Massimo Ferrante's Mezzogiorno Social Club of Italian music
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Massimo Ferrante
U Ciucciu
Felmay (

In my fantasies, all the business and promotional issues that have kept southern Italian neo-roots musicians from touring outside Italy are magically resolved and a Mezzogiorno Social Club featuring the best of these artists crosses the Atlantic, thrilling unsuspecting audiences who've fallen for the perverse notion that Italian music equals Bocelli and Pausini. We'd finally get to see the Neapolitans Daniele Sepe, Almamegretta, Spaccanapoli and Eugenio Bennato, Puglia's Nidi D'Arac and Epifani Barbers, Sicily's Alfio Antico. And up there on stage with them all, performing yeoman's service on guitar and vocals would be Massimo Ferrante.

Ferrante, a Calabrian who relocated to Naples in the 70s, frequently collaborates with Daniele Sepe, having appeared on Sepe's albums Spiritus Mundi, Lavorare Stanca, Vite Perdite, and his latest, Nia Maro. He's also recorded and toured with the Neapolitan band Rua Port'Alba and for a time led the eclectic ensemble i Quattro Quatti, whose repertoire encompassed blues, gospel, and southern Italian folk music. U Ciucciu, his first recording "da soloista," is a smartly conceived and beautifully executed album that thrusts Ferrante into the first rank of Mezzogiorno masters.

The album's subtitle, "Voices and Sounds of Southern Italy," and cover art, with its photo of a donkey, the eponymous "ciucciu," suggest a project of folkloric research and reclamation. But there's nothing academic or overly reverent about this spirited effort. Ferrante and his producer and sideman Enrico Del Gaudio have crafted an homage to southern Italian folk music, but they're less interested in serving up faithful renditions of traditional material than in capturing the earthy, soulful and populist spirit of these songs.

They include well-known works like Rosa Balestrieri's "Mi Votu e Rivotu" (which Ferrante also performs on Sepe's Nia Maro) and three numbers associated with Calabria's Otello Profazio ("Mannaia all'ingegneri," "Amuri amuri," and the title track). But Ferrante and Del Gaudio also re-work obscure material like "L'occhiu di lu suli" and "Canzuna i sdignu," both from Joggi, Ferrante's Calabrian hometown.

The performances range from starkly simple, with Ferrante accompanying himself on guitar or with handclaps, to duets to large ensembles of musicians playing traditional and modern instruments: Neapolitan tambourines and electric guitars, Sicilian bagpipes and jew's harps, accordions, mandolins, and woodwinds. Daniele Sepe's on hand, playing sax and chalumeau, a 17th century clarinet, as well as zampogna (Southern Italian bagpipes) and assorted percussion instruments.

U Ciucciu, replete with beat-happy tarantellas and tammurriate, work songs and love ballads, closes with the somber "Portella della Ginestra." The song, with music by Otello Profazio and words by Ignazio Buttitta, commemorates a particularly brutal, and still mysterious, episode in Sicilian history, the 1947 May Day massacre of communist peasants by the bandit Salvatore Giuliano. (Many believe Giuliano was put up to it by the Mafia and leaders of the conservative Christian Democrats.) Ferrante sings that only a novelist could have fully conveyed the terrible events of the day; his guitar "doesn't know how to cry." Don't believe it. Here, and throughout U Ciucciu, Ferrante captures an entire world, one of sorrow and struggle, but also of joy, bawdy humor, and dogged endurance. - George DeStefano

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