It’s always a tall order
BARCELONA -- Our tower begins to rise on the crowded plaza in front of Town Hall. With the buzz of a festival around us, we set the base, position by position, until we are locked into each other. A captain checks the formation and gives the all-clear. The music begins, a tiny band with oboe-like “grallas’’ and snare drums, played every time we start climbing into the sky.
The tower rises above us, layer by layer, its members walking on our shoulders to climb into place. There is the stink of sweat and the feet that step on shoulders inches from my nose. With a nod to two teammates in my position, I reach one level up and push my hands into the sides of Dan and Benet’s legs and the structure solidifies. The weight mounts steadily. Eyes, lost in concentration, stare at a faraway spot, breathing is strained, the lungs pressed against your back begin to heave, the hands gripping your arms begin to clench. They will not let go.
Another level goes up; the younger, more nimble — Aliex, Diana — climb on our backs. I will not let go of them. Higher still, we begin to send children into the sky. The tower rumbles — it’s a living organism. Any unsteady movement echoes through the muscles to the top and back down. At the same time, members from other teams at the festival come and reinforce the base. A weak link may appear — someone a level or two up, shaking with the effort. Below, a captain makes the decision whether to send the last four people to the top.
First to go are the “dosos,’’ a duo who lock the top of the tower and create a platform for the “aixecador,’’ or riser. Above them is the “enxaneta,’’ the child who, with the music reaching a crescendo, carries our hopes and fears upward with every eye in the crowd on her. Reaching a perch above it all, her hand flies in the air, blowing a kiss to the crowd. It’s an exultation and people watching throw their arms skyward, too.
This is castellers, the centuries-old Catalan tradition of building human “towers,’’ or “castles.’’ Soccer may be Barcelona’s passion, but this is Catalonia’s great and dearest sport. It had never occurred to me that I could participate, let alone in the first practice I stumbled upon. But a member, Gerard, grabbed me, put me in position, and said, “Put your hands here and here,’’ stabilizing the legs of two people above me. “Don’t let go.’’
At that point, I had lived in Barcelona for just a few weeks and had seen the curious castells only in pictures on the walls of bars and wine shops. Team members wore white pants, red bandanas, a thick, black sash known as a “faixa,’’ and a solid-colored team shirt.
How high do they go? The tallest, which can involve hundreds of people, have reached 10 levels. Do they fall? Occasionally. That’s called “llenya’’ — “firewood’’ — a description of the resulting limbs akimbo pile where the tower once stood. Most castles are a single spire, or levels of two, three, or four teammates, held up by the stocky, old, or tall, who are the dense base known as the “pinya’’ — “the pineapple.’’ The latter is both the foundation and a set of flying buttresses for a cathedral built of people.
With the pinya set, the band begins playing “Toc de Castells’’ and up rise level after barefoot level of progressively lighter, more limber, and younger generations of family and friends, capping it off with a child, usually between 5 and 7, who throws a Catalan salute to the heavens. I asked a teammate about the kiss that’s often part of the salute and he smiled, “It’s more beautiful, isn’t it?’’
That one practice session was all I needed. After that, practice with what became my team — the Castellers del Poble Sec — was Tuesday and Friday nights, with meets (often part of Catalan festivals) on weekends. This was my back door into the culture, a way to make friends in a town where I had few. A friend from another neighborhood later tried to get me to join his team, but I replied I was “Poble Sec for life.’’ He respected that.
With roots as a regulated sport dating at least 200 years and some records pointing as far back as the 15th century, the casteller tradition was included in UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in November. Yet the bedrock, the underlying reason this tradition has become a tradition, is social. At the height of the season, teams offer something to do almost daily. Teammates are friends, family, and neighbors. It’s a rare slice of life in which generations are assembled in one place. There are screaming 6-year-olds, awkward teens, hippies, college students, young parents and their children, professionals and retirees.
Every Friday, Poble Sec has practice, then everyone heads to the clubhouse (every team has one) to have dinner together. We go to the beach on the way home from meets, host traditional Catalan barbecues called calçotadas as February fund-raisers, and play in inter-league soccer matches. If there’s a birthday, we celebrate together; if something goes wrong, we talk about it. Inevitably, the team — the “colla’’ — becomes a family.
In the end, however, we’re here to build castles and safely dismantling a tower can be even more difficult than building it.
Back in front of Town Hall, we are locked together, a seven-story tower still in the sky. The tiny enxaneta and aixecador climb down quickly, two little wisps sliding down our backs and plucked from the top of the pinya with a quick hug. The dosos, still locked together, shift their arms and pull against each other, edge down until they can let each other go and slide to the bottom.
Toward the base, Angel, a human tree trunk of a man who is always in the tower’s most strenuous spot, casts his eyes upward. His face is red, his mind and body are rumbling with concentration and effort. He will not let his team fall. He will not fail. He will not let us down. He sees his first teammates come down. One, then another, he holds. He holds and then, when it’s safe, he roars. The anxiety, excitement, strain, and trust that the team has put into pushing a monument into the sky has a voice.
Everyone is down now, except Angel, 220 pounds of muscle, throwing his fist in the air before being tossed atop the crowd as though he were light as a feather. Somewhere below, his mother is watching. She always is. His father, who supported him from the pinya, is lost in the crowd, as is his wife. There’s no doubt that someday soon, their children will be here, too.
Joe Ray can be reached at www.joe-ray.com.