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Stories About Spain

Brotherhood of Drummers

Written by: Don Harris

young drummers in a Holy Week processionThe roll of more than a hundred drummers disturbed the calm of the misty early hours of Good Friday. Ruth and I were standing in the Plaza Mayor of the hilltop city of Cuenca looking through the Roman arch and straining to see the heavy mahogany platform that inched its way up the narrow cobblestoned street. Mounted on it was a meticulously carved likeness of Jesus carrying his cross to Calvary.

The celebration of Semana Santa, Holy Week, is a signature event throughout Spain. The emotional observance in Sevilla, with bystanders spontaneously bursting into mournful song, is world famous. In the north, Zamora is a favorite of the devout for the solemnity of its observances. Neighboring Valladolid has perhaps the finest examples of exquisitely carved life-size figures, many dating from the seventeenth century.

I don't think you need to be a believer, or even personally religious at all, to experience the amazing amount of devotion and community involvement which occurs in many cities and towns in Spain each Easter season. Ruth and I have made it a point to be a part of Semana Santa in various parts of Spain, both in the north and the south. We have even visited a tiny village where they reenact Jesus’ descent from the cross and burial.

Yet, whenever Spaniards get together there is always a human element that trumps any possibility of precision. In the hamlet, people stopped to enjoy some sizzling churros as they observed the procession to the burial place of Jesus. In Zamora, the brotherhoods paused half-way through their five hour processing for a bocadillo sandwich break with family before assuming the penitential burden once more.
crowd watching a procession
Even though Ruth and I have spent over forty-five years exploring just about every nook and cranny of Spain, there are always some experiences we cannot fully anticipate. Semana Santa in Cuenca was just that sort of circumstance. The setting is an ancient hilltop village city dramatically perched above a gorge at an altitude of 3,200 feet. The goal of the men bearing the paso was to pass through the ancient Roman gate into the broad Plaza Mayor which stretches out in front of the 12th century cathedral named Our Lady of Grace. Even under normal circumstances, the carrying of the paso is no mean feat. The men can only go a few yards before they have to stop and gather their strength. This particular street is on a steep incline, and the cobblestone plaza itself is at a slant.

Beneath the platform, or paso, were 30 or 40 men, shouldering the several tons of weight of the life-size image of Jesus and his cross, mounted on the heavy timbers. The men are members of a Hermandad, who consider it an honor each year to bear this heavy burden with their brothers as the procession winds its way through the city for several hours during the pre-dawn hours.

This particular procession making its way with arduous effort was one of nine that the townspeople launched throughout the week. On previous nights and days, the events contributing to Christ's passion were graphically presented on the pasos borne by other brotherhoods: the temptation in the garden, the traitorous kiss of Judas, the denial of Peter, the sorrowful mother, the scourging and many other events that resemble what some of you may know as the ‘stations of the cross.’ The pasos were accompanied by long files of penitentes dressed identically in robes and peaked hoods, and were preceded by musicians playing band instruments.

As the paso approached the gate, the sound of hundreds of drums reverberated, with one group of youths playing one pattern and another responding. The young drummers and their friends had stayed up all night awaiting this moment. As the paso entered the plaza the crowd started shouting at the figure of Jesus carrying his cross. In a stylized way they were imitating the mocking which Jesus must have felt. After rolls of their drums, the drummers would raise their wooden drumsticks in the air, clacking them together and then forming a cross as they raised them over their heads.holding drumsticks in the air

I wove myself into the crowd of young people who were interspersed among families and their umbrellas. It was almost surreal to see the little children amusing themselves in the gathering while others were part of this profound drama. This was not a carefully orchestrated tourist event that was unfolding; it was the expression of people who have replicated this experience every year of their lives. Ruth and I have been to many Semana Santa celebrations, but the memory of Holy Week in Cuenca is one we will keep for a long time.

