Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino - Pizzica Indiavolata
Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino
The Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino (CGS) can be rightly considered a cultural institution in Italy, and particularly in southern Italy. Formed in 1975 by the writer Rina Durante, the Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino has released seventeen albums of traditional music from the Salento: the region of Italy instantly recognizable as the ‘heel’ of the Italian ‘boot.’ Rina and her cousin, the noted musician Daniele Durante, were part of a cultural revival of the southern Italian experience.
The agricultural region of the Salento has suffered due to poverty (and it still does: according to the U.K. Guardian newspaper of October 11, 2011, 580,000 people have emigrated from southern Italy in the past decade due to the dire economic circumstances there). It is also a region that is steeped in religion and magical belief. For ages, the poor South has been pitted against the more cosmopolitan North, which benefits from its proximity to the rest of Europe. Even in 1926, the writer Antonio Gramsci was to write of the condition of the South in terms of the rest of the nation; he called it ‘The Southern Question,’ where the population of areas such as the Salento were regarded as primitive and superstitious folk, exploitable by northern landlords, and totally at odds with modernity.
The CGS play music rooted in an ancient tradition known as the pizzica tarantata – dance music for a trance ritual known as tarantism. In the highly patriarchal South, women who labored in the fields would claim to be bitten by a spider (‘taranta’); this would ‘set off’ a series of symptoms that, once diagnosed, required the hiring of musicians by poor families, in order that the victim could ‘dance out’ the poison. (Some men would also fall victim to the ‘spider bite,’ but predominantly, this phenomenon was one associated with women.) Once the woman had been brought out of her condition due to the characteristic beating of tamburelli (tambourines) and, usually, additional accordion or fiddle accompaniment playing on the off-beat, the afflicted tarantata would journey to the Church of Galatina to offer Saint Paul thanks (and to re-enact her possession inside the Church). This whole process was described eloquently by Ernesto de Martino in his landmark 1961 book, "The Land of Remorse" (or, alternately, The Land of the Re-Bite).
de Martino regarded tarantism as a specific cultural phenomenon, a complex of action that served a purpose for those marginalized within Italian society. Many of the afflicted women were illiterate, unmarried, or married to someone that they did not wish to be married to. And, they were poor and powerless in a social system that benefitted men. de Martino noted that the tarantism phenomenon could be traced back to ancient Greece and a cult of Dionysus that was founded in the south of Italy; there were parallels between the female worship of Dionysus, and the percussive music that would throw individuals into a trance-state. But tarantism was dying on its own rocks; the Catholic Church viewed the ancient ‘pagan’ practice with great suspicion, and by the end of the 1950s, the tarantism event was in danger of being extinguished altogether. With many people moving out of the poor South in search of a better life, few people wanted to hear this ‘music of suffering’; what Luigi Chiriatti, Italian folklorist, musician, and one of the original founders of the Canzoniere Greconico Salentino, once described to me as a ‘broken memory.’
The Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino is, today, a powerhouse outfit. The pizzica music is no longer regarded with the scorn of the past, and its revival has resulted in a major commercial success within the south of Italy, with festivals devoted to this music. In 2007, the Durantes handed over the group to their son, fiddler and drummer Mauro Durante, to carry on the tradition. Mauro Durante has had tremendous success, leading the GCS to be named ‘Best Italian World Music Band’ in 2010. From the sound on Pizzica Indiavolata, it is clear that the younger Durante is not afraid to bring new influences into the repertoire.
Field recordings of Italian music have a raw, earthy quality, and to some listeners, singers may seem to be singing ‘out of tune.’ As in most folk revivals, bands and performers sometimes ‘smooth over’ these rough edges, or ‘blue notes,’ to make the music sound more palatable. And there is a smoothness to the CGS approach on Pizzica Indiavolata; this is a profoundly listenable and yet deep exploration of the Salento spirit, one that does not sacrifice its mystery. While the ‘spider bite’ is no longer regarded as the reason to engage in the dancing, the crises of the modern world present a new poison and new troubles to be faced. Hence, on the opening “Nu te Fermare,” the subject matter seems ripped straight from today’s headlines about the economic crisis: “you’ve graduated but there’s no work/have a master but there’s no work/and you’re left with only your imagination/wanting to buy a house, it’s an agony/wanting a family, it’s crazy/but if you stop, there’s melancholy/get up find a way keep on going don’t stop…” And the conclusion?: “how bittersweet is my land/and now I sing for my life/and now I play for my life/to cure myself from this disease.”
Maria Mazzotta’s voice soars throughout this record, adding the gravitas and ecstatic release associated with the female experience and this music. The bagpipe playing of Giulio Bianco is thrilling to hear, as well, and he provides the Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino with another sonic dimension. Mauro Durante has also invested the CGS with a warmth on this recording that comes from the addition of guests such as Ballake Sissoko on kora (striking, on the instrumental “E chora’ tu anemu”), and singer Piers Faccini (singing in English – definitely something new for this genre of music – on the lovely “La Voce Toa”). And there are other surprises, as well; what sounds like tubs being thumped on “Pizzica Indiavolata,” the closing title track.
What the Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino bring to the pizzica tradition is its profound melancholy, even when the music is at its whirling peak. This is a kind of sadness that bleeds into its own transcendence, and it is remarkable how much the band conveys this complex of emotions. Pizzica Indiavolata is a magnificent contribution to the ongoing southern Italian renaissance. – Lee Blackstone
The band online: www.canzonieregrecanicosalentino.net
Read our 2011 interview with the band:
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