Sancto Ianne - Mò Siente

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Sancto Ianne offers the energy of rock, the sophistication and creative daring of jazz, the truth-telling directness of folk music, and demands that you Listen Up!

Forty years ago some left-wing Neapolitan university students formed a band whose purpose would be to research, revive, and reinvent the folk music of Naples and the Campania region of southern Italy. The band's name, La Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare, was a mini-manifesto in itself. "Canto popolare" (or musica popolare) refers to traditional music, as opposed to "musica leggera," the banal and deracinated commercial pop that dominated Italian radio playlists in the 60s. But the founders of the NCCP - who included singer-songwriter Eugenio Bennato and musicologist Robert De Simone - didn't set out just to revive the old tarantelle, tammurriate, fronne 'e limone, moresche and villanelle.

The NCCP's intent, as De Simone put it, was to "research the means of communication particular to the people [of Naples and Campania] and restructure the material on rigorous bases of style and of expressive truth." This was by no means solely an aesthetic project. NCCP was all about resistance to the cultural homogenization promoted by the national mass media, which disdained traditional music as a quaint vestige of the old rural Italy disappearing with the postwar "economic miracle" and the spread of consumerism.

Aside from their own output, NCCP's main legacy is the many artists they've inspired, not all of them acoustic folkies. NCCP's heirs include Gruppo Operaio E Zezi and other politicized tammurriata ensembles, as well as Almamegretta, Daniele Sepe, Enzo Avitabile, the rap-reggae-rock band 99 Posse, and Nidi D'Arc from Puglia. These and other like-minded artists employ local dialects instead of (or as well as) standard Italian, and generally compose and perform material rooted in the stylistic bases and "expressive truth" of traditional music.

In 1995, in the town of San Giovanni di Ceppaloni, in the Campanian province of Benevento, one of NCCP's brightest children was born. Sancto Ianne, a (mainly) acoustic septet, released their first album, Tante Bannere, Tanti Padrune, in 2000. Since then they've gone from strength to strength. They followed their debut with the brilliant Scapulà (2002), and now, with Mò Siente, their latest, they've shot to the forefront of the neoroots scene. I'll go out on a limb and say that right now, Sancto Ianne is the premier southern Italian folk-based ensemble.

Mò Siente - "Listen up!" in Benevento dialect - invites us to lend an ear to "stories that don't get told on the radio or on TV," as the band's percussionist Alfonso Coviello explained to me in an e-mail communication. The band, says Coviello, tells of "characters completely forgotten, of wonderful places such as the interior of Campania, where we live, absolutely unknown by the masses."

This is a band deeply rooted in a particular place - "Sancto Ianne" is Late Latin for "San Giovanni," referring to their hometown in the inland territory between Rome and Naples known as the Sannio. On Mò Siente, the band doesn't just perform songs about their piece of southern Italy; they create that world, with close attention to the specific details of its past and present. Anarchist revolutionaries and sunburnt farm workers, itinerant circus performers and desperate refugees, cruel bosses and defiant workers - these and other characters populate the Sannio the band so vividly evokes.

For "i Sanniti," the dominance of Naples, and the common tendency to equate that city with the entire region of Campania, can be a sore spot. Sancto Ianne insist on their own identity, apart from that of the regional capital. "Nuje Ca Nun Stammo Vicino 'o Mare" (We Who Do Not Live Near the Sea) proclaims who they are: a proud people, living on the land and in small towns, with a history of independence and resistance to foreign rule. (The Samnites, as they were once known, even stood off Rome's legions.) But today, though they retain their rebel spirit, these kin of "saints and witches" feel "a little confused" as they "face a hidden future."

That unsettling sense of uncertainty typifies the present era of globalization, with its wrenching social and economic dislocations. The people of the Sannio share that disorientation with other, newer inhabitants of their land. Whereas landless peasants and laborers once emigrated from southern Italy to America in search of better lives, in Sancto Ianne's contemporary Campania, impoverished émigrés from North Africa have arrived to toil under the merciless southern Italian sun.

"Un Futuro a Sud" (A Future in the South) is a bitter riposte to "O Sole Mio" and all those other songs extolling southern Italy as a land of glorious sunshine. Moroccans have come to a "land of work, a land of bitter flavor," where they labor fifteen hours a day picking those luscious San Marzano tomatoes so prized in Italy and abroad. E Zezi told this story years ago, in "Pummarola Black." But Sancto Ianne personalizes it through the character of Omar, who, as he sleeps in a crowded barracks with a hundred other Moroccans, dreams of returning home "richer than a pasha, more handsome than a caliph."

