Photo by Piero Forconi
June marks the beginning of Catalunya’s festa season—kicking off with Sant Joan on the 23rd of this month. Whether it’s the madcap night of the summer solstice or a village festa major thrown together with a barbeque and the local lads pumping out a paso doble, one element is constant—fire and fireworks. A festa without fire here, and indeed anywhere along the Iberian Mediterranean belt, would be like Christmas without the fairy lights. But a new EU law, which, amongst other things will restrict the use and location of pyrotechnics, may throw cold water on some of Spain’s cherished cultural traditions.
The proposed new law would mean that from the beginning of 2010, all children under 12 would be forbidden from handling even the lowest grade firework, and that any act using category-three fireworks—the highest—must be located 15 metres from the public. Whilst this may put an end (as we know it) to all of Spain’s fire-focussed traditions, from Alicante’s famous bonfires of Sant Joan to Las Fallas in Valencia, in Barcelona it’s the correfoc that could see its last run down Via Laietana come September.
For readers just off the boat, the correfoc is the hair-raising highlight of La Mercè, the city’s festival honouring her patron saint, and is also a part of various other traditional Catalan celebrations. For the Mercè, it’s essentially an unstructured parade of 2,000 souls, either dressed as devils (diables) or carrying giant, hand-crafted dragons (dracs) of the most intimidating, horror-show appearance. They move to the deafening beat of hundreds of tambores (drums), supplied by a group of musicians belonging to each colla (or association of dracs and diables). Each diable carries a whirligig-type contraption, which spits fire into the crowd, and fireworks are continually attached to the scaly dragons: when they are lit, they charge the public. Spectators also have a role to play—they form ‘barricades’ by sitting down in front of the advancing parade (often to the Republican cry of ‘¡No Pasarán!’, They will not pass!) until they are ‘scared’ into retreating back onto the pavement by the charging, fire-branding devils. It’s a symphony of sweat, smoke, heat and noise, and either loved or loathed.
What it’s not—despite all medieval appearances—is an ancient tradition. The correfoc is barely 30 years old, a ceremony invented during the post-dictatorship period. In 1977, a department of Festivals and Traditions was set up at city hall and, with a view to resurrecting La Mercè, they were told to investigate the few remaining cultural traditions left in Catalunya that hadn’t been wiped out by Franco.
Devils, dragons and, of course, fire had always been an important element in Catalan folklore; the famous Corpus Christi festival the Patum of Berga dates back to the 15th century, and records show that a handful of other Corpus Christi celebrations existed that were similar to the modern correfoc—albeit with the public watching from a safe distance. For 1979’s Mercè, the Barcelona City Council organised an event that aimed to gather together the remnants of these devil-dragon-fire activities, and the first correfoc (though it wasn’t called as such) procession was held on Las Ramblas.
Nine groups participated, mainly from outside Barcelona, who relished the opportunity to dust off their dragons, bestiary costumes and other paraphernalia that had been languishing in their local village ajuntaments for years. On their first outing, the press of the time noted that the public, particularly the young, weren’t acting as they were supposed to. Instead of getting out of the way of the fiery onslaught, they were taunting it to come closer, delirious to embrace something ‘dangerous’ and ‘taboo’ after decades of Franco’s authoritarian rule. For the following Mercè the name ‘correfoc’ was coined, and from then on the popularity of the festival swelled: colles were formed in barris all over the city, and avant-garde theatre groups La Fura dels Baus and Els Comediants incorporated elements of the correfoc into their productions. A culture had been born.
Natxo Barrau Salguero describes participating in the correfoc as being “like a hard drug.” He goes by the lofty title of Presidente Coordinadora de Colles de Diables i Bestiari de Foc de Barcelona. Barrau remembers his first correfoc in 1980. “One of my best friends was in the Les Corts colla,” he said. “So I joined in. It was incredible, we felt like we were reclaiming the streets.”
Today, apart from coordinating the 60 colles in Barcelona, Barrau leads the committee that is negotiating with the Generalitat regarding the new EU pyrotechnics legislation. Although in principal each communidad autónoma can make its own decision on whether to accept it or not, the regulations dealing with the proximity of the public and the age limit for handling fireworks threaten the tradition, particularly the popular correfoc infantil for children. The final word on these two issues lies with the Ministry of Industry in Madrid. Surprisingly, given the cultural weight and political significance of the correfoc in modern Catalunya, five Catalan European delegates supported the legislation in Brussels.
“We are the first ones to want to avoid accidents,” said Barrau. “But we want to sit at the table and negotiate. In truth, the risk of accident is very low.”
The collective of Barcelona’s colles already have their own normas that they must abide by, including mandatory third-party insurance, advising all shop and business owners when a correfoc will take place and sitting down beforehand with members of the security services to discuss strategy.
Barrau pointed out that all children participating in the correfoc infantil (held separately to the main correfoc) must wear protective clothing and plastic goggles, and that they never actually handle the fireworks; a member of the colla runs around during the act, supplementing their pitchforks with firecrackers and lighting them. Incidences of burns during correfocs are low; accident statistics are tallied by the ajuntament for the whole of the La Mercè festa and rarely rise above 10 a year. Sadly, this is not the case with Sant Joan when fireworks are let off by the general public; in 2008, 41 people were admitted to Barcelona’s hospitals for fire-related injuries, 14 of them with serious burns. Unfortunately, it may take a serious accident for the laws and collective sensibility to pyrotechnics to dramatically change in Spain. In 1998, a terrible accident involving a rocket that strayed into a baby’s pram led to the toughening up of pyrotechnic laws in the Basque country.
The ‘15-metre’ clause, set to take effect in 2010, would put an end to public participation in the correfoc, and probably see the event relocated to an open area such as the Fòrum. But the ‘no under-12s’ rule would probably put an end to the correfoc infantil. For his part, Barrau said he would like to see the proposed minimum age of participants lowered to six, and have the correfoc recognised by UNESCO for its cultural value (the Patum received such status in 2005).
“Fire is such an important element in Mediterranean celebrations; it’s cathartic and historically signifies purification against evil,” he said. “I can’t imagine a Barcelona festival without it.”
Correction: this article was amended on June 18th, because it mistakenly included the claim that the Les Corts colla is the oldest in Barcelona. In fact, that honour goes to the Diables de Clot. We regret the error