Correfoc by Dawne Archer
The deep, throaty beat of drums competed with the shrill whir of cicadas as I drove through the dry groves of orange trees, leaves wilting in the stifling heat. It hadn’t rained for months. It was only early August and it would be some weeks before the likely appearance of intense thunderstorms and the associated deluge of rain.
I was on my way to Alaro, a small Mallorcan town hosting the night’s ‘Correfoc’ (Catalan for fire run). Most towns and villages on the island host such an event over the summer months with travelling bands of official participants clothed in appropriately fireproof outfits as this was ‘running with fire’, a Mallorquin celebration based on their ancient traditions involving witches and devils. Many take place over the festival of San Juan (St John the Baptist) in mid June, with fire seen as cleansing and purifying, as well as being able to kill off bad spirits. In Palma de Mallorca there is a ‘Nit de Foc’ associated with the San Sebastian (Patron Saint of Palma) celebrations in January. ‘Dimonis’ come out to fight the battle between good and evil and always appear accompanied by fire.
Curious by nature, I was keen to experience all that Mallorca had to offer, sampling its cultural heritage away from beaches, bars and discos.
The night felt hot and sultry as I arrived in the town, the heat of the day trapped amongst the terracotta stone buildings that had soaked up the intense sun. Small towns nestled close to the Tramuntana mountains are cooler than those on the sun baked plains in the summer months but we were enduring a heatwave which had brought excessive temperatures and, even overnight, it would remain as high as 28 degrees celsius (82 degrees fahrenheit).
My skin felt damp and my thick blond hair remained tightly caught in a ponytail to keep my neck cool. Having been warned to dress for the occasion, I was wearing a long sleeved cotton shirt along with a neckerchief; too much clothing for such a sultry night but the reason became obvious as the evening progressed.
Walking towards the small town centre, I joined other revellers, winding along narrow streets of shuttered houses, explosions of colour at every turn where rampant bougainvillea in vivid reds and oranges spilled over walls and balconies. A heavy scent from perfumed flowering plants filled the air, fighting with the salty tang of popcorn and the mouthwatering aroma of barbecued chicken. Everywhere I looked there were a multitude of stalls on every street corner, offering all kinds of things for sale, from silk scarves and local crafts to massive tubs of olives prepared in any way you can imagine.
The excitement in the air was palpable as the drums continued their incessant beat, urging us all onwards to this distinctly unusual celebration.
Stopping at one of the many outdoor bars set up outside local cafes, welcome draughts of icy cold beer made me sweat even more in the all enveloping heat of that hot summer night.
The drumming got louder and more insistent as the main event was about to begin, the heavy beat echoing around the streets, doubling their effect. It was something of a relief to emerge into the central square. However, it was short lived as the volume increased until onlookers were shouting to one another, watching the drummers who looked strong and fierce, sweating and laughing as they controlled the surge of excitement from the increasingly impatient crowd.
I had heard many tales of the ‘Correfoc ‘ so I stood well back, allowing exuberant children and eager teenagers to get close to the centre of things; a relatively small area which usually hosted a Saturday morning market, the space enclosed by a low wall.
Spectators gathered all around, filling every space, backing right up to the tall buildings which formed three sides of the square with the ancient church filling the far end.
Children were sat on parents‘ shoulders and other youngsters were held tightly by adults keen to keep them close. Many wore glasses of some kind to protect their eyes and neckerchiefs over cotton t-shirts and I was glad I had taken the advice offered about what to wear.
The wild beat of the drums vibrated through my body, earthily sexual and very exciting. I sensed the anticipation in the crowd as it came to a crescendo and the rythmn abruptly changed, sending a surge of expectation through the mass of people crammed into the square and spilling into every small road leading off it.
Suddenly everyone pushed backwards, crushing me against the rough stone wall of the local bar and I craned my neck to catch a glimpse of a fire-breathing dragon approaching. Fearsome, yet comical too, it was marched onwards, carried aloft by local lads struggling to control the weight as this metallic beast spat exploding fireworks, showering sparks everywhere; hence the need for cotton clothing and neckerchiefs. I had been warned that synthetic cloth might melt and burn my skin, so old clothes were the ‘order of the day’, ruined by burn holes during the festivities.
I felt a rush of adrenalin flooding my shaking body. The dragon wasn’t scary but firecrackers are and I was keen not to get too close.
Boisterous teenagers ran alongside the dragon, the crowds parting for it to enter the centre of the square. Here it was joined by a whole host of ‘dimonis’ dressed in fireproof jerkins and trousers, painted with flames and wearing devil heads, carrying pronged pitchforks with fireworks attached, spitting out sparks as they waved them in huge circles above their heads. Watching them dancing and writhing in the smoke and intense drumbeats, this whole thing felt surreal and unearthly.
Carried away by the excitement, everyone jostled around, laughing and enjoying the spectacle, ignoring the dangers, urging on the foolhardy youths who joined the dancers to cavort like devils for as long as the fireworks lasted.
Attentive organisers constantly replenished the pitchforks while watching intently for any sign of injury, as did the local fire brigade whose engine stood by in one corner of the square, along with a strategically placed ambulance.
No doubt this tradition will eventually fall foul of rules and regulations but the professional organisers were watchful and well aware of the need to maintain vigilance, along with parents responsible for any child in the crowd in that caring way that the Spanish have.
Whirling like dervishes, the dancers cavorted for what seemed like forever but was probably no more than half an hour, the drums insistently calling us all to celebrate.
Eventually they ran out of fireworks and crackers exploded, right above our heads, along strings that had been hung around the square. Flinching with each loud bang, I was glad when it stopped yet taken aback by the sudden silence before I realised it was all over.
Crowds began to drift out of the square and along the winding streets, some to go home and others to gather at the outdoor bars to drink, eat and party the night away. Our ‘blood was up’ and this was a celebration I would remember for a long time to come.
As I made my way back to my car, I stopped for several drinks, losing track of time as I ran into friends and acquaintances , enthusing over the evening’s events.
Back at home, sitting in the stifling night air, I could still recall the intensity of the drums. Sipping on a cold beer, I reflected on Mallorca’s rich and vibrant customs, thrilled to have experienced this night of fire.
The scent of bougainvillea and oleander hung heavily and combined with the sounds of local residents partying and gossiping at top volume into the small hours. Mallorca is never quiet in the summer as everyone lives outdoors. These sounds and smells combine with my memories of that night to ensure that I will always remember my first experience of a ‘Correfoc’.