This record is the second of the Rounder/Lomax Italian Treasury issues and, as discussed in the Sampler review, it is actually a new record rather than just a reissue of an LP from the 1940s or '50s. This is doubly pleasing because it means that we get full value for our money (71 minutes of music in this case) and new booklet notes, actually written in the late 1990s and, it is to be hoped, up to date in terms of information and scholarship. Lomax and Diego Carpitella must have recorded an awful lot of stuff in Calabria (the 'foot' of Italy) because not only is this CD almost full length, but there are a further 5 tracks on the two Samplers released so far which aren't included here. The booklet mentions 'over 130 recording sessions'.
The booklet is very full, and doesn't waste too much time telling us how wonderful the two ethnomusicologists were, but rather it concentrates on what they found and heard. There's an Introduction, by Vito Teti, to the work they did and the country in which they did it, and moving through the history of Calabria right up to the present time and the problems faced today. The Series editor, researcher and compiler, Goffredo Plastino, then takes over and gives us an ethnographic and musicological overview of the land and its people. He then supplies detailed notes on each of the 28 tracks. This is all so much more like what I think we all had a right to expect from Rounder's Alan Lomax Collection, and I am extremely pleased to see it. (Fairly obviously, I've only seen a selection of the volumes so far issued).
There are a couple of observations (not complaints) to be made about the booklet. The Introduction, by Vito Teti - who is a Calabrian - paints a rather different picture of the area from that presented in the rest of the booklet by Goffredo Plastino. Teti also sometimes contradicts himself: " ... a beautiful, happy fertile country" - "To this lack of infrastructure ... must be added disasters due to natural causes ... extreme drought alternating with violent rain, devastating earthquakes, repeated floods, malaria ... ". Also, Plastino is a musicologist, so much of his comment about the performances reflects that interest and training - though he does often give us quotes from Lomax's field notes which tell us at least something of the people who were recorded. I guess that he gives us pretty much all there is to tell, since Lomax rarely mentions the performers in his song notes on other records.
The Calabrian disc is not an easy listen. Calabria is a hard land, by all accounts, and its music, to judge from what is presented here, reflects it with harsh sounds, hypnotic rhythms and a raw passion. Anything I may say in generalisation can be countered by one or two examples out of 28 tracks, but for the most part the music is of the tarantella/saltarello type, being made up of short phrases endlessly repeated to a fairly rigid rhythm with minute melodic variations each repeat (sound clip). This is not a pejorative description - this music is not, nor was it ever intended to be, 'music for listening to in your comfy armchair in Stroud'. There are 8 tracks labeled Tarantella - though I'm certain that one of them isn't (Plastino notwithstanding - I've heard it many times played by musicians in the north, where it's a monferrina or a sbrando), as it has the normal 64 bar AABBCCDD structure of European dance music rather than the developmental progressions of the tarantella. We also hear a Christmas Pastorale and another dance tune well-know all over Italy. The music is often played on one sort of zampogna (bagpipe) or another, but there are also organetti (melodeons), shawms, guitars, mouthorgans, a mandolin ... and the inevitable tambourines. There's even one track of just drums, and voices are often used as part of the dance music.
The songs are mostly by women - they outnumber the men by 12 to 5. There are a few solos, but mostly the singing is in small groups, and generally of only the one sex - the Pingitore family seems to be unusual in allowing brother Giuseppe to join in with his sister. Almost all the singing employs that 'forced' voice - high, harsh and loud - which Plastino terms 'melismatic' (sound clip - the Pingitore sisters). This is a term I'd not encountered in this context before, and it is never, as far as I can see, explained. I generally love this style when I encounter it in the women's work songs from the rice-fields of the north of the country, but here I find it just a little too alien and challenging - for the moment, anyway.
There are also a couple of lullabies, an olive gathering song, two 'bagpipe songs' (sound clip - track 15) and two 'guitar songs', a tuna-fishing capstan shantey and some swordfishermen's calls. These last are extremely challenging, not what one might normally call musical, and - as they form track 1 of the CD - they do rather set the tone for the whole experience.
I liked about five tracks on first hearing, and a couple more subsequently. The three sound clips I've included are probably the most accessible performances - I think this disc is probably one for the cognoscenti.
Rod Stradling - 25.6.99
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