Italian Treasury - Alan Lomax Collection
Rounder CD 1804
This is the third of the regional releases in the Treasury series - after Sicily (2000) and Calabria (1999) - and the first to deal with a northern Italian area. Of course there were some northern tracks (a minority) on the Sampler, and the Trallalero, from Genova, is obviously northern too - though it hardly constitutes a regional style. So this is the first volume to present a large, regionally cohesive block of song and music from the North of Italy - and the immediate impression is of how different it sounds from the Sicilian and Calabrian discs. But as we well know, culture generally, and music particularly, are no respecters of political boundaries - so there is not the hard and fast demarcation between the North and the South which many Italians today like to pretend exists. This may be due, in part, to the fact that their 'imaginary border' probably runs right through the middle of the regione of Emilia Romagna.
For readers unfamiliar with the geography, Emilia Romagna is one of Italy's largest regions and extends from the coastal strip of Liguria around La Spezia in the west, to Rimini on the Adriatic coast in the east - almost from sea to sea. That La Spezia / Rimini line is its southern border, but it extends northwards as far as the great Po river, but just misses including most of its delta. Bologna, its capital city, lies smack in its centre. Essentially then, the regione divides the northern 'Continental' lands from the southern 'Mediterranean' ones ... the Boot from the main landmass.
This CD is one of the 'new' ones in the series - i.e. not a reissue of an earlier LP version - and so has the benefit of an entirely new booklet and a hefty 75½ minutes running time, with most of the 31 tracks tagged as previously unreleased and only one having been included on the Sampler. The booklet notes are extremely good - most particularly for the Introduction by Tullia Magrini of Bologna University, and the Historical Note from Ellen Harold; neither of whom have contributed to the earlier Volumes, I think - although Ellen Harold has been responsible for the seemingly excellent translation from the Italian for the entire series. Her Historical Note gives a compact yet readable account of two millennia, which is both useful and extremely interesting.
The Introduction deals with the situation in the area around the time that Lomax made these recordings (oddly, the name of Diego Carpitella is almost entirely absent from the booklet), and goes on to explain his strategy to make the most of his short time (only about three weeks in total) in the regione. During the course of this explanation, and in Goffredo Plastino's recording notes, some surprising - even alarming - facts emerge. It would appear that a small but significant proportion of Lomax's recordings were not 'actuality' at all, but were specially set up performances outwith their normal social contexts - presumably to get the best possible recordings. Nothing wrong with that, of course - except that the 'ambient sounds' (crowd noise, passing carts, etc), which add an aura of authenticity to so much of his stuff, were, we find, actually set up as well ... for exactly this purpose!
We learn, for example, that he engineered the performance of one of the maggi dramatici (May Day dramas) heard here, Brunetto ed Amatore, to the extent of getting its composer's grandson to read out a narrative text, summarising the complex vicissitudes of the plot, in between the sung excerpts. Exactly who wrote this narration we are not told. As Tullia Magrini notes, although this may be seen as 'valuable as documentation', the effect is 'entirely different from that of a genuine performance, which is entirely musical, without spoken narration'. And then some - I would guess! A genuine performance took most of the afternoon, it seems. Similarly, any ritual celebrations that he recorded which normally occurred at another point in the calendar, were also, obviously, out-of-context performances.
Moreover, what Lomax elicited from his 'informants' was, as Magrini says, the things they thought would be most appropriate ... 'songs of public and ritual character'. Thus, he completely missed what are now seen as the principal repertory elements of the area; lyrical songs and women's ballad singing!
All this leads me to wonder exactly what Lomax thought he was up to with his grand scheme to 'document the music of the peoples of the world'. We are now used to the idea that there is always a degree of mediation involved when traditional material is collected and subsequently published in the wider world. This effect was, I think, known of and understood - at least simplistically - by the late-fifties when Alan Lomax was working. So the extent of his mediation - almost Sharpian in scale - revealed in this Introduction, is quite staggering. Some four years into the publication of The Alan Lomax Collection, the cat is out of the bag! One is left wondering about the degree to which he was interfering in all the rest of his collecting work - and, ultimately, about the authenticity of much of what he has bequeathed us.
Goffredo Plastino's recording notes are somewhat less ethnomusicological in character than those of earlier volumes, and include details of the 14 reels of tape he filled in Emilia Romagna - noting that he recorded almost 100 items there. Commenting on Lomax's novel method of fitting several hours' worth of Brunetto ed Amatore into 10 minutes of recording, he adds that another ploy was to get the participants to simulate the crowd noises of the real event - a technique he had previously employed on the Spanish recordings of 1952. Not just something he used in Italy, then!
The song or tune notes, by Gian Paolo Borghi, are concise and generally useful - at least as far as the song or dance concerned. Sadly, he is able to tell us almost nothing of the performers ... most are simply indicated as 'unidentified'. However, when the above information regarding mediation is known, a degree of reading-between-the-lines becomes a natural consequence ... When we realise that 11 of the tracks are of May, Carnevale, or New Year rituals - and thus in vitro performances here in November - and that a similar number are work-songs or songs associated with work, or a particular place or season, we start to have doubts as to just which tracks are really genuine actuelité, and which not. Then we begin to notice the number of times in which Borghi uses phrases like "This traditional polka was usually performed by local players during ..." and "Traditionally, such songs were sung ..." or "There are usually six dancers". If we are now really quite worried, it compounded by the fact that, in the notes to the Ninna nanna (lullaby), he goes to the trouble of saying "which was recorded in context" ... a phrase which is never repeated regarding any of the other 30 tracks! Enough! This way madness lies ... On to the CD itself:
We start with a Trescone - one of Italy's oldest dances - played by a fiddler and guitarist from Riolunato in the southwest of the regione. The (unnamed) fiddler varies the tune nicely each time through. Immediately, we know we're in the North - fast 6/8 time, AABB format, key change between the parts, the extra bar at the end ... this is typical northern Italian dance music, as played by all the revival bands of the seventies onwards - though seldom at this speed! Despite playing the tune through four times, the track lasts but 80 seconds! Indeed, all the instrumental tracks - there are seven in total - are similarly short.
