July 2, 2007

Sardana in Cathedral Plaza, Barcelona

I love this photo:

I have seen candles in cathedrals before; usually they are tiny tea-lights. These, in the Barcelona cathedral, are fabulous. Once we got past the geese in the cloister (honk!) and entered the rest of the building, a red glow highlighted each area. Tea-lights are still the candle of choice, only here most burn in red glass holders. Each chapel had a set ready for use and most sets had a healthy glow about them. The ambiance was great.

Had there not been such a crowded feeling about the cathedral, Señor CC and I would have spent more time exploring inside. It is fortunate that we did not since we exited the building just in time to see the Sardana. This dance is a Catalán tradition and it is said that wherever there are Catalans, there is a Sardana.

One of the best places to view the Sardana is in front of the Cathedral. Dances occur every Sunday at noon and usually on Saturdays at 6:00pm; we were lucky enough to catch a performance on Saturday.

I say performance, but you should know that the Sardana is more or less spontaneous. Granted, the band, called a cobla, shows up and sets up their music stands and warms up their instruments - giving everyone a hint as to what is about to occur - but there are no professional dancers waiting in the wings to perform. The locals who happen to be around that afternoon form a circle, drop their bags in the center, join hands held high and begin to dance. As more people show up - or pass by, whichever may be the case - the circles increase in size and number until eventually the whole plaza is filled with dancers.

Dancing a Sardana is not very physically demanding; young and old participate. The pride in the Catalán tradition is very evident as heads are held high and all dancers stand tall with hands held unfalteringly above their shoulders. There was a time when Catalans were not allowed to speak their own language or dance their dance. All was forbidden during the dictatorship of Franco. It is a testament to the dedication of the people of Catalunya that their heritage has survived. They fought for what they believed in and succeeded. Now anyone can experience their heritage simply by visiting the city.

In addition to the dance, which originated in the 16th century, there are a few instruments in the cobla that are fairly strictly Catalán in use. The modern cobla consists of twelve instruments played by eleven people. Some of these instruments are easy to recognize: the contra bass, two trumpets and one trombone. Two fiscorns, as they are called in Catalunya, are part of the cobla as well. You may know the instruments better as baritone saxhorns. Saxhorns in a cobla, have their bell turned forward, much like that of a flugelhorn. The following video has a saxhorn (left - without a turned bell) and a euphonium (right) playing the theme music for everyone's favorite plumber:

Aside from the string and brass instruments already mentioned, there are some woodwinds and one small percussion instrument. These are the Catalán instruments. I had to look up the Sardana here when I got home in order to figure out just what exactly I had seen and heard in Barcelona. In fact, most of the information in this post comes from that great site.

The loudest instruments in the cobla are the Catalán shawms. There are four in a cobla, two called tible and two called tenora. Tible means treble and tenora means - you guessed it - tenor. These instruments look and sound much like an oboe. Shawms differ because they have a larger bore that is shaped so as to make it louder and more suitable for outdoor playing. Shawms are also constructed a bit differently in that they are made from one long piece of wood instead of sections. Also, the reed/mouthpiece is a different shape; it fans out quite widely unlike the rather straight shape of the oboe reed. Many shawms have a bell (the bottom of the instrument) that has been reinforced with metal. This makes it louder, and apparently also allows the musician to use it as a weapon if necessary...medieval times must have been very rough and exciting.

The last two instruments in a cobla are the flabiol and the tamborí, both of which are played by one person. The tamborí is worn on the left arm just above the shoulder and the flabiol is held in the left hand. In this way the musician can hit the tamborí with a mallet held in the right hand while using the left to play the flabiol. A flabiol sounds very much like a piccolo and it is this instrument, along with a beat on the tamborí that begins each sardana.

The music itself has a strong two-beat rhythm to it, whether in a 2/4 meter or the more commonly used 6/8 meter. You can have a listen to a version of each of those here and here. I enjoy the latter of the two the best and it sounds more like what we heard in Barcelona when we watched the dance of Catalunya.

Want to know what it was like to be there? Watch this(not mine):

Experiencing the song and dance that is the Sardana was a highlight of our visit to Barcelona. It was fascinating that people simply stopped in the square on their way to or from work, the market, church, or shopping to participate with others in a dance. Perhaps they knew some of the people with whom they were dancing. I imagine that in a city the size of Barcelona, this is not always the case. Instead they are dancing with people with whom they relate for one reason only: they are Catalán. How wonderful for that to be enough to keep this tradition alive for so many years and through such hardship. Amazing, indeed.

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