on, slipping into the comfortable old shoe called "Our Father Who Art in Heaven." Often I am sure it´s a selfish plea for a magic solution to whatever is not going my way. 

It is good for me. I like it. It may even be helpful. It certainly cannot hurt.

Yes, I believe I am heard. And I don´t often forget to say "thank you."

That´s the fun part.