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Resilient Secrets Dwelling in Communal Sound Dances


17 September 2018
This month's topic: Comunidad/Ritual

Resilient Secrets Dwelling in Communal Sound Dances

Tick-a-tick, tick-a-tick, tick-a-tick, tick-a-tick!

Nights on which when I close my eyes I hear the sound of sticks colliding with one another. Old sounds, allies who have accompanied me for years. Then small colourful and mirrored geometric shapes dance in my mind, the bodies and caps of the dancers leaping and intersecting. Every 25 June these sounds, shapes and colours climb up to the Yebra de Basa mountain pass accompanying the procession of the Santa Orosia Pilgrimage, to which my grandfather was devoted and which I take part in whenever I can. On that day, the procession visits a chapel atop the mountain where pilgrims have lunch, drink, sing and dance. The group consists of eight dancers, a mayoral or elder, a rapatán or go-between, and a musician, who sport costumes with silk scarves crossed over their chest and attractive hats adorned with coloured ribbons and flowers. The dancers beat their sticks strongly in different positions, in a ritual cleansing of space that banish all evil forces. One of the characteristics of this dance is that no evidence suggests it has ever ceased to be performed since it first appeared in the seventeenth century, as the community around it has made a point of keeping it alive.

Tick-a-tick, tick-a-tick

What is it that draws me to this event? Why are these sharp blows stored in my memory? Over and above the family closeness, I think the ancestral nature of dance and ritual, the simplicity of forms, the impressive appearance of natural surroundings and the sincerity of the bodies present produce an unforeseen effect on me. I’ve never been religious. Not even very spiritual. I’ve always found it difficult to practice any form of meditation and to approach more or less mystical experiences. My father, who was at a religious boarding school during the dictatorship, used to say that he had done all the praying for me and for my brother (and for all our offspring). I remember sitting alone on Sundays in front of the church door with my football in the shade of a pine tree, waiting for my friends to come out of mass to continue playing. Between this family loathing for the Catholic Church (in which I’ve reaffirmed myself over the years) and the prevalence of scientific knowledge over any other kind of knowledge, in opposition to what we inevitably embrace as we’re growing up (from which I have distanced myself over the years), there would appear to be no other space in which we can understand ourselves in existential terms. It is no coincidence that the progress of the modern world should so often have gone hand-in-hand with religion. Suffice it to think of witch-hunts or the colonisation of so many territories by European nations, where scientific expeditions ran parallel to Christian missions.

Not long ago I read somewhere[1]

that the fact that practices like yoga are so rooted in our culture today is proof that we need to build another way of understanding the relationship between body and mind. I don’t know, but in my case in recent years I have felt the need to come into contact with certain practices related to the magical, the spiritual or the ritual. Perhaps as we understand that we can no longer trust all that we have been told, and that the reason behind modern thought has brought us where we are now, we need to find other places to hold on to. Places that had been forgotten, discarded, hidden. Or do not yet exist.

A few months ago during a residency at Artpace San Antonio I met Roberto Botello, a matachín (sword dancer in an impressive costume) and researcher working on a critical analysis of contemporary institutions and intellectuals in connection with issues of appropriation and the lack of cultural authenticity. Roberto told me how in San Antonio, groups of independent matachines would dance every month of December in honour of Our Lady of Guadalupe. While this tradition might appear to be a form of Hispanic Catholicism, seen from close up it goes further back. It seems obvious that the practice of the Tlaxcaltecas who brought the tradition of the dance of the matachines from central Mexico was outside the confines of Catholic dogma. The independence of these groups was proven by their decision to dance and pray in public spaces without the permission of the local government or Catholic institutions, though in the last few years this independence has decreased as a result of the influence exerted by the archdiocese in an annual pilgrimage made by matachines in order to exploit the tradition for economic development through tourism. Around the month of December 2016, Roberto’s troupe, like many others, had broken up because of its appropriation by the municipal institutions and the Church. But one evening, Roberto heard the sound of the small drum and the rattles on the streets.

