Koalas de Melbourne on their first rehearsal

Human Towers.cat

This article was first published in Catalan at 2015 Revista Castells‘ yearbook. #47

If 2014 has been an extraordinary season at home, outside it has been a significative year. The iniciative Human Towers for Democracy, the Concurs de Castells and the news on world-class media have exported the fet casteller everywhere. While the event promoted by Òmnium Cultural brought castells to six european cities, the Concurs had international recall and castells in its whole have been object of reports on some extraordinary headers, like the article, cover included, that The New York Times dedicated to the Santa Úrsula diada to symbolise the process of Catalonia to sovereignty.

2014 has marked a milestone, because several initiatives were born to recognise not only the castells made at home, but to appreciate the work of the colles working overseas. Apart from those already consolidated colles, during the past year several casteller initiatives emerged worldwide.

Nowadays, there are six colles fully operating abroad: Castellers de Montréal (Quebec, Canada), Castellers de Lo Prado (Chile), and Xiquets de Hangzhou (China) are the most well-known. Furthermore, Xiquets de Copenhaguen (Denmark), Xiquets de l’Alster (Hamburg, Germany), and Castellers BXL Foyer (Brussels, Belgium) have been consolidating their projects. Also on 2014, the casteller world witnessed the emerging of Castellers de París (France), Castellers d’Edmonton (Alberta, Canada) and Koales de Melbourne (Victoria, Australia). Also, Taller de Castells de Londres (London, UK) was established.

The responsables of the brand-new Castellers de París recognise that “things are getting slower of what we thought at the beginning“. Expectations were high on this colla to be made, especially because it is set on the French capital city. But at the moment, we will have to wait. The colla had have been created taking profit of the Colla Vella dels Xiquets de Valls performance on Paris, on the 8th of June. It has a Twitter account and a profile on Facebook, but at the moment these two accounts are inactive.

Castellers d’Edmonton also had a complicated start. Castellers de Berga, where two of the founders are from, say that the project is “pretty well stopped” because personal affairs of the castellers who were taking care of it. The first rehearsal had an approximate assistance of 30 people.

Badge of Koales de Melbourne
First pilar de 3 in Australia
First pilar de 3 in Australia (PHOTO: Koales de Melbourne)

In contrast of Castellers de París and Castellers d’Edmonton, a colla that is going strong from its beginning is Koales de Melbourne. With a powerful graphic design, a rehearsal plan, and well-experienced castellers on its ranks that are looking forward to stay in the country.

If Castellers de Paris were made from Human Towers For Democracy, Koales were established from the V demonstration in Melbourne, which on that city was called for the 30th of August. Jordi Poblet, graphic designer and now a permanent resident in Australia, asked Jofre Bosch, from Capgrossos de Mataró something like “You know castells. Why don’t we do a pillar for the V?” So, after a couple of rehearsals they got a pilar de tres ready. The first known to be raised on Down Under. From here it started the creation phase of a closed product to be featured openly. “If you offer a product with the arts already done” says Jordi Poblet “with the shirt already chosen and everything, it’s more attractive for an audience like the Australian, as they don’t know castells and they are already used to dress a uniform”. For 2015 they have four performances programmed, along with the Casal Català de Victòria agenda. “Ironically” says the Koala Carla Cava “the more interested on the colla are the casal members’ aussie partners, rather than the proper catalan people”. They don’t even hesitate on the objectives for this next season, as they want to end the year with the pilar de 4, the 2de5 and the 3de5.

The London Project

Closer, in London, on summer 2013 Taller de Castells emerged from a Facebook group called Catalans a Londres, which has more than 2000 people in it. The first to come with the idea was Íngrid Hurtado, from Castellers de Badalona, who was living in London. Along with Àlex Diaz-Manero, the group administrator, they started the workshops in Regent’s Park, with an attendance of 14 people, but when winter came they needed a place to stay. Unfortunately, London laws are very restrictive, and with the lack of knowledge of the fet casteller, they had to move heaven and earth to find a proper place. Finally, they found an atrium of a Hospital – they didn’t want to say which one – to do the activity. Even though, some internal disputes during this summer made a change on the way to carry the workshop. Now is Sergi Serramià the person in charge. He has been living for 10 months in London, he was a Casteller de la Vila de Gràcia, and he is one of the founders of Engrescats of the Universitat Ramon Llull. Due to the bureaucratic pressure, on this new stage they decided to be very straight forward, and the workshops are now performed on a squat house with no insurance, as Serramià assures that “prices on insurances are ridiculously high“. When he is asked if this is not an issue, he answers that when Engrescats first started they didn’t had insurance, neither. Serramià states that the Taller, in fact, “is more an excuse to see each others” within the catalan colony. In all the time the Taller de Castells has been working, assistance has never been higher than 15. Both Àlex and Sergi blame London’s dimensions, where commuting from place to place may last, in some cases, up to an hour.

