60TH SAGRA DEL MANDORLO IN FIORE
50TH FESTIVAL INTERNAZIONALE DEL FOLKLORE
AGRIGENTO, SICILY, ITALY 8TH – 13TH FEBRUARY 2005
On Monday 7th February, 20 members of our band flew to Sicily to participate in the 50th International Folk Festival, part of the 60th Flowering of the Almond Festival, a ten-day festival of folk dance and music performances in the city of Agrigento.
The city, situated on the southern coast of Sicily, is most famous for the ruins in the ‘Valle dei Templi’, a series of Sicilian Greek Doric temples along a ridge to the south of the city, which date from the 5th century BC. The temples provided a stunning backdrop for the Festival, which featured about 20 folk groups from as far away as the Philippines, Guatemala, Peru and Mexico performing alongside groups from countries such as Turkmenistan, Georgia and Hungary.
Tuesday 8th February
After landing in bright Sicilian sunshine in Palermo, we were taken by coach across the island to Agrigento in time for lunch. Our hosts spared no expense, putting us up in the three star Hotel Akrabello, situated about 3km to the south of the city, complete with ensuite facilities, balconies, bar, restaurant, nightclub and pool!
After a three-course lunch, we reassembled our instruments, tuned up and proceeded to the Valle dei Templi for the opening ceremony. Three band members were taken straight to the temples whilst the rest of the band, along with the other groups, marched in a torch-lit procession for 2km down an old Roman road and up to the temples. By the time the parade started it was dusk and, as with most Roman roads, there were no streetlights to see by. Amazingly, no one was injured despite having to dodge 10-feet high cactus trees, rocks and potholes, not to mention a couple of streams and single-file bridges!!
However, the floodlit temples made a strikingly dramatic backdrop to the televised ceremony, opened with a speech from the organisers highlighting the importance of international peace, brotherhood and friendship.
Wednesday 10th February
After a late night out for a few of the band members at Murphy’s, the local Irish bar, the band took it easy with a short afternoon practice. Despite being within 150 miles of Tunisia it was cold, wet and windy outside so we made use of the hotel’s ghostly nightclub.
At about 5pm we set off for the heart of the city’s old quarter, to the City Chambers. Here, all the groups crowded into the courtyard for a colourful cacophony of music, costume and dance, bands playing cheek to jowl and dancers weaving their way through the colonnades.
All groups then assembled to form a parade through the old town and down the hill into the streets of the newer suburbs. Capes were donned to protect against the persistent rain and the band took their place in the 3km march through wet cobbled streets lined with hardy spectators. Back at the hotel, dried and holed up in the bar, we were able to watch ourselves on the local TV station’s coverage of the parade.
Thursday 11th February
Up early and into the city for a short parade and performance in the morning. Having begun to get used to the relaxed organisational approach taken by our hosts, we were still a little surprised to find ourselves marching up a one-way street and coming face to face with a wall of oncoming traffic! A short stage performance followed before we were bussed back out of town to our hotel.
In the evening we paraded with a couple of other groups, including a gaita band of Spanish pipers and drummers from Asturias, through the old town to the City Chambers where each group did a short turn. After dinner we made our way to Murphy’s to settle a friendly drinking challenge with the Asturians. After several pitchers of beer, pipes were fired up and a bought of fast fingering ensued between both groups, accompanied by bongos and percussion. The bar was crowded with curious locals and inevitably ceilidh dancing was called for with the Asturians and the Scottish leading the Sicilians in several rounds of Strip the Willow and other favourites.
A few days later, whilst flicking through the TV channels, up we pop on a local station with full coverage of our impromptu ceilidh! Apparently the local TV crew had got wind of what was happening and arrived, unnoticed by us amongst the merrymaking, to capture the festivities. Luckily there was no mention of a certain piper’s brush with the local constabulary as he proceeded to play his pipes along the route back to the hotel at 4am!!
Friday 12th February
Another early start. This time two representatives from each group attended lengthy presentation ceremonies at the City Chambers, meeting local dignitaries and exchanging gifts. Meanwhile, the rest of the band paraded through the old quarter before a short performance outside the City Chambers.
We then had the afternoon off with some people heading into town, others choosing to visit the temples and the rest settling for a quite dose of recuperation! At last we experienced some decent sunshine and, with a beautiful sunset, the temples were a truly magical place.
In the evening we again ventured to Murphy’s but unfortunately there was a rock band playing western covers sprinkled with a few lesser known Italian hits at full blast. For a few of us it was all too much and we headed back to the hotel bar in time to hear the sweet, clear voices of the Philippine group as they had an informal singsong in the foyer. Beautiful music indeed.
Saturday 13th February
Saturday morning was also free, so again some people took to the temples and the city whilst others nursed hangovers behind closed curtains!
In the evening, after a short practice, we paraded once more through the old quarter to the City Chambers. Perhaps due to the better weather, quite a sizable and appreciative crowd hemmed us in as we formed a semi-circle to play in the square outside.
A couple of the other groups also did short turns and it was a good opportunity for us to see these colourful and lively performances coupled with their traditional music.
Sunday 14th February
Sunday was the biggest day of the festival, with a huge early morning parade of all the groups followed by an afternoon stage concert in front of the Tempio della Concordia.
By 10am we were formed up outside the City Chambers, ready to begin the 5km march through the streets of Agrigento. If the crowds were perhaps lacking previously, they certainly made up for it during this parade! The band struggled to squeeze through spectators 4–5 deep that lined the full length of the parade clapping, cheering and throwing confetti as we passed by. TV crews from Italy’s national stations, along with local crews, recorded the event, which was broadcast live across several channels. To shouts of ‘Bravi’, the band stopped to give short performances along the route before finally reaching the end, more than 2 hours later!
After a quick picnic lunch and a round of local home brew rosé wine (or rocket fuel as it was christened!) we headed up to the temples. A huge stage had been set up in front of the Doric façade and we were called upon to open the proceedings. Several thousand people crowded onto the rocky ridge to watch the show, again beamed out live across Italy, and with the final applause so ended our performances during this Festival.
We headed back to our hotel and spent a quite and restful night in the bar with a wee acoustic session rounding off the trip.
This trip was notably filled with a generous amount of good humour within the band. In particular, we have to acknowledge the talented and almost always unintentional wit of our Murray. From ‘getting in about my langoustines’ at a local restaurant, to tripping over in Murphy’s and ‘going my full length’ in his kilt, his determination to entertain the ceilidh crowd with some ‘good 6/8s’, his going-out shirt with ‘pink and purple diagonal stripes’, the encounter with the road traffic sign whilst countermarching and his ability to laugh out loud at every opportunity kept everybody’s spirits high during the trip!
Many thanks to Nino Lauretta from the Agrigento tourist board who organised our visit, to our chaperones during our stay, and to the Hotel Akrabello for excellent accommodation and meals.
Special thanks go to Luca, our spiky-haired, vivacious and ever-cheerful guide, companion and friend who kept us entertained throughout our stay!