Italian Treasury: Liguria / Alan Lomax
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The Alan Lomax Collection
Italian Treasury: Liguria: Baiardo and Imperia
Italian Treasury: Liguria: Polyphony of Ceriana

cd cover Alan Lomax's 1954 Italian fieldwork included a quick swing through Liguria, the mountainous coastal region west of Genoa (the port where he subsequently logged The Trallaleri of Genoa volume, reviewed elsewhere). Lomax sought characteristic examples of the region's polyphonic a cappella song narratives. He arrived as this olive- and almond-growing, herding, fishing and shipbuilding area was in the early stages of a fundamental transformation, becoming a major cut-flower producer for northern European markets, and the tourist mecca popularly known as the Italian (actually, Ponente) Riviera. As with the other Italian Treasury titles, the notes are extensive, with original lyric transcriptions and English translations, a bibliography and discography, and arresting documentary photos from the Lomax Archives.

All but three tracks on Baiardo and Imperia are unaccompanied vocal choruses, reflecting Lomax's primary documentary interests. But in a line-up typical of the northern Mediterranean, opening and closing the album is a male quintet on guitar, banjo, triangle, spoons, and a friction drum laying out a woofing bass line. Recorded outside a café in the port of Imperia, this group performs two instrumentals, "Sui Nostri Monti," a waltz, and "Tarantella Napoletana," a somewhat curious selection given that the title's suggested origins in southern Italy. But music knows few boundaries in the Mediterranean, and quite differently (and quite under-represented, in my view), on "Perigudin" Lomax captured the gruff recital of an unidentified brass band in the Baiardo main plaza, complete with spontaneous audience calls, laughter and hand-clapping.

At the same session, in a most arresting trio of songs, Lomax persuaded a spirited pick-up chorus of some one hundred Baiardo residents to perform "O Ninetta, Bella Ninetta" (a lover's attempt to gain admittance into his beloved's bedroom), the chanted "U Carleva U L'è Mortu" (Carnival Is Dead), and "Canto Dell'albero," a Pentecost ceremonial song that is still performed today, albeit in large part for the benefit of tourists.

Also in Baiardo, a ten-man chorus offered several examples of Liguria's striking drone singing style: "Non Posso Mai Aver Un'ora Di Riposo," in which the basses sustain the same tone throughout; "La Cena Dela Sposa," a cumulative nocturnal air traditionally sung outside the window of newlyweds; and "La Fontinella," which quaintly documents a knight's attempt to seduce a young maiden. Many of the songs deal with themes of love, separation, deceit and infidelity, often in a ribald vein, as on "Gh'é Zèrte Scignurine" (There Are Certain Young Ladies), a jaunty, explicit dissertation on comparative sexual endowment.

Lomax also recorded a handful of unidentified Baiardo female singers (too few, in my estimation), as heard on a solo rendition of "Linu Linu Franza," a filastrocca or children's nonsense song. He also captured a six-woman chorus on the accelerating "Povero Merlo Mio" (a song whose entertainment objective is to remember an ever-lengthening chain of associations, sung faster and faster), and the airy harmonies of "Elisa Trabacini," a narrative of love betrayed during the Italian conquest of Libya in 1911-1912.

cd coverIn the nearby mountain town of Ceriana, inland from San Remo, Lomax sought out the Compagnia Sacco, a locally noted singing group founded by male farm workers in 1926, heard here on their first-ever recording. Ceriana is entirely dedicated to a repertoire the group continues to perform today. The vocal harmonies rely on the same basso continuo heard elsewhere in Liguria. One of the more unusual songs is "Paire De Catarina," whose decidedly medieval intonation resonates with versions encountered throughout northern Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Again, most of the performances are a cappella, but a lone chorded, strummed guitar makes an appearance on another version of the popular ballad "La Fontinella," and on the closing "Mi Me Ne Fon Ina Scuria," a waltzing word play between lovers that ends in the girl's agreement to her suitor's insistent entreaty to marry.

Atypical of the polyphonic singing of Ceriana, women joined the Compagnia on "Lauda Da Madona Da Vila," a popular hymn sung to the local patron saint during her yearly September festival. The women are also heard on two takes of "U Camijin Bagnau" (The Wet Nightgown), the story of an unfortunate young girl married off by her family to a much older man for his wealth. This is an old theme in Italian folk tradition, one that recalls master Sicilian storyteller Leonardo Sciascia's "The Ransom," as related in his The Wine-Dark Sea (Granta, 2000 coincidentally, the cover has a superb black-and-white photograph of a trumpet player and guitarist in the street). As the lyrics relate,

O papa, my papa,
you have done me a great wrong.
You have married me to an old man
who sleeps day and night.

O daughter, my daughter,
you must have patience.
The old man will die,
and you will be mistress
of his inheritance.

It's not the inheritance [that I want]...
I'm a young girl,
I like a good-looking young man.

Compare Sciascia, who comments, "I was moved to write [the story] down by one of those unforeseen promptings that can be inspired by a certain sensation, a chance encounter or a passage in a book." In this case it was the Baudelaire poem "Reversibilité," whose words "echo somewhat ironically the Catholic concept of vicarious payment which has become,... a cardinal dogma of the agonizing religion of the family." And as in the song's promise, the disconsolate young woman of Sciascia's tale ultimately has her recompense. As for her elderly husband, "Love for his child-bride distracted the distinguished [gentleman] and then gently finished him." Indeed, "He had passed away silently during the night like a candle whose flame leaps once before it gutters into darkness." And so it was: "Six months had not yet passed before she eloped one moonlit night, herself as palely beautiful as the moon in her black widow's weeds, with a young man... who, though he had said nothing, had been in love with her since before her marriage."

It goes almost without saying that the nature of domestic social dramas has changed irrevocably in Liguria since 1954. Indeed, the community context that nurtured these choral folk traditions has largely, if not completely, disappeared. I went to Liguria with my family the year these titles were released (2002). The mountain villages we hiked to seemed abandoned by all but the very young and old, the olive and almond terraces falling to retiree homes, McVillas and vacation condos for affluent northern Europeans, even as the picturesque seaside towns, while hardly abandoned by tourism, have seen better days. Many young adults have emigrated to seek education and employment in Italy's urban centers, while the combined impact of pop music, television, film and tourism is as strong in Liguria as anywhere else in the world. Likewise, far less inexpensive vacation spots beckon in Turkey, North Africa, the Canaries and the Caribbean, boatbuilding has declined, and a once-booming cut-flower industry has given way to places with more reliable weather and cheaper labor costs: southern Spain (with undocumented North African workers), Colombia and East Africa.

Still, Italian Treasury series editor Goffredo Plastino reports that a 1994 field trip turned up a few of the singers originally recorded by Lomax in Baiardo, and remnants of the repertoire documented fifty years earlier. Likewise, with some new blood, the Compagnia Sacco is still singing (now proudly citing the present recordings as "historic"), and during the Festa dei Cori di Ceriana, an annual folksong festival, the female singing group Mamme Canterine still performs songs like those heard on these recordings. But in Liguria as elsewhere in Italy, it now seems to be up to folk revivalists and scholars to carry forward the inspiration embodied in the aural heritage that Lomax documented nearly a half-century ago. Michael Stone

Read about more about Lomax's Italian Treasury

Both CDs are available via cdRoots:
Baiardo and Imperia
Polyphony of Ceriana

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