Another of the surprises, which we had not anticipated, when making plans for Cuenca, is that concurrent with Semana Santa is the Semana de Musica Religiosa, a week of religious music. It is a gathering of musicians in Cuenca, which has been going on for fifty years. Each afternoon or early evening during the week, we had the option of experiencing sublime music in a perfect preparation for the processions.

Tuesday evening we were treated to Benedictine chants performed by choirboys from the Benedictine Abbey of Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos. Their director was a monk who had trained at the Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos, 50 years ago. (Some of you may remember the popular CD called Chant, issued in 1994, which came from that monastery.) Some of the boys, after they matured into young men, continued their devotion to church music by forming a group called Schola Antiqua. On Thursday, they sang the service of Tenebrae in the 13th Century Iglesia de San Miguel.
young Holy Week procession participants
But for me, one of the best musical experiences I have ever had, occurred in another church, San Felipe Neri. Ruth and I and our friends just happened to stumble upon it during our noonday walk. There seven young women from the Netherlands sang medieval chants and hymns from the sisterhood of the Beguines in Bruges. The acoustics in the church of San Felipe Neri were bright and alive. As I sat at the end of a row of pews, I was enveloped by the pure clarity and beauty of the voices of these lovely women as they processed by.

Someone pointed out to me, that when things seem to be declining, to be behind is to be ahead! That is how I felt during our week in Cuenca. I did not know or care what kind of turmoil that city had experienced through the centuries. At this isolated moment, I was apart from all the rough and tumble of our emerging age. I experienced the essential harmony of sublime voices, and that of a community of Spaniards who face an uncertain future, but who nonetheless maintain a tradition of timeless devotion.

For those of you who might think about visiting Cuenca during Semana Santa, it is a low season airfare and just a short drive from the Barajas Madrid airport. I will post our itinerary from this year, 2011.

Tu amigo,


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"Your article reminded me of the dozens of trips my husband and I took to Spain when he was living. Often we went for Christmas and stayed in Santiago de Compestelo at the Parador. I'll never forget the monks swinging the gigantic censer or the beautiful aroma of the smoke from it as it swirled over your heads, filling the cathedral and yes, our hearts with the mystery of God and the sanctity the Spaniards and we felt on this most holy of seasons. Then, too, we loved the foods of Spain; angulas, the wonderful cheeses, the seafood and, of course, a glass of sherry with tapas! How fortunate I was to have had these experiences with my husband; memories I draw on now that travel is limited for me but my heart is full of the glories of Spain; Salamanca, Toro, the Roman ruins in Merida, etc. etc. Thank you for your article; are there more? Sally Fine"
June 2011

"Dear Sally, How nice to hear from you. I am glad I am enriching your fond memories of that wonderful country. I have been to Santiago many times, but remember especially one Christmastide when I was walking in the fog that enveloped the Plaza del Obradoiro that flanks the parador and the cathedral. Through the mist I could hear the melancholy tunes of a saxophone played by a young pilgrim whom I could not see. Unforgettable Yes, I have written more reflections like the one you read.. I am sure you will enjoy my new book The Heart of Spain, Families and Food. You can get a signed copy from me if our order from Latienda.com. Also I have a blog which you can go to from the home page ("Don's blog"). Do keep in touch. Abrazos, Don "

"Thanks for sharing. I spent Semana Santa in Spain back in 1995. I was living in Valladolid at the time. It was a wonderous experience and reading about your past visit made me nostalgic to return to my adopted hometown. "
June 2011

"Hi Evan, I agree with you. Valladolid has a magnificent Semana Santa and that amazing museum which contains some of the most evocative carved figures. I can see why it is your adopted home town. Don "

"Hola;As I read the article I began forming your last paragraph in my head; Spain is in economic crisis but there is always time to continue past traditions that mean so much. Shortly after my son and I completed our Camino in 2000, while having a glass of red Rioja, I became overwhelmed at what we had just accomplished. During the pilgrim Mass the nun who sang the responsorial had a voice from God.Love your articles.Jim Allen"
June 2011

