various artists,
Italian Treasury: Emilia-Romagna
(Rounder, 2001)

The world must again express gratitude to the field recording wunderkind, Alan Lomax. Alan Lomax's field recordings titled Italian Treasury: Emilia-Romagna have captured an Italy that was fast fading, capitulating to the homogenized version, just at the critical juncture.

This lovely region of Italy was a holdout for some amazing traditional folk music and Lomax got full cooperation from the local people in presenting their grand tradition. Among other accomplishments by Lomax, the great audio journalist and ethnomusicologist in the tradition of Francis Child (who collected the English ballads in a collection named after him), Emilia-Romagna serves to document with veracity the traditional folk music of this key region so vital in Italian history, a pocket of upheld cultural integrity in a changing time.

But first -- the usual warning. If you are accustomed to buying Italian music for songs sung by Jimmy Rosselli and Dean Martin, for example, this will not be your cup of tea. It's just not the same thing. Emilia-Romagna is the real thing. The other stuff is really for an Italian-American post-World War II market.

Rather, on Emilia-Romagna, what you get is lively fiddling and large groups singing with untrained but uniquely Italian operatic voices, like diamonds in the rough. The laughter and background noise is no studio affectation by costumed pretenders; it comes from nameless Italians who were in the room when Lomax was in the field recording such genuine Italians singing and playing music!

But are these platitudes to the Rambles reader? I hope I don't insult your intelligence. I really do. I just want you to know that this is probably music nothing like you are expecting to hear. And in a way, that is the beauty of it.

Oh, the collection has much of what you might expect from a field recording of traditional music. At the same time, there are some surprises. For example, a group sings a song and the enchanting spontaneity of the harmonies provides a glimpse into the true depths of the artistic sense in this culture, the culture that gave us Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, that gave us the wonders of Florence and of opera. You can hear the roots of such things in the attention to artistry paid by these folk musicians.

No cutesy tarantellas here, but rather a fiddler whose charming arpeggios hold us rapt for a hypnotic few moments, while young girls laugh and someone clicks rhythm on an unidentified instrument, perhaps the bones. No olive oil crooner in a tuxedo in Las Vegas, but a group of local people performing a maggio dramatico, a May celebration song ("Brunetto e Amatore"). Old as the hills, associated with the return of summer and derived from pagan rituals for the return of the growing seasons, this major folk cultural component of the region is complex, acted out in costume, sung in alternating choruses of men's and women's voices and punctuated with narration.

Lucky Lomax just happened to be in a region where culture was still preserved against a backdrop of fading days in which dialects of Italian gave way to standardized Italian language and highways and industrialization still only threatened the region of Emiglia-Romagna while other areas had already succumbed.

According to the liner notes, Lomax documented this fascinating genre of European musical theater at a critical juncture in its history.

No good field recording is complete without a work song and in the case of Emilia-Romagna, Lomax recorded "Song of the Scriolanti (A Mezzanotte in Punto)," previously unreleased even on Lomax sessions elsewhere. This "digger's song" refers to the men who kept the complex irrigation system of the plains with their determined but harsh labors. The enchanting melody is punctuated with choruses of men's and women's voices with that same angelic and operatic quality and charm that makes opera so Italian and Italy so operatic. Amazing! Even a work song is a polyphonic gem of harmonies. Now that's Italian!

Peppered with the usual love songs, humorous innuendos and the occasional accordion or guitar piece, the collection -- no matter how trite this may sound -- captures a moment in time. All recordings capture a moment in time. But this time of man, to use the familiar phrase from Crosby, Stills and Nash, was one that Lomax, who recorded so many field recordings, considered to be "one of the happpiest in my life."

Say the liner notes, in conclusion, "By chance, I happened to be the first person to record in the field over the whole Italian countryside. In a sense, I was a kind of musical Columbus in reverse. Nor had I arrived on the scene a moment too soon." And to paraphrase the words of another rock poet, you might say, Lomax "kept his eyes wide" knowing the "chance wouldn't come again." Thanks be that he did.

[ by John Cross ]
Rambles: 2 February 2002

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