With our common image of Italy dominated by elite culture, it may seem to make a less obvious fieldsite for folk traditions than east Europe. But as I observed in my jottings from Lisbon (and in my posts on flamenco in Spain, starting here), there’s far more to musicking than opera houses and symphony orchestras. Even the court musical cultures of Italy were regional—there was no “Italy” until 1860, and regional consciousness still persists. As in China, where the “conservatoire style” dominates the media, the image of the iceberg is useful.
Local folk traditions are a major part of people’s social experience today, as throughout earlier history—alongside more elite productions such as the painting and sculpture, art music and opera that dominate our image of Italian culture (for early modern Europe, see here). Some regions show little or no influence from art music, others more. But we should adjust from our image of Barbara Strozzi and Artemisia Gentileschi [PC gone mad—Ed.] [What you gonna do about it? SJ], Verdi and Monteverdi, La Scala, and so on.
In Italy—whose population of around 60 million is comparable with a single province of China!—we find the usual interplay between general surveys “gazing at flowers from horseback” and detailed studies of one particular community. As ever, we may start with The New Grove dictionary of music and musicians, and The Garland encyclopedia of world music. Alessio Surian’s article for The Rough Guide to world music pays attention to the more recent roots scene, and Italy features regularly in Songlines.
I’ve already outlined some issues in the taxonomy of expressive culture in China (e.g. here). In her Grove article on Italian folk music, Tullia Magrini essayed a broad classification by style and structure rather than by region or context:
- Narrative-singing (ballad, broadside ballad, storia, Sicilian orbi, and so on)
- Lyrical singing
- Others: including children’s songs and lullabies, work songs, polyphonic songs for entertainment (cf. Voices of the world).
After reverting to context in her penultimate category:
- Ritual music—always among the most interesting rubrics, including life-cycle and calendrical rituals (the latter including carnival and Passion).
she concluded by outlining
- dances and instruments—the latter including not only piffero and ciaramella shawms (for links to posts on shawms around the world—China, Tibet, south Asia, the Middle East, north Africa, Europe—click here) with bagpipe (piva) and the distinctive Sardinian launeddas, but also northern violin traditions.
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The fascist era discouraged meaningful study of folk traditions, so serious research began in the 1950s, as society continued to change. Gramsci’s contrast between subaltern and hegemonic cultures inspired the ground-breaking collaborations of Diego Carpitella with Ernesto De Martino and Alan Lomax.
Carpitella’s work with De Martino features in my post on taranta, which includes both their footage of taranta in Salento (1959) and funeral laments in Basilicata (1952).
Meanwhile—just as Chinese fieldworkers were busy documenting their own regional traditions—Carpitella was also working with Alan Lomax (who said the 1950s were boring?!). Their 1954–56 audio recordings were published in 1958 as Folk music and song of Italy, and reissued (notes here). Many of the tracks are remarkable—such as Alla campagnola, a polyphonic love song sung by women of Ferroletto in Calabria while working in the fields, with both harmonies and unison cadential pitches taking one by surprise:
Moving north, the album also includes stornelli from Tuscany, a bagpipe saltarello from Citta Realle in Lazio, and a dance song from Val di Resia in Friuli.
For a review of more albums in the Lomax collection, see here. Italy was among the fields where he developed his ambitious Cantometrics project, exploring the links between styles of singing and social structures (see also Voices of the world). For his work with Zora Neale Hurston in the American South, see here. And for his remarkable archive, click here.
The pioneering work of Lomax and Carpitella inspired many impressive series of audio recordings on labels like Folkways, Dischi del sole, Albatros, I suoni (Fonit Cetra), and Ethnica. Meanwhile Carpitella edited the important journal Culture musicali (and I’m keen to read his analysis of The Rite of Spring!).
Following in their footsteps, among luminaries in Italian ethnomusicology were Roberto Leydi and Tullia Magrini, under whom such studies took root in Bologna. And as a welcome change from all those gondolas, Venice has become a lively centre for the promotion of folk cultures of Italy and further afield, with the Fondazione Cini, and ethnomusicologists Giovanni Giuriati and Giovanni de Zorzi (for an instance of the latter’s explorations, see here).
Despite all the “cultural homogenisation” epitomised by the vacuous inanities of Burlesque-only TV, RAI has played a role in promoting regional cultures.
The Mediterranean south has remained poor—Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, as well as Campania, all have deep local traditions (for pizzica, see here, here, and here).
Again, Lomax and Carpitella made some fine recordings in Campania:
And apart from Sardinia (which I introduced here), Sicily is a rich field, introduced in early work by Giulio Fara and much studied since (see also Songs of Sicily). Further east, see Musics of Crete.
Central Italy and the north
The poor south, attractive by virtue of its “otherness”, attracts a wealth of documentation; but the more affluent north also has significant pockets of folk activity. Roberto Leydi and others erased the old bias that considered the northern regions “corrupted” by economic and social development.
Fieldworkers have found distinctive traditions around Lazio, Abruzzo, Tuscany, Umbria, Le Marche, and Emilia. Tullia Magrini made a special study of the Maggio drammatico (cf. Morris dancing in England!). Note also her edited volume Music and gender: perspectives from the Mediterranean (2003).
All along the northern border of Italy, local traditions have been documented around Piedmont, Liguria, Lombardy, Veneto, Trentino, and Friuli. Again, we can consult the recordings of Lomax and Carpitella, with this 1972 LP from Piedmont, Emilia, and Lombardy:
In Ponte Caffaro, Brescia, fiddle bands accompany carnival:
The films of Renato Morelli are also impressive—see this trailer for Voci alte, on the festival of Premana in Lombardy.
In the 1990s, as another perk of my touring life, during interludes from playing Mozart opera in Parma and Ferrara I visited cultural offices there for a taste of their work documenting local folk traditions—somewhat evoking my exploratory visits to their counterparts in China. While doing gigs in Genova I also found trallalero choirs:
In the northeast, traditions are related to Slavic culture, with dances accompanied by violins or the piva bagpipe. Here’s a 1983 clip from Val di Resia in Friuli:
Collectors have also worked with emigrant communities (cf. Accordion crimes). Alan Lomax and Carla Bianco issued a fascinating album of their 1963–64 recordings in New York and Chicago (liner notes here), with a sequel recorded by his daughter Anna in New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island (playlist here)—from the latter, here’s a duet with piffero and ciaramella:
This may not immediately spring to mind when thinking of the soundscape of 60s’ New York.
And having long been a land of emigration, and internal migration (from rural south to industrial north), Italy is now also a vexed site for immigration, which will further enrich the picture.
While I’m not venturing into the roots scene here, it seems obligatory to cite Fabrizio De André’s wildly popular Crêuza de mä (1984), sung in Genovese dialect (here with Italian subtitles):
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All the energy in making audio recordings was admirable, helping us focus on the remarkable variety of regional soundscapes: both vocal and instrumental tracks are stunning. But it tended to entrench an image of disembodied, reified sound documents; the later shift towards visual anthropology places a greater stress on musicking in society. At LEAV in Milan Nicola Scaldaferri leads splendid collaborative projects, such as Musica Lucana and the Maggio in Accettura. And here’s a trailer for Rossella Scillacci’s fine 2007 ethnographic film Pratica e maestria on the zampogna in Basilicata:
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Here, as often, I can only “gaze at flowers from horseback”, but all this is a reminder that as in China, England, and everywhere, popular regional traditions persist alongside more elite cultures, changing along with society and encouraging us to revise a narrow concept of “culture”.
25 thoughts on “Italy: folk musicking”
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