BARCELONA – Dangerously wobbly, the structure threatens to collapse. Nevertheless, on either side of the human tower, two small figures slowly creep up. They use hips, shoulders and even heads as steps.
The music rises and the audience shouts encouragement towards the tower. The two figures turn out to be small children. Once they reach the top, they climb on top of each other.
The small boy on top – not even six years old – reaches out his hand and greets the breathlessly watching audience. Subsequently, a sigh of relief flows through the crowd. It looks like a redemption sign. The frenzied audience cheers and claps and watches as the tower is rapidly dismantled layer by layer until all participants are safely back on the ground.
In Catalonia, a ‘Festa major’ (annual village or town festival) cannot be taken seriously without ‘castells’, human towers or translated from Catalan: castles.
The tradition of building castells or holding competitions for the most ingeniously constructed or tallest towers is widespread and the Castellers (participants who make up the tower) look forward to participating again all year round.
The phenomenon is so popular that Catalonia has a regional Sunday evening program. This is entirely devoted to the human pyramids in action.
The region has no fewer than 65 officially registered ‘colles’ (teams) who practice their techniques throughout the year to be able to create as many variants of castells as possible. And above all: to make them as high as possible.
So far, the official record stands at ten tiers. The season in which the castells are built lasts from June to the end of October when most of the celebrations are held. Just as flamenco is synonymous with Andalucian village festivals, castells are synonymous with Catalonia’s festas.
“Building castles” can be seen as a mixture of a national sport and a social phenomenon, which requires 100% commitment from all participants.
Necessary elements here are strength, teamwork, concentration,discipline, courage and balance. According to the Castellers, it is a mix between hard work,companionship and a lot of fun.
Most towers have at least seven tiers. Well-trained teams can erect and dismantle a castell in less than five minutes.
However, the assembly and disassembly must take place without accidents. When there’s no celebration, the members of a group are busy training to pull off the various architectural combinations with fate-defying stunts.
The teams usually meet about twice a week to practice the complex structures of their builds. During the practice sessions, different parts of a castell are always built, but never an entire tower. That they save for the real celebration with a audience.
Then comes the most important moment for which they make all their efforts during the whole year: when they build their tower under the accompaniment of stirring music with the chance of breaking records.
As with so many traditions, it is not known exactly when the phenomenon ‘castells’ originate. However, it is clear the human towers are the result of centuries of folk dancing.
From the sixteenth century, it was common in northwestern Spain for special dances to be performed at all kinds of celebrations. Those dances were called Balls de Valencians and had a religious background.
Slowly the habit arose for the dancers to climb on top of each other during their dance, forming small human towers. A custom that also occurs in other parts of the world. At the time, these small towers still represented religious scenes or paintings.
From the eighteenth century, dancing and the formation of human towers gradually developed separately from each other, although they still existed together until the early nineteenth century. The current ‘colles’ were therefore called Balls de Valencians until well into the nineteenth century.
The city of Valls is considered the cradle of the castells tradition. In 1805, the first groups of Castellers arose in this town just north of Tarragona.
The basis for these groups were the guilds, for example, craftsmen or farmers. Until 1846, towers of ‘only’ seven floors were among the tallest structures.
In Valls, castells are built four times a year: during the celebration of San Juan on June 24, every first Wednesday of August during the famous Firagost festival, during La Diada, the anniversary of the Catalan victory over the troops of Philip de Bourbon, and at Santa Ursula on October 21 or the first Sunday after.
Although the castells undeniably Although they look shabby and often stand so shaky on their bases that they collapse, there have been relatively few serious accidents.
However, in 2006 in Mataró (province of Barcelona), twelve-year-old girl Mariona Galindo died as a result of injuries to her head. She fell from the eighth layer of a castell.
Since then, the debate about safety at castells has flared up again in Spain. As a result, more and more small children wearing helmets – the only protection – are now climbing up to a height often comparable to that of a five-storey apartment building.
According to Jordi Carbonell, head of the Unión de Castellers, a sort of union for participants in this activity, the last person, also a child, was killed in 1983.
“Castellers have been self-regulated for two centuries, so they can now decide for themselves whether or not they require their participants to wear helmets,” said Carbonel, who immediately emphasises that many sports are more dangerous than building castells.
In 2010, castells were added as a phenomenon to UNESCO‘s list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The following video shows a report about Castells in English.
Layer by layer
The Castellers come together in the middle of a village square (even in bullfighting arenas during competitions between different colles). Members of a colle are dressed in a shirt of the same colour and white trousers with a wide black sash around their waist.
The sash supports the lower back, which will have to carry a lot of weight, especially for those on the lower layers, and also provides support for those who climb barefoot to higher regions.
Each castell has a cap de colla (the group leader) who calls out instructions and directs the members of the colle based on a detailed blueprint of the construction-in-progress drawn by him.
According to precise calculations, the height of each castell is based on the weight, height and experience level of each participant.
Comencem la Diada del 53è Aniversari descarregant el 4 de 8 en primera ronda!
— Castellers de Barcelona (@CdBCN) June 5, 2022
The basis of a castell is always formed by a large group of Castellers. They support each other in a beehive-like formation. This one is called the ‘pinya’. This foundation also acts as a safety net to break a fall should someone fall.
The bottom row of the pinya is formed by ‘baixos’, tall and strong men who don’t mind living their ‘moment of fame’ at the bottom and completely unseen.
They often carry a combined weight that easily exceeds a thousand kilos.
Music by ‘grallas’
The accompanying music is played from one or more ‘grallas’. A gralla most resembles an oboe and dates from the Middle Ages. The music is arranged in such a way that the baixos know exactly in which phase the construction of the tower is located. Therefore, for each layer, there is a specific tune.
The ‘tronc’ (trunk) of the castell is formed by several layers with a certain number of people on each layer. Therefore, it could be two, three, four or five.
Furthermore, an eight-tier tower consisting of four people per tier is called a cuatro de ocho (eight of four).
The top three layers of the human castle are called ‘pom de dalt’. This is crowned with the ‘enxaneta’ (the top). This is the child who clambers up through the backs and shoulders of fellow Castellers. Moreover, the child must never weigh more than 35 kilos.
The enxaneta, once he or she is on top and standing upright, gives the “all-is-good” gesture; the sign that the tower has been completed and that it can be dismantled.
Concurs de Castells
Every two years, Tarragona’s Plaza de Toros hosts a major castell competition, the ‘Concurs de Castells’. This always takes place in the first week of October. Furthermore, the next festival is on 6 and 7 October. A ticket costs €10 or €12 per day.
Festa de la Mercè
The Festa de la Mercè is celebrated annually in Barcelona. During this three-day festival, which takes place from September 21 to 24 this year, castells can be admired all over the centre.
The city’s patron saint is honoured, while at the same time welcoming the cooler period after the hot summer.
Festa Major de Vilafranca del Penedes
The Festa Major de Vilafranca del Penedès is always celebrated extensively from late August to early September. The castells should also not be missed here.