Partying on despite the crisis: La Mercè 2011

Despite not actually being the last of the long line of summer Fiestas, La Mercè was definitely the most memorable. The annual extravaganza has been going since 1902, when the idea that an annual celebration that encouraged maximum public participation first began. This year, over a million people attended the events organised by the city council and other cultural organisations, which numbered over 500 in total. From 3D video projections that transformed the façade of public buildings, to outdoor stages devoted to contemporary dance and experimental theatre – it was a culture vulture’s dream, without costing a penny! Barcelona Acció Musical, an independent organisation within the festival, put on an amazing variety of musical acts ranging from Catalan folk to dubstep, performed on eight stages across the city. The highlight for me was the amazing Aloe Blacc who suited up for his smooth bluesy set in the stunning Plaza Reial, rammed with people eager to see the man behind ‘I Need a Dollar’.

Apart from the music, there were two elements of La Mercè that left me seriously impressed. The first were the Castells: that’s human castles to non-catalan speakers. Whilst an English child might go to ballet or karate lessons, a Catalan child might go off to a Saturday Castellers club, where they learn the ridiculously skilful art of climbing up a human tower of up to nine levels, before perching themselves precariously on top. This is practised and practised with crash mats and supportive wall bars until the adults and kids involved have enough stability, strength and guts to go for it in the central square of Barcelona, which is jam-packed with avid admirers of the spectacle.

Now who exactly is willing to let their child undertake the perilous duty of shimmying up the bodies of this human tower to reach the brief but triumphant position at the pinnacle, the enxaneta? Well, the guys at the bottom of course. Traditionally, it is the small child of one of the tower’s base members who clambers nimbly up their team mates’ bodies to a summit that tops some of the surrounding buildings. I suppose keeping it in the family ensures that any blame that occurs will fall (quite literally) on the parent’s shoulders, and that way avoids any complicated lawsuits. And accidents do happen in this risky sport, which was last year granted the status of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by Unesco. In 2006, a nine-year-old girl tragically died from the injuries that she incurred falling from the antepenultimate level of a nine layer tower. She was an experienced castellera and the group had successfully performed the construction five times before, as well as other more complicated formations. The penultimate layer was about to go up when the tower lost stability, the child on the top layer managed to climb down but when the tower collapsed Mariona fell, causing her fatal back injuries.

 Thankfully, there weren’t any accidents during the human castles at this year’s La Mercè. In order to prevent severe injuries, a double or even triple ring of people normally surround the base of the tower. Because of this, and the thick crowd of spectators that also surround the tower, only 3 fatalities have been recorded since the tradition began in the late 1700s. The percentage of human castles which don’t topple is roughly 96% per year, which means there must be almost 4% that topple without causing fatal injuries. If you can bear the tension, have a look at some of the youtube videos of castells assembling, and rapidly tumbling down.

 I had already seen such videos before seeing the live spectacle, so it was with bated-breath that I watched the towers’ construction. The base of the castell forms with the strongest and stockiest team members, who then give a signal for the formation to proceed if they feel that their base is strong enough. Traditional castell music of drum rolls and bugles begins to play as the tower builds up layer by layer, and the crowd hushes with anticipation as it gets taller. The participants use their bare feet to hook into the waist sash of their team members, the all-important tool for scaling the construction. Finally, the crowd becomes absolutely silent to avoid a fatal distraction, and with unbearable tension observes the little enxaneta shimmy up to the top and stick her 4 fingers in the air, indicating the accomplishment of the tower and symbolising the 4 stripes on the Catalan flag. Everyone claps and breathes a huge sigh of relief as layer by layer, the castellers slip down from their precarious positions. The slogan of the castellers is “Strength, balance, courage and good-sense”, qualities which all seem paramount to this risky endeavour to me!

  The second part of La Mercè which was really exciting, on top of all the bands, fireworks and constant revelry, was the amazing correfoc, the fire run. This is another remarkable tradition that seems to confirm the impressions that Catalans have a totally different mindset to Britons when it comes to safety standards. Because in this fire run, the blazing devils, dragons and demons are metaphorically chased out of city by enthusiastic Barcelonans, who wrap themselves up in anarchist style head-gear, often with a little child perched on their shoulders, and dance around the flying sparks. Granted, the city council does warn people to wrap up with headscarves and hoodies, but it was still the first time that I’d ever seen fireworks being blasted amongst a crowd of people. Everyone I asked had a nice little anecdote about some scar they had got from a falling spark at the correfoc, but that doesn’t stop it pulling in the crowds. Several figures dressed in huge paper mache devil suits hold spinning pitchforks laced with fireworks, and as the traditional gralla drums roll with a samba style beat, the plucky ones dart as near to the devils as they dare. I did notice a fire engine present at this pyrotechnic extravaganza, with a few firemen sitting on top and laughing at the mayhem, so I suppose not all safety precautions had gone up in smoke.

With all 500+ performances of La Mercè, including the vast number of staff needed to set it all up, you can expect that a weekend-long party for a whole city comes with quite a price tag. The firework display that closed the festival used 11,000 explosions to fill the sky with golden rain against the stunning backdrop of the National Palace. Even though Spain’s heavy economic crisis forced planners to reduce the budget of the festival by 15% of the cost of last year’s, the weekend’s festivities still came in at a whopping 3.4 million Euros. It’s either a good idea to keep the people entertained in a time of job losses, austerity and budget cuts, or an extremely hedonistic way to spend £3 million in a country whose public deficit reached 40 billion Euros this October. Of course I enjoyed it, but is it sensible to through a humongous party when you can’t afford it? Leave me a comment to let me know what you think!

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