On Saturday 17th, I attended the first night of a week long festival called Aste Nagusia, otherwise known as the Semana Grande (Big Week).
After translating the program as best as I could, I decided to head to the Plaza Arriaga and witness the opening of the festival. The semi circular Plaza situated in front of the grand theatre already had a few groups of people perched on steps or sat together in circles. It wasn’t too busy when I arrived so I got an excellent position on the top of some steps central to the theatre.
As the crowd began to build up I noticed some unusual behavior. A gentleman with a trolley full of eggs and flour clattered down the steps beside me. ‘Must be for one of the food stalls…’ I thought, ‘… maybe he’s making tortilla de patatas later’. Moments after, I saw a group of teenagers with an industrial load of ribena or cranberry juice, either way it was red. ‘Maybe they are going to mix their drinks with it,’ I mused, remembering my first experience of snakebite. And then just a few moments later I saw a fully-grown woman holding an enormous water pistol.
The penny dropped.
A small girl sat beside me with her mother. She started giggling uncontrollably; she was utterly amused to see a young boy being covered in red juice, eggs and flour by six of his friends. My suspicions were confirmed and I felt incredibly overdressed and rather vulnerable without any egg, flour or juice ammunition of my own. All I had in my possession was a pathetic slice of lime left over from a warm coke.
Furthermore, I had my sound recorder and camera with me. Apart from the obvious financial damage if those got wet, I’d have to seriously adapt my proposal for the residency if I lost them to a food fight.
Surely no one would attack this cute little girl next to me with flour? Luckily, there were three rows of people in front of me to coward behind and no obvious major food violence just yet, so I decided to stay put. Plus, it seemed I was in some kind of family zone; small children surrounded me and none of them appeared to have weapons.
There was a lot of chanting and singing as more and more people squeezed into the Plaza. Everyone wore blue scarves around their necks in celebration of the festival. The small girl took a liking to my recorder and persisted in pressing the buttons when I wasn’t looking. I became increasingly hot and decided to stand up to get some air and stretch my legs – except the little girl was sat on my cardigan. I tried to pull it from under her, but she was well and truly sat on it and more interested in lolling on me, flailing her hands and legs as she did so. I gave up and decided that being covered in juice would be quite refreshing right now. Looking back I wish I had wrestled my cardigan free from under her.
Another twenty minutes went by and I continued to capture the sounds with my recorder and tried my best not to have my eyes poked out by the energetic child. The plaza was absolutely jammed with people now. Nervous about what would happen during the opening of the festival I put my camera and recorder inside their cases and hoped they wouldn’t drown in red juice. Then, the windows of the theatre opened and the press prepared microphones. I checked my program – just ten minutes to go until the arrival of Marijaia! ‘Who’s that?’ I wondered.
In the middle of the plaza about six women wearing purple sacks on their heads were launched onto spectator’s shoulders. They had a large sign but I was unable to read it. Two of the ladies took their tops off but nobody seemed to bat an eyelid at their nudity. Balloons filled with helium carried small pictures into the sky and larger blown up balls were being tossed around the audience. The atmosphere was electric and filled with anticipation.
A small group of people approached the balcony of the theatre and the crowd roared. An opening speech was made and then Marijaia was revealed – a most peculiar, giant, woman wearing a pink outfit and headscarf. (That explains the scarves maybe?) Her arms remained stiff in the air as she bobbed up and down to the music. Marijaia’s presence caused the audience to go crazy – everyone was singing and dancing. Suddenly, I realised the small girl next to me had wet herself in all the excitement – my cardigan receiving the brunt of it! Food and drinks were thrown in all directions and it wasn’t long until I was also covered in flour, eggs, red juice and toddler wee.
After the madness, I binned some of my clothes and found a lavatory to clean myself up in. I managed to wipe off most of the eggs and flour. In the sunshine I soon dried out.
I walked about the old town for a bit, the streets were rammed with all walks of life – old, young, families and teenagers – everyone was out for a good time. Every bar was full of people enjoying beers and pintxos (tiny savory foods, sometimes held together with a cocktail stick). I picked the weirdest looking pintxos I could find; a beefy mushroom with a battered piece of unknown fish on top of a piece of bread, covered in an interesting yellow sauce, all held together with a stick – it was unusual, but just perfect with a cold beer sat in the Plaza Nueva.
As I continued on my explorations, buskers provided eclectic interludes as you moved from place to place. Everywhere I walked I seemed to be treading on little bits of wood, ‘what is all this stuff on the floor?’ I thought. I took a closer look and realised they were the shells of seeds.
“¿Qué es esto?” I asked a stranger.
“Pipas.” They replied.
I thanked them and wandered on. What is pipas I wondered…? And then I came across a woman handing out the mysterious seeds with a free blue scarf. I took the chance to grab a packet and upon closer inspection I realised they were sunflower seeds. I put one in my mouth and it was very salty. Forgetting about the shell debris on the floor, I chewed and swallowed it hole. It was crunchy and not as good as I’d hoped. Realising my mistake, I wrestled with another in my mouth for a good five minutes. In the end I gave up extracting the seed and spat out the soggy mess I had made.
I looped back to Plaza Nueva so I could get a seat to see the Barcelona Jazz Orchestra and the American Spiritual Ensemble play a session inspired by Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts. The Sacred Concerts were famous for combining jazz with choral, gospel, blues and tap. This gig featured the talented tap dancer (rapper, songwriter and producer) Lee How. I couldn’t have been more excited to see a spare seat in the second row.
Whilst I was waiting for the concert to begin, I noticed nearby a gentleman eating pipas. I observed him carefully; his hand and arm moved like clockwork, popping seeds in his mouth and spitting out the shells at a rhythmical pace. I tried to do the same, but only managed to crush the whole thing in my mouth and dribble everywhere.
I was baffled to how the man was removing the seed from the shell without using his hands. He continued to move like a machine, seeds went in and shells came out. I tried once more, gently biting the seed with my teeth and then spitting it out into my hands to inspect my handy work – it looked like a squashed bug. Nevertheless, I persevered and eventually I managed to extract the seed successfully, the technique involved softly biting and then prizing the shell apart with my hands. A bit primitive perhaps compared to my unknowing tutor but it was an improvement. In the time I regurgitated five measly seeds, the gentleman had finished his first packet and was onto his second.
Since first seeing the pipas on my first night I now notice them everywhere; subtle piles of them by benches, small trails on the pavement or big clusters of them where a group of people have spent time together.
I love how the pipas shells not only mark movement, but also the passing of time. They signify the people we meet and the conversations had. Each shell that drops to the floor reminds me of another grain of sand slipping through the hourglass. It’s possibly a morbid thought, the passing of time, but for me it puts emphasis on the present.
Before the gig started, the whole of Bilbao was treated to some fabulous fireworks that took place near the river, courtesy of Pirotecnia Valenciana. They were absolutely superb, ‘ooh’s’ and ‘aah’s’ filled the Plaza, with the occasional round of applause. Dazzled and warmed up to welcome the musicians, the Barcelona Jazz Orchestra and the American Spiritual Ensemble entered the stage. And what a treat I was in for!
The music made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Jumping around in my chair, I was amazed and ecstatic to be there. The climax for me was How’s performance of David Danced Before the Lord. His talent paralyzed me; I don’t think I blinked for the whole time he was on stage.
After the gig and covered in musical goose bumps, I took a nightcap in one of the lovely bars decided to call it a night. After all, it was only day one of a nine-day festival.
I should pace myself.