Rehearsal of Xiquets de l'Alster, Hamburg
Rehearsal of Xiquets de l’Alster, Hamburg (PHOTO: Xiquets de l’Alster)

Two of the colles that consolidated on 2014 were Xiquets de Copenhaguen and Xiquets de l’Alster, from Hamburg. The geographic proximity of the two cities (less than an hour by plane) made possible some collaboration between the colles. Xiquets de l’Alster, named by the Alster river – with its source at the outskirts of Hamburg and its mouth at the Elba river -, started operating on summer 2013 and now they have 20 “permanent” people attending their weekly rehearsals, plus some “casuals“. Alster is one of the few colles who dared to translate the casteller lingo. Although, according to Núria Gratacós, cap de músics – head of musicians -, it still has to be profiled. “For instance – says she – we translated ‘baixos‘ like ‘the ones who are underneath‘, but it’s a very rude expression with reminiscences of the 30’s on Germany”. So they decided to explain the basics in German but the commands are given in Catalan. By the way, they translated ‘pinya‘ like ‘stutzzapfen‘, which means something like ‘supports‘. Gratacós also explains that material is being gathered in order to make a documentary about the colla. By the moment, they have already performed on four occasions and build castells of 5 storeys, which they will try to consolidate this 2015.

Xiquets de Copenhaguen were established by the initiative of a Dane, Søren Sandahl, who came to Catalonia to study and joined the Arreplegats de la Zona Universitària. When he went back to Denmark, he went straight to the Casal Català de Copenhaguen and on January 2014 the first Scandinavian colla began to rehearse. Natàlia Quero and Pau Prat are the two caps de colla –or team leaders. They both were castellers in Catalonia: Natàlia with Sants, and Pau with Marrecs de Salt. Even their constance, they notice that “now we want more kids to come“. In fact, over 30 people from Castellers de Sants and some Xiquets de l’Alster went to Copenhaguen at the end of July, and they were able to build a 3de6 with Sants’ kids. Like the majority of colles abroad, Xiquets de Copenhaguen have to deal with the incomprehension: “[Danes] don’t understand why we get into the pinya”, says Natàlia. Even though, they have some local people, and because of it their rehearsals are in English although they maintain the vocabulary in Catalan.

Xiquets de Copenhaguen posing for the photo
Xiquets de Copenhaguen posing for the photo (PHOTO: Xiquets de Copenhaguen)

Castellers BXL Foyer are a singular case. Born as a spin-off of an arts project at the end of 2013, the majority of its castellers are neither Belgians nor Catalans, but a balance of a twentieth of several nationalities who began to build castells because the link of Marta Meix, the cap de colla, with the Foyer association of Brussels. “Everything came out because we needed people to build a castell for an arts project and we were sharing space with a gyspy association. We explained them the idea and they were very enthusiastic”. In fact, the spirit of the colla goes furthermore: “No badge, no shirt!“, says Marta at the other end of Skype. “We don’t believe on uniforms, we think that in this project everyone can join. The more people, the merrier. If you wear castellers with a uniform, the audience think that ‘other people’ are already building the castell and don’t join the pinya“. Meix prides herself upon when talks about that castells in Brussels are becoming a symbol of cultural union and struggle against inequalities. They also did castells with Castellers de Vilafranca, within the Catalans Want to Vote framework, as they made a 3de6 together. On their own, Castellers BXL Foyer have made a 3de5 without aixecador and two pilars de 4 charged.

Castellers BXL Foyer have a very deep activist component. Here, a pilar de 3 in a demonstration. Notice that the enxaneta raises her fist (PHOTO: Castellers BXL Foyer)
Castellers BXL Foyer have a very deep activist component. Here, a pilar de 3 in a demonstration. Notice that the enxaneta raises her fist (PHOTO: Castellers BXL Foyer)

The biggest colles with more miles on their shoulders are Castellers de Montréal, Castellers de Lo Prado and Xiquets de Hangzhou. The first ones were born on 2007, thanks to the Casal Català del Quebec. Even though, Ester Miró, cap de canalla – head of children’s care team – says she is one of the few catalan people in the colla nowadays: “Basically, we speak French on the rehearsals”. Being one of the oldest colles abroad brings several people to ask them how they started the colla, according to Ester: “The last ones were the Castellers d’Edmonton, but it was a long time ago and we have no more news from them”. In the past, the colla had to spend some seasons without children, literally, until they made an agreement with the Quebecois Circus Association: “Cirque du Soleil is from here, and circus is a standing tradition. Through them we got the insurance and also we could get performances”. Ester points out that Castellers de Montréal is a family-friendly activity and since they are featuring themselves as it, children are coming to the rehearsals: “Although, the biggest part of them are Catalan”. Last season Castellers de Montréal did 15 performances and they proud themselves that they only had fallen once in all their history. Nowadays the brown-coloured shirts are reaching 5-storey castells and they have pilar de 4 pretty controlled, a streak they want to continue this season.