Nineteen-year-old Danilo Stella plays accordion on a Ballo della Veneziana, in 2/2, and a Monferrina, in 6/8 - extra beats between phrases seem much in evidence in his playing. Ruffillo Casadei, aged 54, also plays accordions - an organetto for the well-known carnevale dance Ballo dei Gobbi (dance of the hunchbacks), and some type of chromatic for a Russiano - nothing Russian about it, but this contredance is said to have originated in the town of Russi. This track is followed by an unnamed fiddler with 'another version of the same' dance - although the former was in 4/4 and this is in 6/8 ... leading one to imagine that the stepping is probably of the gallop sort.
All the paying heard so far has been energetic, characterful, fairly rough, and clearly of the old style. The final track is a polka used in the ballo liscio ballroom tradition. This may be imagined as a sort of Country & Western version of ballroom which began at the end of the 19th century, was played by what might be called showbands, and was incredibly popular - and remains so to this day. Its popularity, of course, meant that there was money to be made from it - which in turn meant that the ablest musicians learned the repertoire, acquired the techniques, got the gigs ... and became at least semi-professional. This shows very clearly on this polka track, played by an unnamed fiddler and guitarist in Riolunato (sound clip). There's some very technically skilled playing here - but what is most obvious is that they are the techniques of a different era ... like comparing, say, Boscatle & Tintagel with the Bismarcks (and no disrespect to either!) What is even more intriguing is the possibility that the players of the Trescone (track 1) and the Polka (track 31) are actually the same musicians - how many unnamed fiddle and guitar duos did Lomax record in Riolunato on November 26th, 1954, I wonder? If this is the case, it shows that able musicians are capable of performing in more than one style and, perhaps, of valuing the old alongside the new.
The aforementioned maggi dramatici appear in three forms on the CD. The reconstructed and shortened version of Brunetto ed Amatore, a sacred, and church sponsored, Maggio delle anime purganti (May song for souls in Purgatory), and a secular Maggio delle ragazze (May song for girls). Both these last are sung by a group of men who had been singing together for 'at least 20 years' and had been trained by the local priest. They sound rather like the Padstow carollers. Brunetto ed Amatore doesn't work for me ... imagine the entire NT Miracle plays cycle crammed into ten minutes!
We get three New Year songs, all of which are associated with 'alms-seeking' rituals of one sort or other. Two are by fairly nondescript male choruses (though one has additional, and nontraditional, female assistance). Another is from a folk revival group, with bags of tenors and vibrato. The most interesting of this type of song, however - and by far the best - is a La Vecchia - a carnevale song/mumming ritual from Pontelangiorno. The 'out with the old, in with the new' theme generally associated with New Year also reappears at carnevale time (February), when the 'Old Woman' (La Vecchia or sometimes Belfana) features in many rituals and festivities, symbolising the old year; revitalised after Easter. Indeed, she is burnt in effigy on carnevale bonfires in some parts of neighbouring Piemont up to the present day. La Vecchia is great fun, and the performance - even if it was staged - gives the impression of a real event, with none of the self-consciousness evident on some of the other anachronistic tracks (sound clip).
There are two songs from the mondine tradition; that of women from the mountains 'going to the rice' for the planting and weeding work in the paddy fields of the Po valley. I'm sorry to say that these recordings, while pleasant enough, are not a patch on those on the superb 'Rice Girls' CD compiled by Roberto Leydi.
The remaining tracks are all one-offs: a Ninna nanna; a dialogue song, Martino e Marianna; a work song, Alla boara; a song typical of the cantastorie street ballad singers, Addio padre; a political song from the post-war period, O cancellier; a men's tavern song E la mamma de Rosina, which is astonishingly like several English songs featuring lusty millers (sound clip); and a deeply confused and diminished version of the big ballad Cecilia - sung, most unusually, by a man.
This last song reminds us that something Lomax missed on his Emilian trip was the women's ballad tradition, and that Eva Tagliani (see review) lived only a short distance from the Lombardia/Emilia border and shared much of this repertoire - her version of Cecilia is the fullest ever recorded. Not only that, but the mascherate in which she participated were nothing more than another type of maggio dramatico.
So - a very worthwhile CD of fine traditional material from an area from which comparatively little has been published in recent years. We get a good selection of varied material, and plenty of it. I know there are people who say - far too smugly in my opinion - "Oh, I never read the booklet - it only spoils the record." While there are certainly booklets which do just that, the better examples really do offer a way to enjoy the performances more - not less. This booklet is a good one and very interesting - though it is unable to tell us much about the performers concerned. Unfortunately, it also throws up some worrying questions about how Lomax viewed traditional activities.
The traditional culture of any society is a group experience - 'art as process' writ large. Until we understand that we cannot hope to begin to understand the snapshots of traditional performance which is generally all that even the best collection work is able to offer us. More - until we begin to understand it, we won't truly begin to enjoy these snapshots. It is disturbing to realise that someone of Alan Lomax's stature appears to have been unconcerned by this (certainly not unaware) - and was content to offer us 'art as object' in its place.
Rod Stradling - 24.7.01
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