Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino
With age, supposedly, comes wisdom, and these two recordings -- one by the Calabrian group Re Niliu, and the other by the Salentine ensemble Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino – bear testament to the vitality of their musical traditions. Both groups are based in the south of Italy. Calabria is the foot sole part of the Italian boot, while the Salento and Puglia are located in the heel end: both regions contribute entirely distinctive sounds to the Italian palette, nurtured by Mediterranean winds and the influence of ancient, cross-cultural heritages that have traversed southern Italy.
Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino are in their fortieth year, having been established by Rina Durante in 1975. Today, it is the fiddler and drummer Mauro Durante who is at the helm of the ensemble, and the group's last few albums have seen them widen the sonic architecture of the band by incorporating more African and Arabic influences. The results have served Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino well, and their presence on the world stage continues to garner plaudits and recognition. The conundrum that usually faces successful world music bands is that albums and arrangements tend to be produced to sound increasingly 'western,' distorting a group's roots to fit 'pop' demands. On their anniversary album Quaranta, the Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino thankfully avoid such a pitfall; it is a worthy follow-up to the success of Pizzica Indiavolata (2012).
What Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino shares with other folkloric groups from the Salento is the distinctive tamburello (tambourine) rhythms associated with the ritualistic trance music of the old tarantism ritual. For centuries, women (and some men) working in the hardscrabble fields of southern Italy claimed to have been bitten by spiders; the symptoms could range from lethargy, to sexual aggression. The cure, however, was musical, and the incessant drum patterns, accompanied by the off-beat rhythms of fiddle, accordion, or bagpipes, were meant to make the afflicted individual dance to resolve the situation. Plenty of sociological and anthropological evidence point to tarantism as a crisis exacerbated by poverty and the conditions of southern Italy, but the collusion of the animate biting and personal crisis provides tarantism with its essential mystery. Further, the highly religious atmosphere wrought by the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and the existence of 'pagan' practices such as tarantism have provided a mystical dimension to the Salento.
Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, though, approach their music with as much reverence for mystery as for practicality. What I particularly admire is the group's use of tarantism as metaphor, something that again can be found in Puglia's emergent 'neo-tarantism' subculture. Hence, the song “I Love Italia” might sound like a cliché, but the lyrics decry the current state of Italian politics and the economy:
"I Love Italia"
So dancing the tarantella becomes a method of shaking off the national malaise, of reconnecting with roots running deeper than transitory problems. Probably my favorite track on Quaranta is “Taranta” (spider), with its dark, pulsating groove. The fiddle, drums, and accordion pass back and forth between verses, the entire tune taking on a possessive menace.
Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino also collaborate with the Albanian band Fanfara Tirana on the song “No Tap,” a wonderful acknowledgement of common Mediterranean ties at a time when many Italians warily regard Albanian immigration into their country. On the whole, Quaranta looks back on the legacy of southern Italian tarantism, combining massed female and male voices, wind and string instruments, and percussive fervor: Puglia, on its own terms.
Re Niliu formed in 1979, and while Calabria does not have the distinctive thread of tarantism's beat flowing through its music, the group has been just as concerned with Calabria's place in the Mediterranean odyssey. Legends in their region, Re Niliu haven't released a complete album since 1994's Pucambù, making In a Cosmic Ear an important return to form. The title of Re Niliu's album is inspired by Antonino Mazza's poetry, “In a cosmic ear,” which can be seen as a commentary of local identity pitted against a modern world on the move:
Re Niliu balance traditional songs and tunes with original compositions, and as to be expected for a group that started out thirty-six years ago by featuring a Calabrian roots repertoire, they have ventured further afield into sounds and influences. The opening “PsicoSyla,” a traditional song that features Domenico Corapi throatily pining for love, begins with a sustained guitar note under the opening contractions of the zampugna, an Italian peasant bagpipe. Enter a very danceable rock drum groove over the continued drone, and Re Niliu are off and running into new territory. Many songs and tunes on In a Cosmic Ear are given ample time to stretch out, so the effect is that of a southern Italian kosmische music. The Danza Marranza, featuring traditional lyrics about a metaphorical, anthropomorphized Lent, is heavy on percussion (featuring pots and pans), gliding into a bouncing bass line and electric saz session – it's a wild ride.
“Setta Pianeti” really sounds like a cosmic jam, starting off as a kind of highlife music, but then veering off into handclaps, and accordion in a reverb-heavy atmosphere.
“Metitura” takes a song about the laborer and the master and blows it up in an onslaught of percussion and distortion, as if Re Niliu were an Italian version of Einstürzende Neubauten lost in a vineyard.
The title track is a kind of sonic collage, voices and samples mingling over bagpipes and, again, deep percussion.
"In a cosmic ear"
Re Niliu achieve an intensity on In a Cosmic Ear that is no less metaphysical than Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino. Both bands capture something particular to the south of Italy, a region where the sense of self can be let go into the slipstream of history, only to re-emerge oriented by undergoing disorientation. Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino and Re Niliu do not pander to their listeners, but encourage us to innovate with them. – Lee Blackstone
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