The song's arrangement couldn't be more fitting, equal parts North Africa and Campania, with a stentorian chorus: "Ialla ialla/ie la la/we're all going to work/this sun, how it burns/you just can't stand it."

One of the album's strongest tracks, "Uocchie" (Eyes) decries the plight of the world's refugees, those displaced by war or poverty who "try to jump over that wall/that divides the world." In Italy right now this is a hot-button issue. The Berlusconi government enacted harsh anti-immigrant legislation (which the new center-left administration has vowed to reform) yet the desperate foreigners keep coming, to land half-dead on the shores of Lampedusa and other southern coasts or drown at sea, sometimes heartbreakingly close to land.

"Uocchie" - which won the 2005 Amnesty International "Voices of Freedom" song competition - pairs Sancto Ianne's terrific lead singer Gianni Principe with Faisal Taher, a Palestinian vocalist who has been on the southern Italian neoroots scene for more than a decade. In 1995, he appeared on the essential compilation of new Mezzogiorno music, Canti Sudati. (Mò Siente itself is a collection of "canti sudati," in the double sense of songs about the "sud," or south, and about those who labor and are "sudati," sweaty.) On "Uocchie," Taher's urgent high tenor soars above and circles around Principe's earthier tones, in a duet of stunning musicality and emotional power.

"'A Banda D'O Matese" recounts an episode in Sannio history, the trial of anarchists who revolted against the Piedmont-based government of newly unified 19th century Italy. Recalling these long-ago rebels, the song asks, why has the idea of utopia come to be seen as a form of madness? Perhaps today "men" [sic] are "too small" for such a big dream.

Sancto Ianne doesn't deal with only the serious stuff; there also are quotidian pleasures, enjoyed and remembered. "Pe' La Via" recalls a happy boyhood spent outdoors in the streets, where the narrator and his pals, wearing short pants "even in winter," ran wild, threw rocks, and followed after barefoot marchers in religious processions. But these golden memories of bygone youth include one diversion San Giovanni would no doubt disapprove: "Our first masturbations, experienced all together."

Sancto Ianne builds its original material on the stylistic bases of the tammurriata, tarantella, and fronne 'e limone, while absorbing non-local influences, particularly North African and Greek. On Mò Siente's final track, "Tarantella D'A Fatica/N'Ata Botta," recorded live in San Giovanni di Ceppaloni, they get down to the roots of their sound.

I've heard other groups perform this traditional number - a farm worker's complaint about exhausting labor and a brutal boss -- but none as powerfully as Sancto Ianne. In their version, it's a chant accompanied only by tammorre and tamburello (frame drums and tambourine), and other beat-makers. The band members share the vocals, giving them the flow and percussive force of rap. They alternate major- and minor-key sections, trade off lines and punctuate them with shouts and cries. The sheer exuberance transforms a song of the "exhausted and wrecked" into something like resistance. By the time it ends, you'll be clapping and cheering along with the hometown crowd.

Throughout Mò Siente, the band dazzles with uncommon skill and invention. Sancto Ianne offers the energy of rock, the sophistication and creative daring of jazz, the truth-telling directness of folk music. On every track there's something unexpected that grabs your ear, often a surprising but totally apt juxtaposition. The sample of a Hungarian chorus singing in canto beneventano, a liturgical music that predates Gregorian chant, lends a haunting counterpoint to the somber "Uno 'Nponta 'a Luna" (A Bridge to the Moon). On "Peppe 'O Mago" (Peppe the Wizard) the band mixes musical motifs -- circus fanfares, tammurriata and Balkan dance rhythms -- for an allegorical tale about the title character, a magician who is saved from ignominy by a young girl when he fails to perform the trick that had been his crowd-pleasing specialty.

To the typical lineup of southern Italian neoroots groups - guitars (including the five-string chitarra battente), violin, accordion, and hand drums - Sancto Ianne adds electric bass, the occasional electric guitar, Arabic percussion and trap drums. The musicians all have serious chops, but special mention must be made of three core members: guitarist Ciro Maria Schettino, violinist Raffaele Tiso, and percussionist Alfonso Coviello. The trio's superb contributions go a long way to establishing the band's distinctive sound and identity.

Writing about Almamegretta and other cutting edge Neapolitan and Campanian musicians, Joseph Sciorra, a folklorist and the webmaster of, noted, "Why this updated roots music has not been picked up by world beat aficionados is incomprehensible." The same goes for Sancto Ianne. Fail to heed their call to "listen up" and the loss will be yours. - George De Stefano

CD available from cdRoots

cd cover

Sancto Ianne
Mò Siente
Folk Club Ethnosuoni

"Peppe 'O Mago"

Available from cdRoots


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