la voce delle mascherate
now with booklet notes in English - see end of review
Associazione culturale Barabàn ACB/CD12
Some years ago it was my delight to come upon a record of the rice workers of the Po valley (see review); all women who worked through the harvest season every year, lived together in bothies, and sang in the polyvocal style familiar in Italy from the Trallalero of the Genovese dockworkers and the cantú á tenores of the Sardinian hinterland. It was particularly noteable that these Po valley workers were women, as female polyvocal singing is not too widely found in Italy, though this very day I have heard a group of women from Campagnia doing just this. Polyvocal female singing of course was not the only aspect of the record that was enthralling - and it certainly was that. I have recently heard female choirs singing Shaker hymns, and they couldn't have been more dull. Donne della pianura del Po was thrilling, in part, because it was so unusually women singing songs at work, and the idea of women living together for months of the year was intriguing, but there was far more to it than that. In its own right, this record of what I have been pleased to call 'The Rice Girls' presented splendid fiery music, superbly executed by women whose monotonous lives were greatly enhanced by the expression of spirit that the singing afforded them.
Here now is one of those women - well, not exactly one of the actual women on the record, as far as I know, but one of the thousands of countrywomen who left home once or twice a year for six weeks, working eight hours a day and more, living communally, and taking home little more than L.300 for the season. Eva Tagliani did this for nine years, from the age of 14 until she got married at 23. Singing brought alleviation for the misery "He was a hard master, if we stood up, woe betide us ... at the ricework we always sang; we sang to pass the time". It is unlikely, however, that many riceworkers had the stunning talent of Eva Tagliani.
Born in 1907 in the remote Brallo area of the Appennines, near Bobbio, in a district called Quattro Province (Four Provinces - where Lombardy, Piemonte, Liguria and Emilia Romana meet), Eva was recognised as a good singer from a very early age. At 15 she and other girls of her town took part as maschere (rather like mummers), acting out the stories of narrative ballads in the annual Commencement of Lent carnevale. Until this time, this activity had been a purely male preserve, but possibly after the first world war there were fewer young men and "in the space of a few years the girls monopolised the mascherate - the plays - assuming the parts of the principal protagonists, and relegating the men to a secondary role". In more recent times, the girls regularly participated in the mascherate until they married. Then the younger ones took over and replaced some of the 'dramas' they had learned with newer ones of their own.
The mascherate, then, were yet another element in the young Eva Tagliani's excellent grounding. At the age of 76 she was a stunning ballad singer, serious, controlled, passionate, and more than able to command a listener for the duration of some of the very long ballads on this CD.
L'ui bella (sound clip) is a narrative learned by Eva from a Piemontese woman in the ricefields and thereafter used in the mascherate. It seems to me unusual, particularly because it is in dialect, and more often the riceworkers - from all over the north of Italy - sang in Italian as a lingua franca. It tells of a married woman who, Cinderella-like, is wooed by a prince, but of course there cannot be a happy ending. It is a tragedy that is nearly 10 minutes in the telling, and every line is mesmerising. The song does indeed sound very solemn, but Eva has lighthearted girlhood memories of performing it: "L'ui bella was made by the mascherata. 'Baini' (cousin Margherita Tagliani of Feligara) was the husband, I the wife. We made it in the country, we went to look for eggs for the carnevale. We dressed as maschere, we sang the story. We had behind us the little girls; there was the soldiers ... three young men, there were the musicians. Then there was another that was the son of the king, dressed as a man. We went down there to the square, we sang it to the priest."
Other ballads used for the mascherate include Fernanda e Bortolino, a 'Two Sisters' drama, and Cecilia, a version of the Ladislaz Fehér story, widely known throughout Europe, particularly Hungary (though it is thought to have originated in Italy), and made popular in Britain through the Bert Lloyd translation. It is rightly described in the notes as 'a most enthralling ballad with a bloody and dramatic conclusion'.
Two of the songs are soldier's tales: Mamma perche piangi? (Mother, why are you crying? - sound clip) was learned from a pedlar who sold postcards and sang for money. Monte Nero, written by soldier Domenico Borella, tells of soldiers starving during a battle in 1915, and seems to be an Italian MacCaffery, in that it was banned by the authorities during 1914-1918 war, and again under Fascism, and performance is still believed to be grounds for incarceration: "... I don't know if I can sing it... I don't want to go to prison...".
There are three more ballads on the CD, all of which involve sex and betrayal - seemingly more common in Lombardy than naval battles, parrots and bottomless boats. Of these, Si l'era un bel giovane di Milan (It was a fine young man of Milan) is particularly popular with many younger singers all over Italy, possibly because of its gorgeous tune that Tagliani makes the most of in her authoritative, yet restrained manner. (sound clip)
Of the remaining songs La Santa Croce is a straightforward 'sumer is acumin in' song whose purpose is alms collection - much as the mascherate, but without the acting. Santa Croce Day is celebrated on the nights of 2/3 May, and until 20 years ago was celebrated at Colleri (Eva's home village) where the singing was done by two teams of singers - at times accompanied by the playing of piffero and accordion.
Draghino is a hugely popular song about a hugely popular figure - a sort of Bluebeard who was a piffero virtuoso and played his way out of trouble, and prison, but not eventually execution. (sound clip) She learned her very complete version from her husband Angelo, himself a piffero player well-known throughout the quattro province. Draghino is one of the only two songs on this CD that are in dialect, which I found quite surprising and certainly unusual. There were reasons for the 'rice girls' to sing in Italian, as I have said, but when one considers how very recently Italy became a nation (1840s) and how many old Italian people still speak almost exclusively in their own dialect, one can see that Eva Tagliani has gathered quite a special repertoire.
The CD is highly impressive, and above all enjoyable. There are only nine tracks, which make up 46 minutes, but it is all very rich and rewarding. The well-produced, informative 16 page booklet is unusual in that it is entirely in Italian (including translations of the two dialect songs, to the great relief of this reviewer) - almost all traditional music CDs coming out of Italy these days have English, and often French translations. It does suffer quite badly from the usual Italian trait of academicising complete topics to extinction, rendering the section entitled 'The style and the repertoire' all but incomprehensible. I understand that in Italy practically every 'folk' enterprise gets official funding, but to be considered worthy of such, every ethnomusicologist must be careful to only be understood by, and impressive to, other ethnomusicologists.
The collectors and notewriters of this CD, Aurelio Citelli and Giuliano Grasso, have said of this remarkable 76 year old woman:
The ability to give such close attention to narrative development, and faultless interpretation of the text have by now become very rare, and are only managed by the most expert interpreters of ballads and fables, true specialists in communication, well used to entertaining a small local public during the long winter evenings. In the light of our experience therefore, Eva Tagliani cannot be simply considered one of the many narrative song performers of Brallo: she was, in the first decades of the century, one of the greatest, most important voices of the mascherate, but her singing skill did not pass with her youth. On the contrary, Eva has consciously conserved throughout her life a whole repertoire of narrative song forgotten (or ignored) by other country singers, performed in a solo voice style that belongs to an older phase of the oral tradition - and this is particularly relevant in an area that is characterised by an interesting male and female polyvocal tradition.This superb Italian CD - along with five others - is now available exclusively in the UK from our Records page, and an edited English translation of the booklet notes, complete with song texts, is available as an Article on this site.
Danny Stradling - 25.5.01
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