Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Italian Folk: Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino

I might describe the music of Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, who performed last night at the Cedar Cultural Center, as mesmerizing, but it seems odd to use a word derived from the practices of an eighteenth-century Austrian physician when referring to a South Italian band singing songs from a tradition dating back to ancient times, often in a Greek-tinted dialect. Then again, that adjective—mesmerizing—has largely lost its historical associations with the early days of therapeutic magnetism, and CGS makes no bones about the power of its music to ease the worries of daily living and elevate listeners to a loftier realm. 

I’d give them a testimonial any time.

The rhythm of the music last night was driven by large tambourines, and much of it held to the same medium up-tempo beat, though there were a few ballads in the mix, and the beat also rose to levels of genuine fury from time to time. The structure seldom varied from a tonic-dominant-tonic toggle, and the tunes, such as they were, resembled plangent cries and cackling, staccato shouts held within a narrow range of intervals. Some of the songs had a dark, rich-textured, almost drone-like harmony that reminded me of some a capella songs Alan Lomax collected in 1954 in Calabria, just around the instep from the band's home region of Salento (Rounder Records:11661-1803-2).

Nothing in the show even faintly resembled pop.

The CGS “sound” would soon become monotonous, however, were it not for the energy and explosive insistence with which it’s delivered and the virtuosity, both vocal and instrumental, of the musicians. Bagpipes, recorders, guitar and bouzouki, accordion, fiddle, several sizes of tambourines, and on one occasion, even a bag of stones tossed in the air again and again to establish a rhythm, with dust rising into the spotlights (from the mountain paths of Salento, perhaps?) 

It was easy to see, and to feel, that the musicians were grooving on the intensity of the fields of sound within which they moved. And it would not be too far-fetched to imagine that as the pulse of the music reached a pitch of intensity, we were being carried back beyond the boot of Italy, across the Adriatic to the origins of the Western musical tradition. 

On a slightly more intellectual note, it occurs to me that when done well, there is something fascinating about a musical style that doesn’t develop much, but draws its interest from tiny variations in short, edgy phrases happily repeated over and over again. (I think Stravinsky would agree.)

And then, from time to time, a dancer with dark, flowing hair, wearing a red dress (Silvia Perrone) would appear and prance about on the stage waving a black shawl. Her demeanor seemed less frantic, less hyper-charged, than the music she was dancing to, but it was pleasing nevertheless. This, we were told, was the tarantella, a dance with roots extending back for centuries.

There is some confusion about the name, however. Scholars tell us it derives from the city of Taranto, yet there is also a long-standing tradition that the dance developed as a cure for the bite of a local wolf spider or tarantula (also named after the city). The belief dates back to the sixteenth century that the spider’s bite was poisonous, causing a hysterical condition that would lead to death unless the victim performed a frenzied tarantella to exorcize the poison.

Vocalist Maria Mazzotta, a diminutive figure out of a fairy tale, had a high-pitched penetrating sound, like the buzz of a power saw in the garage next door—if such a sound can also be agitated and sweet and haunting. Giancarlo Paglialunga  delivered a booming shout from the right hand side of the stage while at the same time pounding away on his tamburrieddhu. Emanuele Licci offered up a lighter, more flexible lyric voice and when he wasn’t singing, he often took off spontaneously, dancing nimbly across the stage while strumming his bouzouki. Giulio Bianco’s Pan-like recorder trills were sometimes lost in the mix, but his bagpipe solos, delivered from center stage, were a treat.

Those hoping for a “O Sole Mio”-style cafĂ© accordion from  Massimiliano Morabito left the hall disappointed, I’m sure. He kept to a heavy rhythmic pulse in which  individual notes were seldom discernible.

The band’s leader, Mauro Durante, did the talking, explaining the origins of the group (it was founded in 1975 by his father) and also offered up some extraordinary fiddling. His ten-minute solo on the tambourine exhibited a remarkable range of rhythms, colors, and pitches.

Not so long ago, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino was performing in front of a hundred thousand people at the itinerant La Notte della Taranta festival in  Salento. Tuesday night it put on a spirited show in front of a hundred curious and enthusiastic Minnesotans, many of whom, by the time it was over, were dancing in the dark behind the delta of folding chairs clustered in front of the stage.

Many thanks to Cedar, and to Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino! And thanks, I guess, to the tarantula, too.

1 comment:

gerald apostol said...
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