MORE THAN TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
It all started for us on Friday December 6th with an event that is all-inclusive and is always elegant, cheerful and bright. The Princessa Yaiza Hotel has been inaugurating a Christmas lights display for several years and by now they have them running like clockwork, even if it is rare for clocks to work at all in their pantomime-like short, musical plays that always manage to come to a close just as the chimes are about to begin.
The hotel´s Belén perfectly illustrates not only the harsh geology but also the gentle geography it has created. Complete with its volcanoes and ancient wells, and caves and churches and humbler houses and majestic mansions all represented in miniature the belén in situated on the apron of pathway that approach the hotel. Hundreds of people take several minutes to walk around the display and marvel at its precision until,…
the front doors of the hotel are thrown open not only to their guests but also to families living here on the island and to tourists and visitors from neighbouring towns. The beautiful, enormous staircases that seem to wind around the giant and colourful tree erected in the foyer become a vantage point for hundreds of people. Nevertheless, there are crowds thronged around the base of the tree and spilling out into the grounds of the Princess Yaiza. Music is played as a glass of wine, champagne or orange juice is offered to everyone.
Celebrations were interrupted, this year, though, when news came out that the local sweet factory was in danger and the clocks had all stopped and whatever will happen to Christmas?
Fortunately, a beautiful princess, (Yaiza), arrived from nowhere to save the day, helped by the children and gingerbread men of the factory (I bet they were really small human beings dressed in a zip up outfit. You can´t fool me !). As she then waved goodbye to the grateful townsfolk she bumped into a handsome young man who became her prince and promised to look after the factory forever.
All was well again in sweety-land and we were relieved on our drive home to see the lights had also been restored to the roads of Playa Blanca, with our wonderful windmill lit in blue, and bright-light gifts, left unopened, wrapped on the lower roundabout.
That meant that the next Christmas event, albeit scheduled for Friday 13th, an ominously portentous date in some cultures, should proceed without mishap, and indeed it proved to be so.
This was the evening before the official opening of the Belen in Yaiza, and was a gathering of Ranchos De Pasquas. Even clever-clogs Google will not offer me a translation of this phrase but, because of the context in which we have heard such groups perform previously, we suspect that Rancho De Pasquas is a collective term for those musical and vocal groups dedicated to religious or ceremonial performances. If there is anyone reading this who can shed light on this matter, please feel free to e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we´ll print your explanation and officially declare you ´slicker than a search engine !´
The welcoming of three pieces by each of three ensembles was delivered by the ´parish priest´ who conducts the mass my wife Dee attends each Sunday morning in Playa Blanca. He is a lively, smiley character with an all-inclusive attitude and so the event took on the air of a concert, even in such a splendid and spiritual setting as this magnificent and enormous church in Yaiza.
The pews were full, and all eyes were focussed on the priest as he announced the first choir of the evening, and guitars and timples began to play as the outfit, like strolling players, came down the aisle in darkness, from the huge wooden front doors, and then took their positions around the alter, to offer their performance.
This was a representation from Tinajo who gave us a beautifully sung and energetic act. With twenty musicians playing stringed instruments, tambourines, castanets, a bones-washboard hung around a neck and even sword blades serving as strange versions of a musical saw, this was an enormous sound.
The following group had travelled from Haria in the north country and were similar in size and formation to the party from Tinajo and were also much the same in instrumentation. They created a slightly softer sound, however, more focussed on the vocal output, though the songs (in Spanish and sadly incomprehensible to us), had a similar flavour.
The priest had by now yielded to a professional compere, but his introductions too, were entirely in Spanish. That was, of course, perfectly acceptable as this seemed to be an event of religion and culture for the benefit of the native islanders, though as always at such events we and our friends, Iain and Margaret, felt perfectly comfortable in joining their company.
We tried to make further sense of each Ranchos De Pasqua, and precisely what they represented, by analysing their ´uniforms´ but could make no more educated guesses than that a couple of ensembles looked to be quite formally attired whilst the final one, that from Yaiza itself, seemed to be quite casually clothed, although in a uniformed manner. Iain had even noticed that, in all three groups, only one among the virtually equal numbers of a total of thirty men and thirty women, seemed to be wearing a wedding ring. Was there some significance in that we wondered? Who knows, and more importantly who will tell me?
To say their performance, too, was casually delivered, is intended as a compliment. With two young ladies playing triangle, and one playing a bird-whistle effect, their sound was quite distinctive, and the woman playing a natty and complex-looking mandolin type instrument smiled and made eye contact throughout the set with the front row of the audience, like a Bonnie Rait style rock star.
The solo singing was delivered by a young guy who dreamily leaned back against a pillar for most of the performance, even whilst delivering some incredibly challenging pieces. On one occasion, when an impossible note proved to be just that he laughed out loud at himself, as if for having had the temerity to even attempt to reach it. Such a laid-back attitude added to, rather than detracted from, the performance that brought this evening to a close.
Well, almost to a close.
There was yet to be the handshakes all round and the exchanging of commemorative pendants between the groups. Yaiza presented to their guest musicians a replica of a typical Yaiza chimney (honestly) with their high-domed peaks and home-town green paintwork. That did indeed bring the night to a suitably spiritual closure for me, as the Yaiza football club, for which I am a season ticket holder, play in green and I was reminded that I would be watching them the following day, saying my prayers and singing their hymns.
Outside, in Plaza del Remedios, the bands were now strolling around and catching up with fans and family and fellow players from other ensembles. We had a quick word with the young male vocalist from the Yaiza group, who told us the songs tonight by all the groups had been, not carols exactly, but pieces that had told the nativity story in chronological order.
After only four years here, we are still relative newcomers to this island but we had spent another evening in the company of smiling indigenous inhabitants who had tried to answer our ridiculous questions and pointed out to us things we might otherwise not have been aware of.
We stayed in the square and enjoyed a beer or wine, depending on preference, at the only side stall that had been opened tonight. A couple of hours later, at around 11.15 pm., during a lull in our conversation, we looked around and realised were the last people left in the square.
Apart from the poor girl at the bar, that is, who was just waiting for us to drink up so she could go home. We did and she did, but we would all be back the following evening.
By the time we arrived back at the same place on Saturday 14th December, after a regatta that began and took place in the bay of Playa Blanca and then being further delayed by several minutes added on to Yaiza´s dramatic home win, (because of three sendings off, several bookings and one glorious winning goal) the casa De Culture in Yaiza was already full overflowing. It seemed as if the whole town had crammed into the rooms to listen to what sounded to me, as to scores of others gathered outside the doors, like a beautiful musical mix of carols and contemporary pop folk songs by a melodious and entertaining musical set up.
As the indoor concert (free until full) came to a close, so the musicians of the Rancho de Pasqua Yaiza wandered outside leading through throngs of people to the still-in-darkness Belén. A microphone was set up, spotlights came on and The Mayor of Yaiza Oscar Noda, stood in front of the Belén and welcomed us all to the official opening ceremony. He kept his speech brief but mentioned all the salient people such as the musical ensemble and the artist/designer of the Belén itself, Alexa Dorta.
After the same priest as we had seen the previous night had wandered around this outdoor congregation gleefully throwing holy water all over them, sorry, I mean blessing them, the ribbon was metaphorically cut and we were all invited to walk around a Belén that seemed to cover a larger surface area than in previous years.
all across the arts spoke briefly with Alexa and his family after the opening and he referred to himself as an artist and designer but gave great credit to other artists who have in the past created the stock of model houses etc. that populate each town´s individual Belén, which effectively transport a manger-story on to an artist´s representation of his own perception of the Lanzarote landscape. Alexa, who has previously designed Beléns for the Teguise township, told us he had particularly focussed this year on the mountainous aspects of Lanzarote. That was apparent by the huge, open-cratered red sloped ´mountains´ in the depiction, and I look forward to talking again with the artist, in an interview we proposed for early in 2020. about the significance of the mountains and their power and portentousness on this model,
Queues of people snaked around the Belén, in a way that now feels traditional on the island. Whole families of three or four generations wandered together oohing and ahhing at the artist´s vision and attention to detail, that even included tiny plants sown into the top surface to faithfully reflect the agriculture of the island and its vineyards.
