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.