Tapas from Peter - The Mascleta
By Peter Ewart
Wednesday, March 25, 2009 03:45 AM
Part 3 – By Peter Ewart
(This is the 3rd part of a series on Peter’s trip to Spain with his wife, Dawn. The other articles in this series are “Part 1 – The Oranges of Valencia” and “Part 2 – The Falles de Valencia”.)
On my first full day in Valencia, I was walking along a downtown street when I heard the rumbling in the distance – like dynamite or cannon shells exploding. For a moment, I thought there was some blasting going on at a construction site in another part of the city, or, for a fleeting moment, a terrorist bomb.
This latter, of course, was no idle thought, given that two hundred people were killed not so long ago in the terrible Madrid bombings of 2003. In the aftermath of these bombings, the government of the day fell and Spain withdrew from the U.S. led invasion of Iraq.
However, none of the other people passing by me on the street seemed disturbed at all, so I wound my way through the throngs back to our hotel. The Falles festival (which I discussed in a previous installment of this series) was scheduled to start in several days, so the streets were quite busy.
After returning to the hotel, I was later able to solve the mystery of these strange explosions. From March 1st to 19th, as part of the Falles festival, Valencia experiences a kind of Spanish version of Halloween (albeit one on steroids) with firecrackers and fireworks happening all day and through much of the night.
During that three week period, the “atom bomb” equivalent of these fireworks takes place every day at 2pm in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, which is in the heart of downtown Valencia. The name given to this display is the “Mascleta.” And it was the thundering explosions of the Mascleta that I had heard on my first day in town.
( at right, people gather to experience the Mascleta)
Even with fireworks, the people of Valencia have their own unique style. Rather than being a visual experience, as most fireworks displays elsewhere in the world, the Mascleta is an auditory one, a kind of ear-splitting symphony of sound. It is for that reason Valencia is sometimes called “the Mozart of fireworks,” a description which, knowing Mozart’s impish humor, might put a grin on his face if he were still alive.
The Mascleta is so loud that people with heart or hearing problems are advised to stay away, and so are people who have dogs with them, as dogs have been known to get seriously out of sorts from all the racket.
After learning more about the Mascleta, Dawn and I decided to attend one. A helpful porter at the hotel advised us to stay at least a couple of blocks away from ground zero in the Plaza, as, according to him, we would get the full experience of the sound without ending up being deaf for a week.
So we made our way through the early afternoon traffic to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, a task which requires you to be both quick and nimble on your feet. Countless cars and motorbikes whiz by like bees on a mission, sometimes only inches away from your nose. Somehow, nobody seems to get hurt, although minor accidents (as I will discuss in a later article) appear to be an ever-present problem.
By 1:30, a huge crowd had already assembled at the Plaza, ringing the caged in area where the fireworks were to be detonated. Thousands more were streaming down the streets – young people in t-shirts, older women dressed up ever so smartly in blazer, skirt and scarf, mothers with children in tow, office clerks, businessmen in sleek suits, workers from nearby construction sites, – all shapes and sizes of Valencians were there. For safety, 300 firefighters and numerous police were on hand also.
After a few introductory explosions to warm up the crowd, the main event started at 2pm sharp. And what a start it was.
How to describe the sound, or better yet, experience? Like a syncopated barrage of heavy artillery? Like rolling thunder with God himself at the keyboard? Like being trapped inside the muzzle of a 12 inch cannon? Like being on the beach during the invasion of Normandy? These were not ordinary firecrackers or fireworks. At times, the ground literally shook with their concussion, tremors running up from our toes to the very roof of our skulls.
But despite their unrelenting power, the explosions, like a musical composition, had a definite rhythm and order to them. The sound had shape. One pattern flowed into the next. Smaller crescendos built up into bigger. You even might have been able to whistle along, if, of course, you could have heard yourself whistle.
Indeed, as the “composition” unfolded, it became impossible to hear ourselves shout or even think, let alone talk, the explosions, back and forth, bouncing off the surrounding high buildings, gathering momentum into a deafening and all encompassing wall of sound.
Just before the 7 minutes of the Mascleta were up - a split second pause. And then one final barrage, as if the pyrotechnical experts who assembled the show were stamping their initials on the air. A wave of clapping and cheering spread through the crowd, which by this time must have been 30,000 or 40,000 strong.
We couldn’t see much because of the crowd, but in previous Mascletas, the people have often hoisted on their shoulders the firework “artists” who designed the show – that is, if they liked the composition. At the end of the festival, all the Mascletas that have been performed over the previous weeks are judged and prizes awarded for the best “performance.”
As quickly as they had come, the Valencians streamed away from the plaza, returning to their offices, workplaces, or homes - much more animated and energized, as if the explosions had broken a collective tension of some kind, perhaps serving a similar function as the explosive bursts and dramatic flourishes that are found in flamenco music and Spanish classical guitar.
Within 10 minutes, the dense cloud of smoke over the plaza had drifted away; the crowds were gone and everything was back to normal.
Dawn and I drifted away too, but to a nearby bar, and soon we were sampling some cold Spanish beer and a bowl of excellent olives, our ears still ringing from the unforgettable tunes of Valencia’s “Mascleta.”
Peter Ewart is a writer, instructor and community activist based in Prince George, British Columbia. He can be reached at: email@example.com
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