"It is hard to describe the atmosphere of sanctity which envelops Santiago de Compostela. Unlike many holy places which are sullied by commercialism, the purity of this location is renewed by the continuing influx of pilgrims. What a wonderful (and grace filled) experience you had. Don"

"Even with my diminished capacity to hear and the distortion which I hear when listening to music, your description made me feel as if I were there and hearing/ seeing the sounds/sights of Semana Santa in Cuenca. Thank You mi amigo! Paul"
June 2011

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Hermandad de los Tamborileros

young drummers in a Holy Week processionEl atronador ruido de decenas de tambores perturbaba la calma en el amanecer del Viernes Santo. Ruth y yo nos encontrábamos en los altos de la ciudad, en la Plaza Mayor de Cuenca, dirigiendo nuestra vista más allá del arco romano y esforzándonos por distinguir entre las brumas el pesado paso de caoba que centímetro a centímetro avanzaba calle empedrada arriba. Sobre el paso se erigía una imagen cuidadosamente tallada de Jesús con la Cruz a cuestas Camino del Calvario.

La conmemoración de la Semana Santa es un acontecimiento celebrado por toda España. El impresionante fervor en Sevilla, con transeúntes que de forma espontánea rompen el silencio entonando una saeta, es famoso en el mundo entero. En el norte, Zamora es una de las más reconocidas por su solemnidad y devoción. La vecina Valladolid posee probablemente la imaginería de mayor valor artístico con exquisitas tallas a tamaño natural, muchas de ellas pertenecientes al siglo XVII.

No creo que haya que ser creyente, ni siquiera persona religiosa para vivir la asombrosa devoción y participación ciudadana que se respira en muchas localidades españolas durante la Semana Grande. Ruth y yo hemos querido participar de la Semana Santa en diferentes partes de España tanto en el norte como en el sur. Hemos visitado incluso una pequeña aldea en la que se pone en escena el Descendimiento y Entierro de Jesús.

No obstante, cuando se reúnen los españoles, existe siempre un elemento humano que desorienta al ojo extraño. En la aldea la gente se detenía a tomar churros calientes mientras acompañaban la procesión al lugar del Entierro de Jesús. En Zamora, las Hermandades hacían un descanso en mitad del recorrido de cinco horas para comer un bocadillo con la familia antes de reanudar la estación de penitencia.
crowd watching a procession
Aunque Ruth y yo hemos pasado más de cuarenta y cinco años explorando cada rincón de España, siempre existen ciertas vivencias a las que no podemos anticiparnos. La Semana Santa de Cuenca fue uno de esos ejemplos. El escenario es el de una ancestral ciudad en la cima de una colina que cuelga de forma impresionante sobre un precipicio de unos 900 metros. El objetivo de los cargadores del paso era atravesar la puerta romana hasta la amplia Plaza Mayor que se extiende delante de la Catedral del siglo XII, Nuestra Señora de Gracia. Incluso en condiciones normales, no es tarea fácil portar este paso. Los cargadores logran levantarlo sólo durante unos metros antes de tener que detenerse de nuevo para hacer acopio de fuerzas. La calle a la que me refiero en particular está en un plano inclinado mientras que la Plaza empedrada es en sí una pendiente.

Bajo el paso unos treinta o cuarenta hombres cargan sobre sus hombros las varias toneladas de peso de la imagen a tamaño natural de Jesús con su Cruz colocada sobre una pesada estructura de madera. Los cofrades consideran un honor soportar cada año junto con sus hermanos esta pesada tarea de manera que la Hermandad procesione por las calles de la ciudad durante varias horas antes de que amanezca.

Esta Cofradía en particular que avanza entre arduos esfuerzos es una de las nueve que en Cuenca efectúan su estación de penitencia a lo largo de la Semana Santa. En los días y noches previas se representan con todo detalle diferentes momentos de la Pasión de Cristo en los pasos de otras hermandades: La Oración en el Huerto, El Falso Beso de Judas, La Negación de Pedro, La Madre Dolorosa, La Flagelación y muchos otros que conmemoran lo que algunos de nosotros ya conocemos como las 'Estaciones de la Pasión.' A los pasos los acompañan largas filas de penitentes de idénticas túnicas y capirotes y a los que preceden bandas de música.

