Sunday, May 24, 2009
Fire and Water
Once, there was a dark city. Three rivers ran through it, but long ago, misguided city fathers had covered them up, channeling them underground. When the city underwent a long-awaited renaissance, the rivers were uncovered. To celebrate the new life of the city and the liberation of its rivers from their concert shroud, braziers were erected in the river and filled with wood, to be set ablaze on summer nights while drums thunder and flutes play. Voices fill the night air with ancient sounding, harmonic chants that mingle with the trails of sparks that blow off the river. Gondolas ply the waters and people come from many miles around to join the residents of the city in the ritual that celebrates the rebirth of Providence, Rhode Island. The people call this beautiful primal rite “Waterfire”.
On Saturday evening, I was there at the water’s edge sitting on the cool granite walls of the canal with thousands of others waiting in anticipation of dusk. Then, at the exact moment of sunset, the sound of drums begins and rises above the water. A black skiff appears out of the shadows, carrying several black robed figures. With torch in hand, one of them sets the first brazier basket on fire and deep voices began a chant. They glide by, lighting each brazier as they go. As the river is lit up with the flames, the granite walls of the canal glow pink and the warmth suffuses us as we look on, sipping red wine and nibbling pastry. A gondola approaches, carrying a couple downriver. The gondolier wears a straw hat and a black and white striped jersey. He poles his craft slowly along aside the flaming baskets. Next comes a black skiff carrying a old man with long gray hair, and he is dressed all in white. He is handing out long-stemmed, red roses to random people who reach out over the water toward him as the deep, harmonic sounds of “Halleluyah”,by David Hykes boom out across the river.
The warm breeze sends a spangled ribbon of sparks cascading from each of the flaming braziers as my companions and I rise to walk along Canal Street, toward Memorial Park. There, at the dimly lit World War I monument is a group of statues that will come to life this night. We have to see for ourselves. Sure enough, there we find a gargoyle, a Viking and a few other marble statues. As we watch, they suddenly come to life and slowly begin to move, presenting onlookers with small scrolls containing oracles in exchange for dollar bills. The sound of “Nepalese Lullaby” by Neelam Shestha, floats on the night wind as we saunter down to Market Square and the Rhode Island School of Design. We are surrounded by a sea of humanity, all ages and races mingling on the granite waterfront. There are carts selling all kinds of food and drink along the way and the smells mingle with the aroma of the wood smoke from the river. Dance lessons, Jazz bands, origami artists and mimes are all part of the scene on various nights during the season. There is no admission charged; hundreds of volunteers and many more generous financial benefactors make it all possible.
Waterfire is the inspired, artistic concept designed by Barnaby Evans, to celebrate the rebirth of the city of Providence. It is an installation piece, and some refer to it as a sculpture. By bringing together the two opposing elements of fire and water, Mr. Evans found a way to draw the people back to the heart of their beautiful port city. The sublime and intricate architecture of the older buildings, and the glass, polished stone and steel of the city's skyscrapers are illuminated by one hundred bonfires and reflect back their light. An ethereal mood fills the city on the nights when Waterfire happens in Providence.
A Vivaldi piece ends and a traditional Navajo song begins as we stroll across the Washington Street bridge and move toward the car. The black robed figures in the dark boats will continue to feed the flames until midnight.
This was only the first of many magical Waterfire nights this year. My companions and I will be back many times to be a part of the ritual and behold the spectacle that is Waterfire, before it ends again in the fall.
What better way to welcome summer back to New England?