We took dozens of photographs and then had a coffee and snack in one of the several bars erected around the site. It was late when we left, and I had probably missed Match Of The Day, but that was a small price to pay for being part of something that feels so strangely important.
As we wandered away to our parked cars, we seemed to be the only people still on the streets, and the area that had been so busy earlier on seemed now deserted.
However, a closer look back revealed three early-teenage children wandering round the Belén, pointing out to each other things of interest on the model, and generally cooing and billing at its prettiness and perfection. We were fairly sure they had likely declined mum and dad´s invitation to join them on their earlier tour, disdaining Beléns as being for the oldies. And yet, here they were, taking secret delight in the artist´s vision.
There were more events in this beautiful town in the South of the island on the following day, but previous commitments meant we had to forego the opportunity to tour the small market, hear the Cora De Yaiza sing in the church and miss the free open-air concerts that took place in the town square throughout the afternoon and evening.,
A week that saw the driver of a company-owned gardening lorry inadvertently shed its load onto our parked-next-to-it Nissan Micra, and my wallet full of my bank cards being left in a printing shop (who had kindly accepted it being handed in and placed it in their safe) was heading from bad to worse. So it proved when, unfortunately, we had to miss the performance we had designated as a must-see by the Voices choir. Fortunately our next door neighbour / roving reporter attended in our stead, and returned generally glowing about what are always heart-warming performances. This one, in the Nuestra Del Carmen church in Playa Blanca on Wednesday 18th December was no exception, and Sandra was particularly struck by the singing of the words of While Shepherds Watched Their Socks By Night to the tune of On Ilkley Moor Bar Tat !
Our next Christmas event had never appeared on our radar until, during a weekend stay in Arrecife to look at the lights, (I know, we´re easily pleased) we saw a good number of people stepping into the Casa de la Culture de la Augustin Hoz. Like all intrepid reporters do, we followed them in and stayed to watch what turned out to a lovely choir concert. Being honest as Alborada Ladies Choir filed on to the performance area, I didn´t expect too much, as these ladies, each wearing a flora de pasqua on a black suit, all seemed to be of a certain age.
They looked just slightly unorganised but what a revelation followed. Singing Christmas songs to the accompaniment of two gently strummed guitars, fourteen vocalists followed the signalling of their female musical director to deliver a glorious concert. It was, perhaps, the most senior lady in age, yet surprisingly strong of voice, who took most of the lead vocals and the ensemble vocals, too, were so highly impressive.
Strangely, though, even in these religious, Christmas tunes, though I could hear echoes of those plaintive cowboy camp fire sounds I grew up on when following my love of Texan and Mexican music. The chord structures that are the foundation of this Spanish sound had already been carried over into Americana music long before I started listening to it, and hearing it again now in music that is still new to me leaves me dancing to the time warp.
The choir looked thrilled at the response they had drawn from the audience and there were congratulations all round after the show. Of all the wonderful things we see as we wander all across the arts it is invariably these simple, unexpected pleasures that linger longest in the memory.
However, as Mike Nesmith of The Monkees once said, ´the hits just keep on coming,´ and the next one was heard a couple of nights later in Arrecife. Again, we travelled in with Margaret and Iain who take great delight in discovering arts and cultural events that have somehow evaded even the extensive range of our all across the arts radar. However, the as-advertised concert, by the Rancho de Pacua Tinajo, scheduled for six thirty in the church turned out to be them performing in a seven thirty mass, a fact we only learned when we bumped into some of the choir. Iain saw three or four guys walking round Charcos de San Gines with instrument cases in hand, and ever the Columbo, he detected they must be musicians. A firm handshake and a quick sentence or two in Spanglish and we had discovered the time and venue of, but not the nature of, the concert.
So, an hour or so later we returned to the church expecting a small choir of five or six players with musical accompaniment, and given the mis-advertising, a very small audience.
