'Castellers' and television

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UNESCO has declared Catalan human towers, or castells, to be intangible heritage of humanity. This has been possible, to a large extent, because over the last few years this one hundred year old tradition has experienced a strong revival in Catalonia: the number of groups or colles, events and spectators has multiplied. This impressive revival is due in part to one significant factor: Catalan national television has reserved important time slots at peak viewing hours for re-broadcasts and information about the castells. They did this to raise awareness about this traditional activity, but also because it made good television sense. A vibrant and constantly changing spectacle, the castells have been enormously successful at sparking viewers’ interest and have garnered high ratings.

Oftentimes the traditional culture, the culture of one’s roots, struggles to survive when faced with the emergence of new forms of culture and communication. It is as if we had to choose between one or the other. Nonetheless, in many sectors precisely the opposite is true. Take popular music: the existence of so many different traditions has made it possible to widen the range of new creations, which feed off of these traditions and end up transforming them in the process. If the success of Catalonia’s human towers is linked to its presence on television (among other reasons) - and is not seen as a cultural tax to be paid but instead as an efficient product for television - then this proves that the traditional and the contemporary can coexist. It is possible to have one foot in tradition and the other in the present and see everyone win. In this case, both the human towers and television.

At times contemporary societies perceive manifestations of traditional culture to be a deadweight from the past that we feel obligated, because of a certain sense of duty, to drag along with us no matter how heavy it is. But there are times – and in Catalonia this has happened with the human towers – when a traditional culture has the characteristics, resources and virtues that make it perfectly adaptable to the present. Or often it is precisely the contemporary world where these traditions can be most useful and appreciated. The human towers, despite their traditional origins, make for a great show on television. And they are also a useful tool for solving many of the main issues of contemporary society: the question of cultural participation, social cohesion, teamwork, civic belonging...

The castells have adapted perfectly to the characteristics of televised broadcasting: they offer dynamic beauty, dramatic intensity, a competitive element, and they are something people can identify with... In urban areas with high immigration the castells have shown themselves to be a key element of social integration and a meeting point with a huge potential for helping people feel connected to where they live. Old traditions are not always a deadweight. They can also be an extraordinary opportunity. Maintaining them is not always a problem, and often they are the solution to other – entirely contemporary – problems. Popular culture can be an excellent source of opportunities and solutions. The Catalan human tower builders have proved this. 


Vicenç Villatoro

Writer, journalist and former Director General of the Catalan Radio and Television Corporation. Member of the Advisory Council of InTransit.

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