When I first heard of Las Fallas, held each March in Valencia, Spain, I could almost smell the smoke. The term “fallas” comes from Latin “facula”, meaning “torch”. Of course I wanted to go! I love fire and pyrotechnics!
When I travel, I like to look at it through the lens of what I refer to as my “Three Principles of Travel”. What are these three principles, you might ask?
1. Create and foster community through the element of fire.
Fire — in the proper format — has always brought people together. That may be as simple as a group gathered around a campfire for warmth, safety, or the preparation of a meal. Around the fire, people talk and plans are made. Those plans may lead to the creation of new social groups or ideas as big as a pyramids or the Burning Man temples.
In Valencia for Las Fallas, this fostering of community starts right away as each neighborhood forms a group referred to as the “Falleros” who meet at their clubhouse or “Casal Faller”. This team takes on the planning of the collection of pieces (“Ninots”) that will be the focus for the coming year. The whole neighborhood can join this effort with workdays and community meals leading up to the burn (“La Cremà”) at the end of the week.
The first night of the event arrives with the raising of these projects (“Day of la Plantà”). The community sets up tables in the streets and comes together to celebrate the project. These pieces are a source of pride for each group, and everyone can lend a hand in their own way. Prepare the meal, paint the piece, or simply help carry it to the burn pad. All of this reminds me of the community that grew around the Circle of Regional Effigies project we did a few years back.
2. Push yourself right up to your limits, and then one notch past.
The use of fireworks by small children, firecrackers of all sizes, and large public aerial displays by the pyrotechnic dynasties of Valencia are vital parts of the event. From the moment you wake up at 8 am to the sounds of brass bands parading down all the streets — complete with folks tossing huge firecrackers — to the moment you fall asleep to the sound of the same firecrackers, the smell of gunpowder is always present.
As a pyrotechnician, I have heard for years about a type of pyrotechnic display called a Mascletà. These displays are almost exclusively done in Valencia and surrounding areas. The show consists of up to 7,000 20–60-gram flash salutes hung on lines like drying laundry seven feet off the ground and all interconnected with quick fuse. The show begins with the first lines of salutes being ignited. As the show progresses, more and more lines are lit, resulting in increasing waves of pressure and noise. All of this is accompanied by a large aerial salute barrage and screamer mines. Each day, promptly at 2 pm, the display begins with a call from the balcony of City Hall by the woman who represents the event all year long referred to as the “Fallera Mayor”.
The call rings out…
“Mr. Pyrotechnic, you may commence the Mascletà!”
I was lucky enough to be at show control for six of these displays, and on the first day I asked the pyros if I would need hearing protection. They gave me a stern look that questioned if I was weak. None of them were using any earplugs, so I thought, “Just go with it.”
The first fuse was lit, and it was loud! As the display passed the halfway point, the intensity increased to a level known as the “Terremoto”, or earthquake. The blasts moved closer and closer to our position at show control. I could feel the concussion of the salutes vibrating my eyeballs in and out of their sockets. The sensation reminded me of a speaker diaphragm vibrating with bass. I thought for a moment my eyes would bleed, and every part of my brain told me to put my hands over my ears. Yet no one else was doing so and I would not be the first.
Just when it reached its peak and came to an end a few feet from where we were standing, I was at the point of fight or flight… Well, I lived! And each day after that I became more and more comfortable with the show and could even manage to think complete thoughts while it was happening. It is pure pyrotechnic madness, and I had gone 20 or 30 notches past my comfort level.
3. Bring back cool stuff for your friends and family.
Of course there were many other adventures, including dressing as a red devil and parading thought the streets waving a pitchfork that spewed fireworks. There were so many good meals around street fires with new friends that I lost count.
That is good and all, but what were the gifts that I brought back to my friends and family? No one likes a traveler who doesn’t bring some gifts back.
We brought the gift of collaboration! And some cool pins…
Before the event week, Artists Karen Cusolito from Oakland and Arlo Laibowitz from Holland embedded themselves with local Fallers of the Castielfabib Association. Their hosts were Spanish artists David Moreno and Miguel Arraiz García (who will be coming to Black Rock city this year with their project, Renaissance). Featuring elements of renaissance Spain with modern playa aesthetics, it will be a great first cooperative project with the artists of Valencia. Tips for working on projects in Black Rock City flowed from us, and in turn we were brought deep into the artists’ perspective on the Fallas.
I also have a feeling that after our group met with the Valencia City officials, there is a strong possibility we’ll get to bring some of our works of fire (including flame effects) to Las Fallas in the future. I was greatly inspired after meeting with the pyros there. Now that I am back, I am going to put my thinking hat on. There must be a way to bring a Mascletà to the playa! Though it may have to be scaled down a bit! (Wink…)
Of course, for my pyro friends I brought cool pins! They are large felt firecrackers with bands of the colors of Valencia!