Din-a-ling, ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling, brrum brrum brrum, ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling, brrumble brrum brrum brrum

An independent group of matachines organised an old-fashioned procession in their neighbourhood. The old sounds made Roberto understand that the dance of the matachines would be intrinsically resistant as long as the independent troops continued to form. The bands based on the community and the family will continue to exist regardless of the institutions, as long as there are dancers who are only interested in dancing.

The fact is that the rhythms, movements, prayers and affections that emerge from this dance reminded me exceptionally of the dancers in Yebra. The permanence of dances that wish to continue being what they are. What is the transcendence of the permanence of ritual? How is this insistence on permanence able to disrupt our existence? Rituals rescue presences and surrender them to the world, reviving and boosting their ability to affect and be affected. Rituals generate exceptional moments and spaces where attention and perception are transformed and where, rather than one position, we find different free-flowing and interchangeable possibilities of action for participants.

Swerves, turns, leaps and convergences of interchangeable bodies that take me to another moment at which my body moved round and round until it collapsed to the ground exhausted, while I was supported by friendly arms. In the last few days of 2017, as a closure to the project Cale, cale, cale! Caale!!! at Tabakalera in San Sebastian we joined artists Valentina Desideri and Corazón del Sol and a group of people around a pot on a stove where local magical plants and materials brought by visitors to the exhibition were consumed. Stirring the ingredients in the pot, we divided up into groups to prepare different organic materials as we discussed situations in which we would like to overcome – through ritual – the power or domination that exerted control over our lives. Then we tied all these materials to the cape that we wore, in turns, to spin around anti-clockwise while thinking about our own history of domination before losing our balance and falling down.

Even today, I remember the sound of the cape twirling around at full speed as I gradually lost consciousness, and an adorable shiver runs down my spine.


The other members of the group would support until we managed to stand up again, walk towards the cauldron and stir the materials.

The process was repeated until we had all made our way, exchanging positions. We ended up burning the cape and the contents of the cauldron, that eventually turned into a cloud and subsequently into rain.

Again, I can’t explain in words what happened that day. But what we created between us affected me almost imperceptibly, and the way in which I deal with those words that I wrapped into a small bundle and then set fire to has changed since then. As Federico Campagna tells us in his book Magic and Technic, ‘The paradox of Magic’s initiation consists exactly in affirming that what isn’t linguistically solvable, is nonetheless ineffably inhabitable. Likewise, the way in which initiatic knowledge can be taught, resembles more a person inviting another into a certain space, than the transference of information in Technic’s education. The initiator within magic is not a provider of knowledge-units. Rather, s/he is somebody who might invite another one into a space that s/he inhabits already, and whose access is through the testimony of one’s living experience of Magic’s reality-system. As in traditional initiatic rituals, this is a passage that happens in secret, however publicly it might be displayed— in that same way that a friendship or a kiss in public lose nothing of their secrecy.’[2]

There is a bit of secrecy in all we’ve been saying, I think. The secrets that dwell in the sticks as they beat against one another, in the rattles as they quiver in the hands of the matachines, and in the cape that twirls and twirls before falling to the ground with an exhausted body in its interior are the secrets that produce an effect on our life experiences when they come into contact with them, and those that empower the resilience of the ritual as opposed to the transformation of what is correct, reasonable and accepted.


[1] Ericka Florez, Ficciones operativas, Cale, Cale, Cale, Caaaaale!, Tabakalera, 2018

[2] Federico Campagna, Technic and Magic. The Reconstruction of Real­ity, Bloomsbury Academic, London, 2018.

*Picture: VALENTINA DESIDERI & CORAZÓN DEL SOL, A Ritual to Reverse The Spell of The Illusion of Power as Control, 2017. In the context of the exhibition Cale, Cale, Cale! Caale!!! in Tabakalera Donostia.

Juan Canela is Artistic Director of ZsONAMACO at CDMX, co-founder of BAR project in Barcelona, independent curator and critic. He understands the curatorial as a practice in which ideas, concepts and contents come into play, but also work structures, rhythms, models and ways of life. And here writing is a fundamental element.

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