cd cover Italian Treasury: Sicily
The Alan Lomax Collection

Rounder (

Musica Tradizionale Siciliana
Associazione Culturale Armós (

Lost Souls / Aneme Perze
Real World (

To survey the sweep of Italian folk traditions over the past half century is to confront the rapid cultural, socioeconomic and political changes that have marked the country's dramatic postwar transformation. Until now, a broader awareness of Italian roots music has been hampered by the dearth of record labels covering the music, and spotty international distribution. Two new recordings and a reissue project indicate that this may finally be changing. These titles reveal the eclectic character of the contemporary folk process, and underscore the extraordinary, often tragic human consequences of Italy's difficult and uneven assimilation to the culture of global capitalism.

Recorded in 1954, Sicily is a digitally remastered selection of mostly unreleased material from Alan Lomax's sweeping Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music project. Ironically, the island's few developed roads, the late arrival of radio and TV, the highly skewed distribution of wealth and brutal history of political repression all worked to preserve the folk traditions documented here. Lomax sampled the soundscape of a rural, pre-industrial Italy just as industrialization began to undercut the pastoral economy, crush peasant political movements, depopulate the countryside and erode the transmission of local oral traditions at the core of the folk process. The raw immediacy of these field recordings rocked the Roman folklore establishment and sparked a reassessment of the nature of Italian folk music.

Of course, Sicily has been a cultural crossroads since the era of the ancient Greeks, occupied by a succession of imperial powers whose presence has lent an arresting pan-Mediterranean savor to the island's furious, tangled skein of folk traditions. What Lomax found was music inseparable from the fabric of everyday life. The album's 29 tracks (the majority previously unreleased) represent the music of religious and community festivities; dance tunes; lullabies; epic singing and storytelling; and the occupational songs of artisans, cart drivers, farmers and farm workers, herders, fishermen, miners and salt workers.

This is stripped-down, bare-bones music whose stark sensibilities span Sicily's length and breadth: the sulfur miner's melismatic chant to spare Jew's-harp accompaniment, the tammurriata drumming of the street festivals, the plaintive a cappella chorus of female almond sorters, and the ad acordo and a la ruggiera male choral styles of Messina. Instrumental genres include the familiar, frenzied tarantella, played variously on trombone, friscalettu (cane flute), mandolin, guitar, drums and tambourine; the pole dance tradition, whose friscalettu, accordion, guitar and tambourine produced a lively melodic weave; and the ciaramedda a paru (twin-chanter bagpipe) commonly played at both sacred and secular festivals. Also notable are two songs by Orazio Strano, the celebrated Sicilian balladeer.

cd cover It's a long way from the aural rawness of postwar Sicily to the refined oeuvre of Armós, whose scholarly, classically trained ensemble seeks more to recuperate the feeling of Sicilian traditional music than to reconstruct it exactly. Acknowledging the interpretive license they have granted themselves,
"La Regina"
Armós cultivates an "early-music" approach, scouring 19th-century song collections, assembling an instrumental array that invokes, if not a precise sonic rendering, then perhaps more critically, the lyrical feeling of the Sicilian past. The seven-person ensemble (with several more guests) mounts a daunting tapestry of strings, wind instruments and percussion, the sum of which, they readily admit, invokes rather than replicates Sicilian musical traditions: arpa spagnola ("Spanish harp"), chittarino, vihuela de peñola, colascione, liuto, lyra, viola da gamba,rebab, symphònia, ney, friscalettu, bifera (an oboe precursor), tabla tunisia, tamburi a cornice and darabuka. The recording has a measured, reflective, Renaissance texture, but this is thoroughly and unapologetically modern music.

Across the Tyrrhenian Sea in Naples, at a moment when the idea of European union seems up for a second reading, Spaccanapoli offers a piercing view of the project of continental integration from the militant perspective of industrial workers sacrificed in the process. Spaccanapoli means "split Naples" in local lingo, a pointed reference to the class divisions exacerbated by the culturally sanitizing imposition of a new European economic order. Spaccanapoli channels a critical political outlook through the folk media of southern Italy and beyond.

cd cover The band is a recent offshoot of Grupo Operario (worker's group) E Zezi, formed as a street-artist brigade in the 1970s by socialist auto workers at the Naples Alfa Romeo factory. Spaccanapoli comprises Marcello Colasurdo (vocals, tammorra or frame drum, tamburello), Monica Pinto (vocals), and the abandoned instrumental genius of Antonio Fraioli (violin, piano, keyboards, percussion), Oscar Montalbano (guitar, bass) and Emilio De Matteo (guitar). They are joined by a host of fine session players on bagpipe, flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, mandolin, mandoloncello, bass and percussion. The musical settings are stunning in conception and execution, inspired by the region's throaty vocals, its tarantellas (dances of possession), tammurriata street rhythms, brass band music, and myriad pan-Mediterranean influences. Spaccanapoli conjures up a compelling percussive and melodic passion upon which the soul-rending vocal interplay of Pinto and Colasurdo soars with spellbinding intensity.

"Miezzo a festa"
"Aneme perze," the title track, means "lost souls," a reference to the cult of the dead of the Neapolitan underclass. But if anything, these fervent songs will raise the dead and quicken the forsaken. With seething, unadorned rage Spaccanapoli sings in "O' Mare" of industrial pollution's destruction of the Neapolitan fishing fleet; in "Sant' Anastasia" of the careless factory explosion that left twelve workers dead; in "A' Ferriera" of an ironworker killed by a spill of molten steel; in "Siente Munacie'" of "the ghosts of the past... come back / There's still hunger, death and disease, it's always the same."

In a reckless, enormously inspired experiment with the roots traditions of southern Italy and beyond, Spaccanapoli speaks powerfully to unemployed youth whose disaffection with a corrupt system and foreclosed life prospects find voice in "Piazza Dante" ("For thieves thrive and boast about it... / Ministers and judges are a calamity for the poor"). In "Vesuvio" the nearby legendary volcano becomes a looming metaphor of human destruction: "Mountains of lava, of hundreds of streets / You hold my life in your hands / Is this a place for homes, or a place for a jail / Where you're locked from morning 'til night... / Whether you smoke or not you still make a noise / It's the fire you bear in your heart." The lyrics alone cannot capture the relentless vitality of a band that marks out dangerous ideological terrain with vintage proletarian wrath, issuing a wake-up call to the would-be architects of a new corporate Europe. From the land of Antonio Gramsci and the Red Brigades, of Fellini, Rosellini and Wertmuller, Spaccanapoli already has the European folk circuit in its thrall, and now seems poised to rivet the consciousness of a new global base. - Michael Stone

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Audio: "Miezzo A Festa"
Lyrics by Giovanni Vacca, Music by Antonio Fraioli
Published by Polyxena Edizioni Musicali
(p) 2000 Real World Records Ltd.
Used with the permission of Real World Records and Narada Productions, Inc.

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