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Southern Strategy: Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino Brings the Music and Culture of Italy’s ‘Heel’ to the World at Large

The agricultural region of the Salento, the region of Italy instantly recognizable as the “heel” of the Italian “boot,” 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.

Salento is a crossroads with the geographical and cultural features of a free zone for trade, which was not allowed elsewhere, due to political and religious reasons. Salento belonged to the Eastern Roman Empire, and after the fall of the Empire, Otranto took on a special role, which culturally benefited and enriched the people. However, by the same token, Salento is a “finis terrae,” a peninsula that in some ways is like an island. The insular nature of Salento is testified by the fact that tarantism (a cultural phenomenon of trance and possessions) has endured to the present day in this area. It is no coincidence that the Salento dialect has morphological, phonological and prosodic features that are entirely different from those in the rest of Puglia.

Easily the most studied cultural phenomenon of Salento, tarantism is popularly believed to result from the bite of a spider called taranta, described in Wikipedia as “a kind of wolf spider…different from the broad class of spiders called “Tarantulas.” The spider’s bite would put its victims (tarantati) in a state of heightened excitability and restlessness which could only be overcome by engaging in frenzied dancing. Tarantism is a ritual of possession that includes the playing of pizzica tarantata. It occurs when all of the following circumstances coexist: credence in the taranta bite, which hurts and causes an illness that must be cured by dancing; an altered state of consciousness, organized and regulated in a way that is socially accepted within a rite accompanied by music; believing that the music regulates the trance and gives it an order and that the tarantata reacts to the sound of the tamburello and comes to life.


Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino (CGS: Canzoniere means “song book”; Grecanico is the name of the old regional dialect you hear in some of the band’s songs; Salento is the region in question), the band formed in 1975 by writer Rina Durante that has released 17 albums of traditional music from Salento, the latest being Pizzica Indiavolata, released in January on the Ponderosa Music & Art label, is a cultural institution in Italy, especially in southern Italy. Without mincing words, CGS has been responsible for nothing less than the cultural revival of the southern Italian experience, its culture and how that culture is expressed in its music.

Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino live concerts are a life explosion: full of energy, passion, rhythm, and mystery, they bring the audience from the past into the present, and back. With a range from the energetic pizzica pizzica and festa-like exuberance of a local band to the tenderness of songs of love and longing, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino provides an intense and atmospheric spectacle.

The original brainchild of the late writer Rina Durante, a scholar of traditional Salentine music, and her cousin Daniele Durante, a guitarist and singer, the original Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino lineup also included Rossella Pinto. In 1998, Mauro Durante, the 14-year-old conservatory-trained (violin and percussion) son of Daniele and Rossella, joined the band playing frame drums and violin; in 2007 he took over leadership of the band upon his father’s retirement. (“Yes,” Mauro notes, “you can definitely say CGS is the band of la famiglia Durante!”)

Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, ‘Nu Te Fermare,’ lyrics and music by Mauro Durante, from Pizzica Indiavolata. Directed by Edoardo Winspeare. Lead vocal: Maria Mazzotta; dancer, Silvia Perrone.

“My father told me about his idea to leave me the band some time before then, so I had time to think and prepare the new version of CGS,” says Mauro, who has played with numerous artists such as Ludovico Einaudi, Piers Faccini, Ballake Sissoko, Ibrahim Maalouf, Stewart Copeland and La Notte della Taranta. “My decision was to totally refresh the band, involving the best young musicians from Salento, recreating the same situation of 1975, when the band was intellectually formed and led by Rina Durante, a well known writer and scholar.” The current version comprises musicians who came on board since 2007, with the exception of vocalist Maria Mazzotta, 29, who joined in 2001, and guitarist Emanuele Licci, 40, who played in an earlier version of CGS when he was a teenager and who returned in late 2011.

The other members that Mauro recruited are guitarist Luca Tarantino, 42; diatonic accordionist Massimiliano Morabito, 37; percussionist and singer Giancarlo Paglialunga, 36; multi-instrumentalist Giulio Bianco, 26; and dancer Silvia Perrone, 29.

The CGS play music rooted in the ancient tradition of pizzica tarantata–dance music for the 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: A Study of Southern Italian Tarantism (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.”

Today, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino is 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. Mauro Durante has had tremendous success, leading the GCS to be named Best Italian World Music Band in 2010. From the sound on CSG’s 2010 album, Focu d’amore, and those on Pizzica Indiavolata, it’s clear that the younger Durante is not afraid to bring new influences into the repertoire. Focu d’amore, for instance, used different rhythms and song forms instead of sticking strictly to pizzica. On a number of tunes, brass and reeds augment the core ensemble.

“The use of trumpets, horns or brass instruments is another important tradition in Southern Italy,” Mauro notes. “Brass bands have always been part of all the religious feasts and processions. Focu d’amore is an album that put together many different types of Salentine music, to celebrate the 35th anniversary of CGS in 2010. That’s why you find different instruments, arrangements and styles on that album. Our philosophy is always about putting our ideas and feelings in the music we perform, without being afraid of the border between traditional and not traditional.

Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino’s official video for its 2010 album, Focu d’amore

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.”

Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, ‘Pizzica Indiavolata’

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, topical “La Voce Toa”). And there are other surprises, as well; what sounds like tubs being thumped on “Pizzica Indiavolata,” the closing title track, and the English lyrics of the aforementioned “La Voce Toa” that speak to “the times we’re in” in its references to people rising up and taking to the streets to topple their oppressors.

‘If there are voices silenced in the darkness/louder they’ll shout, louder they’ll shout/the crowds will take the streets/their anger must be let out…these are the words of the times we’re in’: Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, ‘La Voce Toa,’ lyrics and vocal by Piers Faccini, music by Mauro Durante, from the album Pizzica Indiavolata.

All of which begs the question of how the band continues to balance the old musical traditions with a contemporary sensibility that can draw in modern listeners.

“This is always a tricky subject,” the thoughtful Mauro answers. “Balancing authenticity and creativity is always hard, and in the end only one’s personal taste can be the real judge. CGS has always been very respectful of the traditional repertoire. We always try not to betray the nature and the message of the songs by using overwhelming arrangements or interpretations. On the other hand, we truly and deeply believe that popular/folk/world music should answer some immediate, urgent need. That’s why we write our own lyrics and compositions, speaking about the present days and performing with our own musical sensibilities. This music is important now, it’s not just a postcard from the past, and we have to keep it fresh and alive.”

Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, ‘E Chorà Tu Anemu,’ from Pizzica Indiavolata, featuring Ballake Sissoko on kora

Mauro is excited and proud “to be one of the most active representatives of the Salentine culture all over the world. Pizzica has this magic; people can naturally get it. In our concerts the audience gets captured by the energy of this music and led ‘somewhere else.’ We can’t forget that this music originally had a therapeutic, exorcistic function, in the ritual of tarantismo.”

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.

(Sources: RootsWorld.com 2011 interview with Mauro Durante; RootsWorld.com 2012 review of Pizzica Indiavolata by Lee Blackstone)

Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino online: www.canzonieregrecanicosalentino.net


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