We managed to get on to a pew near the front, only to realise we were now a part of what seemed a congregation of more than a hundred for a pretty formal and sacred church service. Imagine our nerves turning to terror when the priest asked us all to listen to the sounds from outside the church. We could faintly hear singing, in a low rise and swell, obviously coming towards the church. What a sonic blast there was as the by now thirty strong Rancho de Pascua Tinajo walked down the aisles, with timples, flutes, and guitars, castanets and marracas and wonderful, soaring harmonies. This incredible church was given a fantastic and uplifting performance by a choir that included the guys we had seen on our earlier ´reccy´.
I don´t share my wife´s faith, though I acknowledge the reassurance it provides her, and as Marc Cohn replied when he was Walking In Memphis and was asked, ´Son, are you a Christian?´ I, too, would have answered, ´Ma´am I am tonight !´ (had anybody doubted my credentials).
There was still another concert to be heard, tonight, though and we had only a few minutes to dash across town to the Sociadad Democratica, where Iain, who had been behaving for days like a man who had lost thirty quid, suddenly took on the air of a man who had found the Three Tenors he had been looking for all week.
The Sociadads over here seem to be the slightly more up market version of the working man´s clubs of Northern England, with their sense of community and a love of decisively delivered entertainment. These Three Tenors certainly gave us that, and their O Sole Mio raised the ceiling of the incredibly spacious and luxurious theatre up the stairs from the club´s excellent dining room and art gallery.
Once again, this free concert, was a sell out and the quality of delivery was superb, notwithstanding my despair that taped backing music and film excerpts on a stage-screen lent it all an air of the karaoke.
Although the inclusion of Can´t Help Falling In Love With You was a decidedly Elvis interpretation and that the infuriatingly catchy Delilah song had the audience swaying and singing, (without ever telling us why, why, why) and even though My Way will never, ever, be my way, I have to say the voices and harmonies of these three vocalists were absolutely superb.
I don´t therefore mean to sound grudging in my praise of the act, as even the film excerpts shed some light on songs and names we in the audience might have been less than familiar with, and the recorded music lent support to the powerful voices of The Three Tenors, but they must avoid the danger of allowing their wonderful voices to be misunderstood as a stadium sing-along. They are far too good for that.
According to the well known song, there are twelve days of Christmas. My Windows 10 is telling me that on my screen this is my tenth page, and strangely, there are still two more Christmas events to tell you about. The eleventh happening drew us back to Yaiza, scene of the official opening of the Belén, where it all began.
This performance was in the Casa De La Cultura, Benito Perez Armas, with its intriguing rooms and quant courtyard offering us another free until full concert. We had learned our lessons well about double checking scheduled start times and then arriving considerably prior to the earliest time we have been told. Nevertheless the concert room was full of around a hundred and fifty people and looked even more crowded as the thirty musicians and thirty instruments of Yaiza Municipal Band filled the stage. With four stand-up vocal microphones set at floor level in front of the stage, it was obvious that it would not be only the band we would hear tonight.
They separated this performance with a guest appearance by Yaiza´s Vocal Group, more usually known as Cora de Yaiza, a choir in which four of my wife´s Spanish friends from her yoga group are members. We have been watching this choir ever since we arrived on the island four and a bit years ago, and they improve each time we see them, and tonight were all dressed to the nines in a new ´uniform´ and they all looked sharp, and confident and delighted to be taking part in this event. Nevertheless, I admit to fearing that performing with cornets, clarinets and big trombones, as well as kettle drums, flutes and oboes and cymbals, might leave them somewhat drowned out. I need have had no such fears as, under the direction of the band´s musical conductor, they delivered two beautiful and quite intricate pieces. Their own musical leader, Nuvi, joined them on this occasion as a singer and together they gave us a multi-layered version of O Come All Ye Faithful, and an image of our friend Jacqueline, front row, centre tapping her feet, snapping her fingers and smiling like a young Rosemary Clooney is not one we will ever forget.
They then delivered what for was, for me, a cherished Christmas present. I pretty much love all versions of the song, but the David Bowie and Bing Crosby collaborative recording of Little Drummer Boy is probably my favourite. Running it close, though, is now the version we heard here tonight. With a full brass and woodwind band playing sensitively behind them, the dozen or so ladies and three men, of the Cora de Yaiza sang a soft, almost mystical version. I love the Bowie Crosby recording because there is something ethereal in that harmony that we never expected to work, and here too, the choir gave the song a wonderfully, dreamy feeling to its gentle march.
