Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino brings the bite of the tarantula to Alphabet City.

CGS, a group, from Southern Italy performs an astoundingly lively and living folk music that has existed undisturbed and undiscovered right in the middle of the Mediterranean for centuries. It is wonderful to hear it played so authentically in New York, albeit at Drom, a small club on Avenue A in Alphabet City.

Folk Music of Southern Italy

When people think of Southern Italian music, they generally conjure up Neapolitan music, which being the product of a large city, has a long history of commercialization and interaction with other musics. (see my article about Passione below). World music lovers might be familiar with other folk styles from the Neapolitan region, Campagna, through the efforts of La Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare, but the tarantella of the rural Salentino, with its characteristic pizzica style, a frenetic dance music which has been said to cure the bite of the tarantula, has remained in obscurity, ever in danger of extinction through emigration and indifference.

That would be a tremendous pity. This music has a historic quality that is unmatched elsewhere in Italy. The music of La Nuova Compagnia is closely related, but it is from a far more cosmopolitan and urban environment around Southern Italy’s main city and seaport. It reflects a society that thrives on cultural cross-fertilization and academic musical training. When you listen to the albums of NCCP you can hear the influences of other Mediterranean cultures, the melodies that gave inspiration to operatic composers from Pergolesi to Rossini and singing styles that grudgingly acknowledge the dictates of bel canto conservatories. In the music of the Salento, (in Puglia, the heel of the Souther Italian boot) in contrast, you hear the  sounds as they have existed for centuries in all their rustic glory. Right there, at very nearly the geographical center of the Mediterranean, the Salento culture has remained strong, like a little land in the permanent eye of the storm that has been the history of this sea over the centuries.

Even with the modern embellishments of violin and popular melodies that CGS brings to their music, there is nothing that I can point to as a close cousin to this sound. Sure, I can hear a wisp of fado in the ballads and clearly hear the Balkans resonating in the hollow-fifth male harmonies that imitate the sound of the bagpipes, and in the raw female voices, but the pizzica, with its frenetic drumming and bagpipe drone and its hypnotic melodies is something that can only be related to musics of a renaissance era past. Those simple melodies, often based on a triad of notes ascending and descending over and over again can be tiresome in some the songs, giving the tarantella a ninna-nanna lullaby quality, but in the pizzica they reveal their power: it is their very simplicity that gives the music its trance inducing dynamic. It is a music that comes alive in performance.

Alessandra Belloni performs

The Heritage Musical Groups

The post 1968 period brought an ethnic reawakening in Western societies as part of a broader urge for cultural exploration. The NCCP was formed in 1970 and the CGS later in the decade, as part of a new awareness of the value of the tarantella. In 1980 the formation of a New York group, the Giullari di Piazza brought the Southern Italian folk music to American audiences. The founder of that group, Alessandra Belloni, has dedicated herself to this music, laboring to bring this music to light from under a mountain of misconceptions and an active indifference from the Italian American community, who instead of championing the music of our people, generally turn up their noses and plug their ears at the very mention of the word “tarantella.” It is a word that conjures images of obligatory wedding dances on a level with the Hokey-Pokey and walking like an Egyptian. Belloni made a guest appearance with Canzoniere at Drom last night, and she made a spectacular impression with her passionate singing and dancing (to the point of writhing on the floor in pizzica passion). Although much older in years, she held her own with this group of virtuosi, blending perfectly with their incessant idiophones and string drums, blaring bagpipe, feverish violin and the smoking fisarmonica (can you imagine hot licks on an accordion? I couldn’t until last night).

An Audience for Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino

During the past decade, with the establishment of the annual tarantella festival in the Salento, La Notte della Taranta, (see below) the CSG has finally begun to gain recognition outside of its small region. Certainly there is a wider audience for this music. Anyone interested in world music would be enthralled by this sound, it is unique and vibrant and expressly danceable, a fact that was attested to by the unusually large number of people who ended up jumping around on the dancefloor in front of the musicians. If you get a chance to get to Casa Italiana at NYU on October 3rd, prepare to be enchanted, and bring a few extra dollars to buy one of their CDs.

Some Links:

Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino website

Alessandra Belloni, Giullari di Piazza

La Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare

Casa Italiana at NYU events

La Notte della Taranta

The venue: Drom

My articles:

my ezine article about Il Sibilo Lungo della Taranta

re: Passione, musica napoletana

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September 16, 2011 - Posted by | concerts, music | , , , ,

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