Darkness, fire, moonlight, warmth… there’s something magical about midsummer night celebrations. Every year, on the closest Saturday to the solstice (21 June), there’s a candela (bonfire party) in a park in our village. Parque de la Gallega is on the edge of the hill overlooking Seville, so the view is of a sea of twinkling lights down below in the distance, while a gentle breeze ruffles the olive trees.
But it’s not just about the primeval, life-giving force of fire and the sultry air – there’s music too. Senegalese sabar drummers. The hypnotic beat of the West African drums, the crackling of the bonfire, the “ululululul” of the musicians singing, the low murmur of people talking – every table around the winding paths of the park was occupied by 10pm, as people settled in to have their dinner before the music started; now they’re enjoying the electric energy of these four Senegalese musicians. A semicircle forms in front of the band, who sit in a row behind their drums, their teeth and eyes glinting in the darkness.
The band members take it in turns to leave their seats and dance in the space in front of the crowd. Their wild spirit and abandon fires up the crowd, who perform their own brand of leaping and shimmying – one, the recently retired jueza (lady judge) of our village, admits happily she is borracheta – a little drunk. Even without alcohol, the atmosphere is intoxating. As the tempo speeds up, so the urgency of the movements increases. Everyone is swept up in the faster-beating drums, carried away by the chanting voices and insistent rhythms.
At the candela del solstice, traditions of the Noche de San Juan, the Night of St John the Baptist, only a night later (23 June), blend in with the ancient pre-Christian pagan rituals on which the Church’s festivals are based – writing your wishes on slips of paper and throwing them into the fire, and jumping over the fire too. The latter appeals to show-off macho Spanish boys. San Juan is celebrated with special fervour in seaside towns, where people run into the sea at midnight to wash away their sins.
Our kids have long since crashed out, tucked up under blankets, just a few feet away from the drummers but without stirring, and I find a friend, Diana, whose daughter is a mucker of Lola’s. We listen to the music and watch the dancing, both happy to observe rather than release our pent-up frustrations and desires in physical form, as others are doing. It looks both therapeutic and Bacchanalian.
In the darkness, I don’t recognise many people in this village where I’ve lived for nearly six years now, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a happy and inclusive vibe, where everyone is caught up by the rhythms, and once the Senegalese quartet has finished, flamenco songs start up. Naturally – how could they not?
The Noche del Fuego is organised by the Associacion Los Dolmenes.