The Easter Drums of Aragon

April 2006

Two years ago I was at a friend's house in Spain leafing through a European issue of Time Magazine. The cover story trumpeted 'Spain Rocks!' Shaking off its benighted past, the author bragged, Spain was rising like a phoenix. This vibrant 'new' nation was setting an innovative, dazzling standard for all of Europe. Her chefs were the talk of the world of cuisine; her people were dominating the worlds of fashion, music and the fine arts. Spain was at the vanguard.

But then I looked up from my magazine, and saw images flashing on the television screen - the train station in Madrid had just been bombed by terrorists. March 11 in Madrid was a painful echo of September 11 in Washington and New York 31 months earlier.

Since that terrorist bombing two years ago, Spain has exploded with radical social and political changes - discounting traditional values as 'old hat' and in many ways mimicking the values of contemporary Europe. The shift is quite astonishing, and in some ways disturbing. Yet I find comfort knowing that over the ages Spain has been able to absorb many passing influences while remaining anchored in her identity.

Some Spaniards, who are less intoxicated with modernity, are beginning to explore long-ignored cultural sites. By revisiting traditions and rituals they are seeking to understand their roots. It is this fresh appreciation of the lasting traditions which will continue to anchor and define Spain for the next generation. 

The central ritual of Spain focuses on Holy Week. Throughout this diverse nation, every one - young and old, believer and skeptic - is drawn into the observance. 

There is one Holy Week ritual that I hope to experience in the next few years. It takes place among a cluster of small villages deep in the mountains of Aragon. Once every year, all the inhabitants gather around their parish churches, take up their drums, form bands and spontaneously start drumming. For about twenty four hours without pauses, bands of drummers, largely young men, but also young women and a few children process through the streets of their towns. 

On Good Friday as the clock of the parish church in each village strikes at High Noon, an enormous roar resounds throughout the town as all the drums roll simultaneously. There are all kinds - traditional bass drums stretched with skin, modern snare drums, and many other types in between. The drummers dress in blue, violet or black gowns and hoods, the color depending upon the custom of the village. They remain together for two hours, generating among their neighbors an indefinable emotion, which some describe as ecstasy. The drumming makes the ground tremble under their feet. When people put their hands on the wall of their houses they feel the vibration in their bones. 

Then the townspeople begin to form a procession, intermingling between the bands of drummers. They leave the Plaza Mayor and weave through their villages, finally returning to where they began. There are so many people who join the procession that the last have not begun before the first reach their goal. 

In the procession are men and boys dressed as Roman soldiers, others (including little children) are centurions. There is a Roman general accompanied by men called Longinos, the ones who guarded the sealed tomb of Jesus. The drum rolls have five or six different rhythms. When two groups of drummers with differing rhythms encounter each other at a street corner, they meet frente y frente - face to face - and embark on a duel of rhythms. The contest can go on for an hour or more until finally one group acquiesces and assumes the rhythm of the stronger.

At about 5 o'clock the procession through the village is complete and the faithful pause in silence at the church, mourning the Crucifixion. Then the rolls of the drums sound in unison once more, and continue their distinct rhythm until the afternoon of the following day. 

All night long the people of the town are engulfed by the prolonged rhythm of the drums. By sunrise, some of the drummers have bleeding hands, but they continue all Saturday morning until they hear the sound of a trumpet as the church bell tolls the appointed hour. At that moment all of the drummers silence their drums. They will not play again until the next year. But for weeks after, some say the rhythm of the drums is reflected in the conversational pattern of the villagers.

Romans, Goths, Arians, Moors, Jews, Christians, and pagans before them - they have all contributed to the consciousness of these isolated towns. These various civilizations are woven into the rich fabric of Spain - and that fabric is lasting. I am confident that no terrorists of any stripe are going to change the traditions of Spain. Neither will the latest trends of Europe. Spain will continue to absorb the contributions of others. Her traditional values are not static, but they will endure.

Your Friend,