Castellers de Montréal have gained their reputation for being one of the oldest colles overseas. They are also one of the few on having any image on the back of the shirts: their badge.
Castellers de Montréal have gained their reputation for being one of the oldest colles overseas. They are also one of the few on having any image on the back of the shirts: their badge. (PHOTO: Castellers de Montréal)

The two best

At the other subcontinent there is one of the few colles from outside the Catalan Countries that has performed in Catalonia. They were at the Festa Major de Vilafranca on 2012. Castellers de Lo Prado were established on 2008 under the sponsorship of Castellers de Vilafranca, who made a Chilean tour by then. The relationship and mutual influence with the Penedès’ colla are quite intense and it has its origins on Lucho Carrasco, a Chilean educator who lived once in Vilafranca and was seduced by the castells. On his comeback to Chile he decided to create a colla as a support project for youth on working-class neighbourhoods, with educational and social objectives.

They wear Vilafranca green and this season they reached the 3de7. Marcos Lara, the worker of the Lo Prado City Council in charge of the project, explains that since a couple of years ago castells have been mandatory in all Lo Prado schools as a subject. Lara is optimistic on the future of castells abroad: “I think that in 15, 20, 30 years, castells will be a global concrete idea; like football, that was English in its origins, was exported worldwide”. And he goes on: “when there is a good idea is mostly because there is a band of fools behind of it”. Marcos also explains that Castellers de Lo Prado are what is so-called anticoncurs: “We say ‘no to competition’ and ‘yes to collaboration’. If tomorrow in China they do a 3de10 then, well, congratulations”. On January the Vilafranca del Penedès and Lo Prado city councils made an agreement to make interchanges from both colles and this way, they could learn from each other. Castellers de Lo Prado did last year their best performance with a pilar de 5, 2de6, 3de7 and 4de6. Within their challenges for the coming seasons are being able to build 2de7, 4de7 and 3de7 amb agulla.

Lo Prado has raised one of the hardest castells overseas, 3de7, last season. (PHOTO: Castellers de Lo Prado)
Lo Prado has raised one of the hardest castells overseas, 3de7, last season. (PHOTO: Castellers de Lo Prado)

If Castellers de Vilafranca have a sponsored colla in Chile, Colla Vella dels Xiquets de Valls has one in China. Xiquets de Hangzhou are the best colla abroad at the moment, the one with the most people and the one that makes the most difficult castells. They raised the 2de7 and they are also rehearsing on 8-storey castells. Xiquets de Hangzhou were established upon the visit of the Vella in Shanghai for the EXPO 2010. Entrepreneur Qian Anhua impulsed the creation of the colla as a ludic project for its Antex textile company. He wanted the workers to have a complementary free-time activity. Getting in touch with Vella was fundamental for the success of the project. Regularly, Antex invites people from the pink coloured colla to China to perform intensive rehearsals in order to correct and improve technical issues of the Chinese colla. Castellers from Colla Vella who participate in the project highlight the will of the Chinese to build castells á la catalana: “They fully maintain the essences of castells like we build them here. Even more than some Catalan colles”, says Joan Ibarra, chairman of Colla Vella. Hanghzou use the catalan terminology and execute castells with the same parameters used by colles in Catalonia. Children also wears the same helmet. Though, the colla benefits of Chinese culture proper rigor: they are organized, disciplined and constant.

A part from all these colles, there has been several attempts of colles worldwide that did not consolidate, even though the inicial efforts. Near Buenos Aires, the Casal Català de les Quatre Barres pushed for the establishment of a colla on 1998 with some descendants of Catalan people. They even made some inicial rehearsals, but the project had no continuity. Also in Querétaro (Mexico), at the turn of the century there was a failed trial to build up a colla.

Although unsuccessful, the colla with more options was California Kids. Established on 2005 at Irvine Campus of the University of California, they wore orange shirts. The colla was not only made up by Catalans, but by students of other universities, too. But they soon crashed with US bureaucracy on security issues. Even being officially recognised by the university, the Kids were vetoed by them to join the sports council, adducing safety reasons, as they considered that more than 3-storey structures (the ones made by cheerleaders) were unsustainable. Nowadays the Kids are no longer existing, but they reached to build a pilar de 4, a pilar de 3 per sota and a 4de5 net.

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