Mazzate Pesante (Heavy Blows)
Edizione Aramirč CD EA 09
A small number of readers may remember me being particularly enthusiastic about a CD from Salento (the 'heel' of Italy's 'boot') a few years ago, which I reviewed in Folk Roots, as it then was. The record concerned was called Bassa Musica, or 'low music', by Canzoniere di Terra d'Otranto, (in fact, I tried to include it in MT's list of Italian records we sell from the website, but it is now, sadly, unavailable). The band had been founded in 1989, produced Bassa Musica in '94, but then faded out of existence. But in 1996 one of its most active members, Roberto Raheli, set up its successor, Aramirč Compagnia di Musica Salentina (hereinafter referred to as ACMS).
ACMS is a group of revival performers, but they have very strong connections with their traditional sources - both personally and stylistically - and this results in a CD which I think even the most pedantic traddie would find it hard not to enjoy. It also has the advantage of its members being a generation younger than their traditional counterparts - and so they tend to be a lot easier to listen to. See what you think, with a short clip from the start of the first track, Ieri sera (Last Night) a traditional love song.
Something I have noticed in my, albeit very limited, explorations of other peoples' music, is the comparitive lack of lyrical songs and ballads - songs that tell coherent stories. This is certainly true of Italy where, with the exception of the Eva Tagliana CD, it's unusual to find more than one story-song on any record. Most Italian songs, in my experience, tend to resemble those British songs which are wholly made up of 'floating verses' - but with a difference. There is a long tradition of singers 'extemporising' their songs, and this is often done by taking appropriate 'floaters', and altering words and lines to suit the current theme of the song. Thus a singer may comment on a social or political situation, praise or condemn a particular person/place/institution, lament a loss, etc, whilst remaining in true traditional idiom. In this way, one can encounter some completely modern concerns expressed in songs which are as fully traditional as ones recorded 50 years ago and more.
This is the case in some of the songs to be found on this present CD (many others are 'traditional' in the ordinary sense of the term). Thus we find on page 2 of the booklet the following disclaimer: 'This CD contains some non-traditional material. Handle with care!' The three areas which concern Roberto Raheli particularly are: the way the beautiful landscape of Salento is being trashed by both big business and its own inhabitants; the way the traditional culture of the area is being userped by jumpers-upon-the-bandwagon of 'tarantismo'; and the political degeneration of the Italian state and its judiciary by the Forza Italia government - personified by Silvio Berlusconi. Of the latter concern, you are probably already well aware - but you may be less au fait with the first two.
Salento, along with much of southern Italy, is being rapidly destroyed by speculative building on any land which might conceivably be termed a 'beauty spot'. That such building is done wholly without planning permission, and is thus illegal, is of no concern since rules and regulations are able to be bent or nullified by a few bribes in the right places in Berlusconi's Italy. Added to this, illegal dumping of rubbish is now a widespread problem.
The cultural crisis in much of the South is one with which we will all be able to readily identify, since we have a perfect example of the phenomenon right on our own doorstep; the fashion for 'Celtic' music. Everything awful that can be said about the 'Celtic' craze can be said with equal force about tarantismo - a relatively localised music/dance cultural and spiritual expression has suddenly become the be-all-and-end-all of southern Italian culture, and fed off by all the political and business interests one could possibly imagine. We even encountered pizzica dancing in Abruzzo last summer - at least half way up the Italian peninsula. This accounts for the second statement on page 2: 'Stop Spider Abuse! No spiders have been used in the production of this CD.'
If this has some resonance for you, calls up some parallels we can recognise, you may appreciate the words to part of the song which gives this CD its title - Mazzate Pesante (Heavy Blows):
Down in the Salento we have the sun and the beautiful sea, and with the tambourine people dance and play; but this 'ethnic music' has become like a postcard of a fake Salento of nights and tarantulas. I am ethnic, but an infuriated one, because the tambourine mustn't become like a ring through the nose ... Hotels on the beach, nights and tarantulas; the merchandising of a Salento that is only a facade. If today the Salento is in fashion, this fashion is consuming us; we are ruining everything now and there will be nothing left for us. These 'ethnic' musicians have multiplied, but if they know five pieces they never get to a sixth ...Not only are these concerns expressed in some of the songs here, but they also pervade Roberto Raheli's writing in the superb booklet accompanying the CD. I was impressed by his comments in the Bassa Musica booklet, but here he is even more impassioned - and passion is something I love, where ever I find it. Here's an example:
At the same time, we are witnessing massive transactions of regional marketing, the organisation of big 'events' and the deliberate manipulation of historic realities for the use of advertising, through the creation of a series of 'icons'; the spider and the tambourine (just like the pizza and the mandolin of Naples), or that of a hedonistic-dionysian Salento, where at the end of the day the peasants 'traditionally' got together on the threshing floor of the masseria to wildly dance the pizzica. [And quoting two real traditional musicians] "Do me a favour!" Toto would say, "But what pizzica?" And Uccio Aloisi in fact does say, "The pizzica was danced only once a year. And that was it!"Does that ring any bells for you?
And if, like me, you've read anything of Italian politics since Rupert Mur ... sorry, Silvio Berlusconi, came to power, you'll understand what Roberto Raheli means in the final verse of track 7, O pillo pillo pi:
With this television you no longer understand a thing; rubbish programs stupify the people ... And so, to finish, I must tell you; I have travelled the world and I have understood some things. I have travelled the world, and I have seen the bad and the good - and Silvio Berlusconi remains the worst of all.... and this, in what sounds (maybe, in fact, is) a traditional folk song. So please don't let all my enthusiastic babble above lead you to the idea that this is just a record of protest songs - it's far more than that! It's a record of great singing and great songs, which is thoroughly enjoyable even if you know, or care, nothing for its sociopolitical intentions. Aurally, it is absolutely one with its traditional sources; and - though many listeners may not realise it - intellectually and culturally, too. Here's a final sound clip from a lament for some striking women tobacco workers massacred in 1932 in Tricase. Although it sounds traditional, Roberto Raheli has only written it recently.
This splendid CD is available via CDRoots at: www.cdroots.com/ara-mazza.html Well worth buying.
Rod Stradling - 20.3.05