Years ago, here, the ould fellas in this Canarian valley used to wear soft hats — like Irish farmers’ Sunday hat, but grey — and carry large knives at their belts, and have bloodstains on their shirts, or so they seemed.
The stains were actually left by bananas, uncannily similar to dried blood and impossible to wash out. When a visitor saw these desperadoes sitting under a tree in the evening, one or two with dark glasses, one or two sharpening their knives, they may well have had second thoughts about visiting the beautiful Valle Gran Rey.
Nowadays, the farmers wear blue boiler suits and baseball caps, and the working knives seem to be accommodated within the folds of the suit. They still heft 50kg pinas of bananas up the terraces on their shoulders, and still draw the irrigation water between the rows with heavy hoes. Ah, but where’s the romance gone, the lingering fashions of Cuba, Santo Domingo and Venezuela that many of these men, who had worked as — to all intents and purposes — indentured labour in the cane fields, brought home.
The music is still here, the Puntos Cubanos, that some of the old men can sing and of which a unique recording was made for me by my old friend Lucas Rolo Navarro (who, actually never went to Cuba but was an acknowledged master of those songs) in the years before he died.
Sitting in a lean-to on his roof with his soft hat on his head, he would sing, again and again, the hundred and one verses of the ballads into a battery cassette player to the accompaniment of his mandolin. Many a time, I heard Maria, his wife, asking him would he for god’s sake come down and take a break from recording those endless ould ballads for his friend Damian who, she said, had no interest in them whatsoever (I have the recordings still) while he stoutly asserted that Damian had asked him especially to record them and clearly appreciated music more than she.
Lucas was a repository of song whose value was recognised and valued but known only to the island people. He was always a guest at fiestas and ‘carnavals’’, sitting on the podium and listened to ‘all-ears’, but I doubt he ever played on Tenerife, or La Palma, let alone in Seville or Madrid. As I said, he never took the emigrant boat — unlike so many contemporaries. He stayed home, he and Maria and their children managing the self-sustaining land and the cash crop, whatever it was at the time, tobacco, tomatoes, bananas or mangoes. They managed the goats, and made cheese. They made wine from their own vines. They had no car, and probably rarely went down to the sea, 3km downhill, and then only for festivals, weddings or funerals. Casa de la Seda was their village. They were an essential part of the community here.
Their house was solid, shaded by mango, avocado and guava trees. When I first entered it in 1981, it was probably a modernisation from Lucas’s grandfather’s time (although Lucas once told me he was born in a stable on the slope opposite but that, I think, was fun).
Maria came from a farm an uphill hike away: everything, once one leaves the beaches until one reaches the forest above, is uphill, but there are broad, productive, red-earth terraces as one ascends and one has to only see the deep, green and shades of crops all around one to know that this is exceptional land, volcanic soil producing two or even three crops a year.
Water is all that is needed: and currently, this is the longest dry spell of winter weather in living memory; and there is concern. Many spuds are planted and showing inches above the ground. They are thriving, but I see the ground cracking around them, day by day. There is still water in the reservoirs, but for how long will it last?
There is still optimism, habit and ritual. Walking along the paths on the opposite side of the valley, the cooler, shaded side which the sun at this time of the year doesn’t touch until 11am, we see, in every open-doored garage, a man or woman sitting over baskets of spuds, cutting them into segments for planting.
In the 1980s and 90s, Irish seed potatoes were the choice. Now, they seem to replant their own. There is a joke, however, about a north of Ireland cargo that arrived one year, the sacks stamped ‘out of date’. The local couldn’t read this and planted them, and they thrived very well. The farmers subsequently called them ‘outadatey’, and were demanding ‘outadatey’ seed again the following year.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved