various artists,
Italian Musical Odyssey
(Putumayo, 2000)

To most Americans, maybe even to most non-Italians, Italy is a single country, one of the oldest in the world. It's not. In fact, Italy as we know it today is only a little over 100 years old. Still today, within the country, regional cuisines, local dialects, architecture and musical styles color our perceptions of Italy from Piemonte to Napoli. And separatist movements are alive and well.

The resilience of local culture is a remarkable phenomenon, given that any culture anywhere is constantly under invasion. But resilience, not resistance, is the key to cultural survival. The artists on Italian Musical Odyssey know that maxim well and they act on it with marvelous results. The various singers and musicians on this CD are also ethnomusicologists, music historians, composers and arrangers. They have taken old local forms and newer music as well as styles they have learned in their own travels or learned from recent immigrants and then mixed them with traditional and contemporary verses to create a new vernacular in the music of their individual regions of Italy.

Each cut is from a different group or artist and a different region but the whole gives a lovely musical travelogue of Italy. Agricantus (Farmsongs) takes their name and general inspiration from the agricultural songs of their native Sicily. The group, which includes Swiss singer Rosie Wiederkehr, has taken the traditional song "Spunta Lu Suli (The Sun is Rising)" and delivered it with founding member Mario Crispi on sikus, a South American panpipe, as well as Giuseppe Panzeca featured on mandolin.

From the Piemonte in northwestern Italy, La Ciapa Rusa (The Red Patch) brings "La Torinese (The Girl from Turin)," a reconstruction of a traditional folk ballad that tells the tale of a beautiful young maiden whose parents are attempting to marry her off. La Ciapa Rusa broke up recently but they left a respectable body of work. Their arrangement of this cut and their musicianship on traditional instruments like the organetti, ghironda, salterio and piffero tempts me to look for some of those older recordings.

My favorite cut on the album is Lucilla Galeazzi's original composition, "Quante Stelle Nel Cielo Con La Luna (So many stars in the sky with the moon)." This piece brings together influences from different areas of the Mediterranean: Spanish Gypsy guitar, lyrics based in Galeazzi's native Umbrian tradition and even a little North African ululation softened by her gorgeous voice. Galeazzi is a singer and composer we should know better. I wish I knew who is the guitarist on this cut.

One two three, one two three, one two three, "Il Battagliero (The Soldier)," with Riccardo Tesi on melodeon and a very able, unnamed backup guitarist is an example of Ballo Liscio, a popular dance form that developed in the 19th century. Liscio introduced couples dancing to the urban middleclass in Italy and spread quickly across the country, developing local variations and becoming popular with all classes of society. It's the dance music you hear in the sound tracks of a lot of Italian movies and that instantly conjures Italy for Americans.

Rua Port' Alba is a Naples-based group well versed in the Neapolitan folk-music tradition. They create new compositions to bring the traditional music into a contemporary context. Their piece on this CD is "Adriana," which addresses the issue of homeless children in Naples by focusing on a very resourceful little girl who is growing up too quickly. No instruments or musicians or singers are clearly identified in the liner notes so I'm guessing here but the guitar and whatever kind of flute are very good as are the singing voices. I really like this piece for its exactly right delivery of a mix of admiration for the girl Adriana and the sadness expressed for her situation.

The Fratelli Mancuso (Mancuso Brothers) cut "Accusi Va La Barca Al Mari (Thus Goes the Boat to the Sea)" is very expressive of the longing of expatriate Sicilians for better times for the people of their native island. The cello and mandolin (I'm guessing again) are lovely and the voices wistful and compassionate about the repeated cycle of children being born and growing up and leaving on any boat they can find to escape the economic and social conditions on the island.

Gruesome as the lyrics are (describing amputation of body parts as punishment) "Attinde" (Bring Me -- whatever body part) by Calic is the cut that sticks most often in my head when I play this CD. Sardinia, from which Calic hales, is closer to North Africa than it is to Rome and its isolation, combined with influences from several invading cultures, inevitably evolved a distinctive cultural tradition with dialect and musical traditions unique to the island. This piece, sung in the polyphonic vocal style called canto a tenore and played entirely on traditional Sardinian instruments draws on those traditions while commenting on what the artists perceive as the current cultural decay on the island.

The members of Calicanto, from Padua in the north near Venice, have spent about 20 years together investigating the musical history of the region of Veneto and reconstructing traditional folk instruments. The group takes its name from one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring in the north of Italy, as a symbol for their efforts to revive Venetian music and culture. Singer/percussionist Rachele Colombo's voice on the cut "Bealaguna (Beautiful Lagoon)" describes the precarious beauty and difficult relationship of the city of Venice to the sea that embraces and sometimes floods it. The history of the region is described in the influences, Turkish, Southeast Asian and European deftly woven into the music while seagulls fly over.

The Celts invade "Franziska" by Taken. Or maybe they're invited in. In any case, the tin whistle wanders through the song to ornament the definitely Italian accordion playing. Sung in the local dialect of the Vercelli province of the Piemonte region, from where the group originates, the song tells of the torments of love. Like many bar songs of many cultures, this has an easily memorizable and singable chorus that anyone would recognize, anywhere. One two three, one two three, dance it down the street.

The very earnest looking young men in the Novalia photograph have done a very nice job of weaving a sense of Eastern spirituality into their song "Canti e Briganti (Chants and Outlaws)." The group is from the central Italian region of Lazio and sing in the dialect of that place according to the liner notes but the chorus of this piece sounded to me for all the world like a Hare Krishna chant with a little African call and response thrown in for good measure. The instrumentation -- everything from electronics to bagpipes to darbouka (derbek) is so well-integrated that nothing seems out of place.

The lush instrumentation of "Senza Parla (Without Speaking)" by Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare (New Company of Popular Song) is in direct contrast to the words sung by group founder, Fausta Vetere. Corrado Sfogli, who wrote words and music for this piece, drew separately from the two strongest traditions of Naples for his inspiration. The music is definitely Italian in the European tradition of high art with lots of violins accompanying the guitar and mandolin. Naples (Neapolis -- new city) was originally a Greek city however and the words in the song could have been taken directly from one of the ancient lyric poets of that tradition. Somehow, for me the lyrics echo Sappho's ache for her young friend who is going to leave her school to marry "that man beside you."

If my uncle and godfather, Louie Caputo, were still alive, I'd buy this CD for him.

[ by J. Higgins-Rosebrook ]
Rambles: 8 September 2001