Canzionere Grecanico Salentino Meridiana
Review by Chris Nickson
Photo: Richard J Velasco
Canzionere Grecanico Salentino have 46 years as a band behind them, now well into the second generation of the Durante family’s leadership. Formed to preserve and explore the music from their native region in the heel of Italy, they’ve helped take the pizzica and tarantella to a global audience. That's one hell of a history, isn't it?
And it gets better. While the roots remain firm and nourished, the branches have grown wider. The seven members of CGS are committed to their home turf and its music, but they listen and draw in from much more. They’ve built up their audience with a stunning series of releases and superb live shows featuring a hypnotic dancer who turns their explosive music into a physical thing.
Then came the pandemic, with its challenge of writing and recording under restrictions. Like everyone else, they had to learn to work in a different way. And they very definitely have. Isolation has brought plenty of inspiration for Merdiana. The tradition is still the core, but under the direction of producer and longtime friend Justin Adams (Lo’Jo, Tinariwen), traditional instruments sit comfortably alongside loops and programming. The change is apparent from the very first track, “Balla Nina,” where the violin is a spiky howl over the growling, prowling synth bass, a raspy voice flowering into creamy harmonies. The music still keeps its feet in the dusty soil of southern Italy, but it blooms globally. CGS have taken a big step.
The album is the proverbial 'all killer, no filler.' Not a wasted moment. The sound is richer and fuller, yet it also manages to be more focused, sleeker and stripped back. They’ve taken everything they’ve done in the past and turbocharged it. This is urgent music, knocking on your door and demanding to be heard.
"Pizzica Bhangra" (excerpt)
Don’t believe me? Try “Pizzica Bhangra,” where the Italian bagpipes, the zampogna, mingle with a bhangra brass band from Brooklyn as the percussion clatters and pushes everything along. It’s earthy, restless, relentless music – exactly what the pizzica should be. But the beauty is in the details, like the high female harmony that ornaments the song. This is an album that opens up its glories with repeated listenings.
The sense of the dance underlies it all, raw and desperate. It twirls through “Stornello” and “Vulia,” for example, where you can feel the accordion keys fly - but it’s also tempered with the yearning of a ballad like “Ninnarella,” with voice gliding over a lightly shifting instrumental sea, before turning into something far more demanding.
"Tic E Tac" (excerpt)
It feels like a small, natural step from the taranta to “Tic E Tac,” their collaboration with Enzo Avitabile, one of Italy’s leading, idiosyncratic composers, who injects some funk that sits quite naturally with their voices and style.
Whether it’s the synth bass offering a lovely, pulsing drone under the bagpipes on “Ronda” or the addition of programming elsewhere, the technology is kept on a short enough leash to enhance and not overwhelm. And everything finishes with the soft Mediterranean warmth of the title cut.
All the songs are new, but so deeply rooted in the dirt of home that they feel unearthed. Merdiana is not a reinvention of the tradition, but a new layer of it. For an album that’s about our relationship with time, they manage to suspend it while the music is playing.