Tesi/ Ledda/ Galeazzi/ Lega/ Citarella/ Geri/ Biolcati/ Carboni A Sud di Bella Ciao
Review by Lee Blackstone
The mind’s eye paints Italy in romanticized colors: Colosseum shadows stretching in late-afternoon Rome; the food and wine spilling from the earth in Tuscany; the salt spray of Mediterranean beaches; La Dolce Vita, playing out as waves of modernity crash against Vatican walls. The reality of lives lived across Italy – as elsewhere – often lack the tourist gloss of the imagination. On the ground, the struggles and joys of life take precedence; the weddings, the births; the labor to bring bread to the lips; the political corruption, and the landlord’s demands; the passion and the redemption.
The south of Italy speaks with particular force, and the revivals that have occurred around such music as the (pizzica) tarantella and the tammurriata have grown from local events onto a presence on the world stage. But underneath it is sufferance. Long days of history left scars of exploitation on the hands of farm workers. As Ernesto de Martino discussed in his landmark 1961 book on the phenomenon of tarantism, The Land Of Remorse, those who were marginalized in southern Italian society – often women – faced a ‘crisis’ of history, leaving some crying out from a supposed spider bite to carve out a space of recognition within their families and communities. What to do with the ‘southern question,’ as posed by the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci – the south being the antithesis of northern Italy: poor, oppressed, superstitious, distinctly un-modern? Even today, poverty is concentrated in southern Italy.
In 2016, the accordionist Riccardo Tesi and musicians such as Lucilla Galeazzi, Elena Ledda, Ginevra Di Marco (all providing vocals), Alessio Lega (voice, guitar), Gigi Biolcati (percussion, voice) brought to life the fiftieth anniversary of the monumental folk program of the Nuovo Canzoniere Italiano. The re-mounting of this program proved to be a huge success, and the strong emotions evoked led the core of this ‘Bella Ciao’ group to continue its researches and performance. Nando Citarella (voice, tambourine, jew’s harp) and Claudio Carboni (saxophone) added to the recording ensemble. Where the original emphasis of the 2016 repertoire had been from northern Italy, it was perhaps natural that attention should then pivot towards the south.
"Canti di lavoro" (excerpt)
What emerges over the course of A Sud di Bella Ciao is an incredible travelogue, one forged by impeccable musicianship. There are songs of work and resistance – in fact, these two themes are often intertwined. The very first song, “Canti di lavoro (Very little work)” begins with the women of the group singing about little work being available, but that the desire to work runs strong – in addition to yearning for freedom. The whole band then kicks in with a sound both earthy and even funky, the sprightly, swaying rhythm punctuated by buzzing jew’s harp. The lyrics speak of life in the tobacco fields; in particular, the backbreaking labor performed by women (a humming threnody, like the yelling of a chain gang, enters the soundscape). There is also a sexual violence expressed here; according to Tesi’s notes, this may be tied to the rise of the pizzica as a therapy to cope with such conditions. The track is a stunning opening for this album, and the group sounds inspired and inventive.
"Bella Ciao" (excerpt)
Following on “Canti di lavoro,” we have a version of “Bella Ciao” that hums with the southern Italian musical influences. A song of resistance par excellence, “Bella Ciao” was not far from the Italian mindset during the COVID lockdowns and its devastating impact across Italy. The song was sung from balcony to balcony – and here, it rings out in an interpretation that makes one want to dance. Perhaps the ultimate refutation of death itself!
"Cu ti lu dissi" (excerpt)
Famed musical icons from the south of Italy also appear. Rosa Balistreri (1927-1990) is paid homage to twice by Lucilla Galeazzi. Galeazzi has extensively studied Balistreri’s life, a life filled with hardships. Balistreri was born in Licata, and she suffered under the conditions of her family and society; her sister was killed by her brother-in-law, and her father committed suicide. Balistreri left the south for Florence, but returned to Sicily and her singing career was promoted. On a song such as “Cu ti lu dissi,” Galeazzi mines Balistreri’s heartache and defiance, demanding of a former lover "Who told you that? Who told you I had to leave you?,” and seeking reconciliation: “Let’s make peace, my dear/Breath is my weapon, you are my love.”
Love – or rather, lust – appears on a tribute to Matteo Salvatore (1925-2005), with Alessio Lega stepping into the role of the singer-songwriter’s “Lu bene mio.” As with Balistreri, Salvatore had his own demons to contend with, having grown up illiterate and in poverty. Later in life, Salvatore would murder his partner, Adriana Doriani.
"Canto dei Sanfedisti" (excerpt)
The group also gives life to “Canto dei Sanfedisti (Carmagnola),” described by Tesi as “one of the most controversial songs in the Italian tradition.” The song is a document of appeal of the ideals of the French Revolution to the intellectuals and bourgeoisie of Napoli, who in January 1799 declared the Neapolitan Republic. A fierce backlash resulted in imprisonment, executions, and exile. Another fascinating track, “Sa bellesa,” is a set of three pieces which also highlights politics. The first movement, “Pocurde ‘e moderare,” would later become the anthem of Sardinia in 2018. “Cantu a dillu” follows, decrying those who contribute to the people’s suffering; the last section, “Sa bellesa,” offers a dance based on unrequited love.
Another highlight is a long suite, “Pizzicargia.” The title joins two traditions around tarantism: the pizzica of Salento, and the argia of Sardinia. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition, and lyrically the mystery and eroticism of the spider bite is repeatedly referred to: the metaphorical ‘pinch’ under the skirt; the flying hair of the (possessed) dancer lost in ecstasy.
Sardinia is also fêted in “Des de Mallorca a l’Alguer,” where the percussion cleverly imitates the lapping waves of the ocean; the music itself is based on a traditional Sardinian folk song. The lyrics were written by the Valencian poet Albert Garcia, and they honor the continued existence of ancient Catalan spoken in the city of Alghero. It’s a seductive piece, joining language, land, sea and sky.
The album closes with three songs that have gained in popularity: the Calabrian “Riturnella,” a melancholic sounding song, which reached large audiences due to Eugenio Bennato’s ‘Musicanova’ group; “Lu rusciu de lu mare,” from the Salento; and “Sia maledetta l’acqua,” revived by Roberto De Simone and the ‘Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare.’
Taken together, the breadth and depth of the themes of this album give us the rich texture of southern Italian life – its disappointments, its triumphs, its hopes. A Sud di Bella Ciao is studded with remarkable singing, and one can either get lost in the vocal performances or the instrumental prowess (Tesi’s gorgeous accordion tone, and Carboni’s sax work are impressive throughout). Each track is a portrait held up to us to consider either our own distance from -- or proximity to -- history; each one is a challenge to assess power relationships, whether the romantic or the political. The legacy of southern Italian music and its expressive resistance moves from the margins of the social world to its center on this vitally important album.