As for the band, they had opened with a lively and pretty Queen´s Park Melody, and had followed that with the film score of Apollo 13 and then given us All For Love, associated with the rock star Bryan Adams. Such louder, more up tempo performances had served them best in that section, so it had been a pleasant surprise to hear how excellent they sounded, even in restraint, when supporting the choir. The Yaiza Municipal Band then performed a rousing Free World Fantasy, a closing number which saw this band of males and females, senior and junior, brought back for a deserved encore.
Because of geography, time zones, and a slightly different religious calendar over here on Lanzarote, we celebrated a fabulous New Year´s Eve, as the Spanish locals enjoyed music and a spectacular line of wonderful firework displays all along our South East coastline from Arrecife down to Playa Blanca. We were back to our own beach by midnight, after a wonderful meal of beef and trimmings at The MargheRita Restaurant in Puerto Calero, a self-described pizza bar but certainly not one as we remember them from the UK. The food was wide ranging, beautifully cooked and carefully presented and we quickly understood why the atmosphere here was buzzingly brilliant !
Unsure whether rockets would be fired over the lines of millionaires´ yachts moored in the harbour we headed back in time for the Playa Blanca celebrations, where hundreds of people were lining the beach and sea front walk for a close up view of the overhead flares and explosions and for a distant view of similar activities some miles away on the island of Fuerteventura.
Then, on the 2nd January 2020, we stepped back out of the new decade to join with the final carol service, surely, of the festive season. This was delivered by the Voices choir, and was the final performance of their six episode Christmas season. As ever, they had been doing great work all through the holiday period, singing to raise money for the Calor y Café, a Lanzarote charity supporting the homeless and others in great need.
We had first seen this choir, who perform mostly in English, a few Christmas times ago, appropriately in the village of Nazaret but they have changed almost beyond recognition in that period, both in terms of personnel and the challenges they set themselves in performance. When we, and just about all the rest of the fifty or so in the audneice, joined them for drinks after the recital, Voices seemed justifiably chuffed with how things had gone tonight.
This Villancicos en navidad performance was in the beautiful church in Yaiza and they opened with a lovely Once In Royal David´s City, and were accompanied with great empathy my Michael Emerson on keyboards.
The performance included an excellent solo offering from Sue Cox of O Holy Night, and then an ensemble delivery of In The Bleak Midwinter was perfectly chilled. There was, too, a delightful delivery of the quite complex of Lo How A Rose E´er Blooming by the quartet of Dena Emerson, Danielle Baumgartner, Alan Taylor and Tim Monroe. The Twelve Days Of Christmas were then emphatically counted off the calendar in a display of some wonderful harmony, before slipping off into a Silent Night.
David Cooper seems to be the Bing Crosby of Voices, and he went for the casual leaning on the staircase pose as he had us breathing that heady aroma of chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Adeste Fideles was a strong but no less tuneful delivery.
The closing carol was supposed to be cantado por el coro, according to the dictate of the programme, but there was a quiet revolution in the congregation as we all hummed and la la lahed or even sung the lyrics along with them.
Voices then brought the concert to a close with a fitting, if belated, wish for us to have a merry Christmas !
Before we could all rush for the church door to make our way to the drinks and sweet food available in the nearby village hall, the priest, small in stature but large in personality, ran out into the congregation rattling his tambourine, calling for alms on behalf of Calor y Café. He seems to be a ubiquitous and much loved figure in his parish, and an hour or so later, as we sat having a swift beer in the town with our friends Iain and Margaret, there he was again, like a good shepherd taking care of his flock.
The following day Three Wise Men and Three Kings were seen riding across the island on camels, and we found them In Tias. They were accompanied by vast crowds of people, and children dressed as Woody from Toy Story or as a Transformer or as a floppy giant, all of cheerfully waving goodbye to Christmas and calling in a New Year.