Conforme el paso se iba acercando al arco, el sonido de cientos de tambores reverberaba en las calles, un grupo de jóvenes tocaba y el otro grupo les respondía. Los tamborileros y sus amigos habían permanecido despiertos toda la noche esperando este momento. A la entrada del paso en la Plaza la multitud comenzó a gritar a la imagen con su cruz. Imitaban, de una forma más refinada, las burlas que Jesucristo debió de sufrir. Tras los redobles de tambores, los tamborileros levantaban y chasqueaban sus baquetas en el aire juntándolas en forma de cruz sobre sus cabezas.holding drumsticks in the air

Yo me sumé a la multitud de los más jóvenes que se entremezclaban en las familias y sus paraguas. Resultaba casi surrealista ver a los niños pequeños gozar en la muchedumbre mientras que los otros participaban en esta apasionante representación. No se trataba de un acontecimiento cuidadosamente diseñado para atraer el turismo; era la expresión de las gentes que rememoraban este hecho todos los años de su vida. Ruth y yo hemos asistido a muchas celebraciones de la Semana Santa, pero el recuerdo de la Semana Santa de Cuenca permanecerá en nuestra memoria por mucho tiempo.

Otra sorpresa que no esperábamos mientras planeábamos nuestra visita a Cuenca es que coincidiendo con la Semana Santa se celebra la Semana de la Música Religiosa. Este encuentro musical se lleva celebrando más de cincuenta años en Cuenca. Cada tarde durante esa semana, se nos ofrecía la oportunidad de disfrutar de sublime música en una perfecta preparación a las procesiones posteriores.

En la tarde del Martes Santo disfrutamos de los cantos benedictinos de la mano del coro infantil del Convento de Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caídos. El director era un monje que había sido instruido en el Monasterio de Santo Domingo de Silos unos cincuenta años atrás. (Puede que recuerden el famoso CD titulado Chant, editado en 1994, procedente de ese monasterio). Algunos niños tras convertirse en jóvenes continuaron con su dedicación a la música religiosa y formaron el grupo llamado Schola Antiqua. El Jueves Santo, interpretaron sus cantos en los Santos Oficios en la Iglesia de San Miguel del siglo XIII.
young Holy Week procession participants
Pero para mí, una de las mejores vivencias musicales que jamás haya tenido, aconteció en otra iglesia, San Felipe Neri. Nuestros amigos, Ruth y yo nos tropezamos con ella por casualidad en un paseo a medio día. En ella siete jóvenes holandesas interpretaron cánticos e himnos medievales de la congregación de Beguines en Brujas. La acústica de la iglesia de San Felipe Neri se mantenía clara y en perfectas condiciones. Sentado al final de la hilera de reclinatorios, me sentí envuelto por la claridad tan pura y la belleza de estas encantadoras jóvenes voces que procesionaban hacia el altar.
Alguien me apuntó una vez que en momentos de decadencia quien despunta es quien va a la zaga. Así me sentí durante esa semana en Cuenca. No era consciente ni me preocupaba la confusión en que la ciudad se hubiera visto involucrada a través de los siglos. En esos precisos momentos me sentía aislado de todo el ruido y la confusión de nuestra era. Me deleité con la armonía en esencia de unas voces sublimes y con la idea de que una comunidad de españoles que se enfrenta a un incierto futuro mantiene, no obstante, la tradición de un fervor imperecedero.

Para aquellos de ustedes que estén pensando en visitar Cuenca durante la Semana Santa, sepan que es temporada baja para los vuelos y que se encuentra sólo a unos kilómetros del aeropuerto de Madrid -Barajas. Más adelante publicaré nuestro itinerario de este año 2011.

Su amigo,


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