Antonio Castrignanó - Mara la Fatia
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Antonio Castrignanó
Mara la Fatia
Felmay (felmay.it)

Some Italian American guys were posting on Facebook about la madrepatria, and when one expressed warm feelings about southern Italian peasant life, another objected. Yes, those days were so wonderful, he acidly remarked, “working the land from sunrise to sunset for i signori [landowners], begging for leftover pasta water to feed my eight kids, and being under the control of the town priest.”

The paisan who waxed nostalgic for a way of life he’d never even experienced was properly chastened. That existence, with its poverty, hunger, and political disenfranchisement, drove several million landless peasants, day laborers, and fishermen to emigrate from southern Italy to the Americas and elsewhere. My grandparents were among those émigrés, and I never heard them or any of my immigrant relatives express any regret over leaving their ancestral villages and towns.

Mara la Fatia, the new album by Antonio Castrignanó, evokes the world the immigrants fled during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and which, for those who remained, lasted much longer. Castrignanó is a young singer, percussionist, and composer from Salento, the southernmost section of the southern Italian region of Puglia. Best known for his soundtrack to “Nuovomondo” (The Golden Door), the internationally successful 2006 film about southern Italian immigration directed by Emanuele Crialese, he also performs with the house band of the annual Notte di Taranta festival in Salento.

The album’s title, Salentine dialect for “work is hard,” says it all. In the eponymous track, the singer bemoans his life of backbreaking labor. He’s got to work the fields even at night, even in terrible weather. His life is so miserable that he would welcome prison as a vacation.

Besides offering hard and poorly paid work, the old world imposed archaic sexual politics. Unmarried daughters were kept in purdah-like seclusion by their jailer-fathers. Young men gazed longingly from the streets up at balconies, hoping for a glimpse of a zealously guarded fanciulla. Castrignanó sings about that, too, on “Mula Petra” and “La Luna Gira.”

Poverty, exhausting labor, male supremacy and sexual repression: the quotidian reality of the poor southern Italian that few, if any, would want to revisit. And yet, Castrignanó’s recreation of that world is immensely enjoyable, brilliantly conceived and performed.

Castrignanó is not a folk artist but a sophisticated, schooled musician who was born in Salento. Mara la Fatia is his homage to his homeland and its inhabitants. On its eleven tracks, he honors his forbears’ struggles, their resilience, and their distinctive culture with his remarkable artistry. (Four tracks are new compositions by Castrignanó, five are traditional texts for which he has written new music, and two are traditional songs he has arranged.) A powerful singer, with a cutting edge to his voice, he can sound as old as the hills and as tender and ingenuous as a teenager in love. Castrignanó also is an amazing percussionist, on the tamburello, a Salentine frame drum, and assorted other beat makers.

Pizzica, the centuries-old folk music that originated in the Salento peninsula and spread to other parts of Puglia, is the main menu item here, along with a couple of ballads and a Neapolitan tarantella. Castrignanó takes a more traditional approach to pizzica than bands such as Nidi D’Arac, Rione Junno, and the mandolin virtuoso Mimmo Epifani. There are no synths, electronic keyboards, or samples; the instrumentation is all acoustic, except for electric bass on some tracks. The music is basically “uncontaminated,” as Italians say; that is, it evinces few foreign influences. (Nevertheless, I hear in Castrignanó’s pizzica traces of zydeco, jazz, and flamenco, as well as North and West Africa.) Nidi D’Arac tried something similar on their all-acoustic, 2007 album, Salento Senza Tempo. That record, though, was a bit too refined: pizzica as art music. Mara La Fatia has refinement and sophistication to spare. But it also exudes what Eugenio Bennato has called “the raging reality” of an idiom that originally was the ritual music of tarantismo, a cultural practice that employed frenzied dancing to cure peasants, mainly women, of psychic ills.

On "Tremulaterra," the thunderous percussion evokes the titular earthquake; Castrignanó on tamburello gives the track a bottom as heavy as a hip-hop bass line. “Cantu a Trainere,” a cart-driver’s song, has Castrignanó chanting long melodic lines with a bleating melisma, as guitars, accordion, and percussion simulate the rhythms of a horse-driven cart surging through the night. “Italy” seems far away here; Salento’s Hellenic and Saracen antiquity very much present and alive. One of the album’s most gripping tracks, “Cantu a Trainere” must be overwhelming when performed live.

The ballad “Luna Gira” opens with deep, resonant tamburello beats set against a three-note electric bass ostinato. Castrignanó’s high and lonesome vocal and the melancholy accordion accompaniment create a mood that’s best described by Elvis Costello’s beloved adjective, plangent.

Not for nothing is Castrignanó a composer of soundtracks. Mara La Fatia, in fact, can be heard as the score of an imaginary movie set in rural and small town Salento. There’s no more cinematic performance than “Signora Madama,” an upbeat and humorous number about a woman farm worker who leaves the tobacco fields for city life and marriage to a handsome lawyer. Bourgeois comfort suits her; she loves living large. But her humble past still haunts her. Every July she returns to her village -- where she is called, with gentle mockery and a touch of class envy, “Signora Madama” (Mrs. Madame) -- to take part in a festival honoring the local patron saint. Castrignanó, assuming the persona of a village storyteller, introduces the tale; the track concludes with the sound of fireworks from the festa. You can practically see La Signora Madama at the celebration, enacting a peculiar combination of noblesse oblige and piety, to the amusement of her former friends and neighbors.

Pizzica originated as the music of subaltern people, Salento’s peasants and laborers. It was “the music of our grandparents, who were slaves of the aristocrats,” according to Nandu Popu of Sud Sound System, a contemporary Salentine band. Today, pizzica represents the cultural identity of Salento and Puglia, while having become, through recordings and festivals like La Notte di Taranta, a feature of the world music scene. With Mara la Fatia, Antonio Castrignanó has produced a supreme expression of his musical culture, one that sets a benchmark for others working in this ancient yet enduring and adaptable idiom. -- George de Stefano

CD available from cdRoots

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"Tremulaterra"

 

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