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review by Norman Warwick

Christmas settled very gently on Lanzarote on the 1st December when the Belen was officially opened and the lights were switched on in Plaza de los Remedios in Yaiza. Pulling up in the car park after collecting a couple of friends along the way, we realised that there was still twenty minutes to go to the switch-on, so the four of us, Dee and I and those who can´t and won´t be named, wandered over to have a look at this year´s Belen.

A Belen is a Spanish tradition centered exclusively on the birth and the Nativity scene, of Jesus Christ. Each year the local councils commission an artists to create a Belen in a public place, and the installation is much larger and more intricate than a typical manger  scene in the UK, for instance, it is required to demonstrate the whole of the island and its relationship with Christianity. This sees the fixture showing the volcanoes, the vineyards, the farms and fincs and the surrounding water . Miniature houses are created, animals in the fields, and island attractions are clearly represented, and yet each Belen is unique in size, colour, shape and the creations by each selected artist is a work of art. A new tradition has emerged over the past five years of the government offering free coach trips for the elderly residents of the municipalities to each of the Belens on the island, with a walk around them and a hot lunch provided too. Readers who are here on holiday can easily visit all these fantastic public arts in a day´s drive around the island. The scenes will be easy to find in each locality.

To be honest, we think the Belens are best seen in the darkness, when the lights are on in the tiny crafted-houses, and on this perfect evening it was quite a moving experience to take it all in just before moving into the church. The Belen or the Crèche is a model of the nativity scene. Most examples focus on depictions of the holy couple Mary and Joseph with their new-born child Jesus, in a stable. Usually there are farm animals, shepherds, and angels. There may also be three kings. !

Before the lights would be switched on and declared open there was to be a short blessing and a choral concert at 7.00pm and by the time the local priest and a councillor stepped forward to say a few well-chosen words there was a congregation of maybe 200 or so.

At the conclusion of the formal welcoming, The Vulcania Choir was introduced and the twenty odd male and female members were smartly suited and booted. The were powerful voices among both genders and there were some wonderful harmonies bursting out, with a lovely rendition of Little Town Of Bethlehem being the highlight. The connection was tight between the vocalists, singing ac appella of course, and their musical conductor.

When we lived in England my wife Dee sang in Rochdale Festival Choir, and their home ground was a medieval church, and at one concert her musical conductor turned to the audience after the first song and asked the audience if they could hear them ok, and when there was a chorus of yes we can, she said that was good, because this being such an old church they often had problems with agnostics. I´m sure she meant the acoutsics !

The Vulcania choir (left) had suffered no problems with the acoustics. The sound tonight was simply beautiful with each song being delivered in way that emphasised the harmonies of their powerful vocals.

They were followed by another elegantly dressed choir, with the all ladies Yaiza Choir (right) dressed in stylish black dresses. Their set was very different, a little gentler musically maybe, but with an intriguing and innovative form. One particular song began not only without music, of course, but also without vocals. This folk-lorish offering was representing artisans working on the land and so began with a contrapuntal offering of human music, played by the ´washing´of faces, the wringing and clapping of hands, the clicking of fingers, the slapping of thighs and stamping of feet, evocative of artisans  who plough the fields and scatter the seeds upon the land. This then broke into gloriously delivered vocals that, to me anyway, represented the calling and chatter of those workers as they toiled in the sun.

Having said all that about the vocalists, I should say also that each of the female musical conductors wore stunning outfits that somehow reflected the mood and approach of their choirs, and each clearly loved their work and a held pride for their vocal ensembles.

And so we in the congregation stepped out in Plaza de los Remedios to hear the short speeches that preceded the moment of opening the event. We were told that a folk group of timples, mandolins and guitars and whistles would lead us all around the Belen, about the size of a football pitch penalty area, and that later they would give impromptu performances throughout the night. Yaiza Rancho de Pâscua.

The crowd was perfectly behaved and strolled at an even pace around the Belen, shown at the top of the page.. An artificial, but artistically exquisite, Christmas Tree overlooked the procession, constantly changing shape and colour. The sound of the timples, guitars and some sort of bells, and the amazingly strong vocalists, not only rang right round  the square, but also I´m sure rang right to the outskirts of town.

In need of a drink after our stroll, we and our two friends headed for the two food stalls waiting to welcome us at the other end of the square. One was a burger bar and one was for crepes ,….. a couple of sin beers, a cup of chips and a crepe dessert of honey and cheese, easy conversation and watching the townsfolk enjoy themselves took us a heavenly two hours until we headed back to the car and home. Christmas had begun.


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