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Franco Melis comes from roughly the same area (near Cagliari in the south of the island) from which the 1930s launeddas maestro Efisio Melis hailed, but there is no mention in the booklet of them being related. As I have noted before, Sardinia seems to have a good number of very common surnames, so this should not surprise us. He learned his trade, as have most launeddas players, by apprenticeship to an established master - in his case, to Aureliu Porcu. Porcu, in his turn, had been apprenticed to Antonio Lara - the other great maestro of the Thirties, and Efisio Melis' main rival!
It was the practice - in the 'golden age' of the launeddas - for a pupil who excelled to experiment and develop a new style of playing which, when he in his turn took on apprentices, became a new 'school' of the tradition. Franco Melis is said to be exceptional in that, while being acclaimed as a modern maestro, he has avoided experimentation of any kind. The booklet notes tell us that: 'The tradition is honoured in everything he does. In his generation, he stands out as one of the most fastidious interpreters of the 'classical' styles favoured by the professionals of the previous era.'
The traditional apprenticeship required not only a mastery of playing the instrument, but also of its manufacture. Again the notes say that 'Today, his instruments are considered among the best to be had, and many players, the famous included, carry his instruments with pride in their stracasciu - the leather case in which [they] might keep 20 instruments.' This probably needs a little explanation ...
The launeddas is an instrument consisting of 3 reed pipes - one drone and two chanters of different lengths. All three are blown simultaneously and the player uses 'circular breathing' to maintain a continuous sound. So it sounds like a bagpipe - but the player's mouth acts as the bag. It's an exceptionally old instrument - a bronze statuette of a launeddas player was found in one of the many Nurages (dry-stone forts) in central Sardinia, and has been dated to the 9th century BC - 3,000 years ago! Each chanter has 5 holes, and is fingered principally, but not exclusively, by one hand (as you can see from the cover photo). By using different combinations of long and short chanters the twelve standard 'konsertus' or sets are available - and each has a different name (fiuda, fiorassu, ispinellu, puntu de organu, etc.) and each of these may be in several different keys, as can bee seen from the track listing:
|1||Mediana a pipia||Mediana a pipia in DO||7:44|
|2||Ballu cabillu||Puntu de organu in LA||4:24|
|3||Processione e a seguire Elevazione||Puntu de organu in FA#||4:09|
|4||Florassiu||Fiorassiu in SIb||8:01|
|5||Goggius||Ispinellu in SOL||2:42|
|6||Puntu de organu||Puntu de organu in FA||6:42|
|7||Fiuda bagadia||Fiuda bagadia in RE||5:38|
|8||Elevazione||Fiorassiu in SIb||2:29|
Enough of the technical stuff - the playing, and the music, is just wonderful. Here are a couple of short sound clips: left - Mediana a pipia; and right: Puntu de organu. I've not heard enough launeddas to know for sure how good Franco Melis is, but he's certainly good enough for me! And I suspect that it's his fidelity to the traditional style which makes a music that I don't really understand so utterly satisfying. My good friend, great Sardophile, and Felmay's boss, Beppe Greppi, agrees with me: yes, the album is excellent ... his precision, his knowledge of the repertoire, his tuning, etc. are really great!
I'd like to end with a longish quote from the booklet:
To understand the current situation, we must distinguish the main forces shaping the Sardinian musical panorama. Without question, packaged folklore and World Music dominate; the first being the way ethnic products are selectively re-bundled for tourist consumption, the second being the highly innovative, often unsympathetic way our musical heritage is ‘improved’. In the shade of these forces lies the quality-base of the tradition; the hardcore material that provides its strength. The story of Franco Melis is entwined with the task of bringing this material out of obscurity, countering a shallow recorded legacy that might otherwise threaten the future of the launeddas tradition. It is certainly with that objective that this recording was created - Placido CherchiGood for you, Placido - I couldn't have put it better myself! This very enjoyable CD is now available from the MT Records website, at just £12.00.
Rod Stradling - 25.5.05
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