Felmay fy 8129
Qui si formano i bei concerti; Quarto a-o mà; Mamma dimmi perché; Serenata di Don Giovanni; Di quel visin; Serenatella Proibita; Se vuoi che m’innamori; Pippo non lo sa; La Partenza; Il problema più importante; L’usignuolo; A bonn-a seja; Ma se ghe penso; Scioglilingua; Tiritoc; Vagabondo.Aside from the mandolin music of Napoli, it seems to be the Genovese Trallalero tradition which most comes to mind (among the people I know), when Italian music is mentioned. This is particularly astonishing when one realises that most people have only ever heard one song by one group - the truly incredible La Partenza sung by an unnamed 'group of longshoremen from Genoa', recorded by Diego Carpitella and Alan Lomax in 1954. (The song is one long piece, with no separate verses, so here's the whole thing for those of you who've not heard it before). This single recording appeared on the Columbia World Series LPs (and now on the Lomax Sampler and Rounder Italian Treasury series) and was featured in a radio program Bert Lloyd made in the early 1970s(?). Nonetheless, the aural experience is so extraordinary that no one who heard it seems ever to have forgotten it.
The trallalero tradition is unique in that the usual line-up of tenor, baritone and bass voices is augmented (as you will have just heard) by a male contralto and a man imitating a guitar! It is also unusual in that comprises a traditional repertoire of only around sixty songs, and that it flourished in just one area of one fairly small city, Genova, in Italy's smallest regione, Liguria. The history of the genre is interesting.
Liguria is an odd place, composed almost entirely of the southern side of a range of mountains. The Appennines , the 'backbone of Italy', swing to the west where they meet the continental landmass and join up with the Maritime Alps, forming the northern coastline of the Ligurian Sea. Their feet are in the water except for a few places where, presumably, glacial erosion has created a narrow strip of coastal land. The east-to-west centre-line of the Ligurian Appennines forms the border between Liguria and the neighbouring regione of Piemonte to the north. In the few places where the coastal plain is wide enough there are towns, and Genova, right in the middle, is the largest and most important. The mountain valleys to the north are scattered with small towns and villages - and it is here that the beginnings of the trallalero can be found.
Group harmony singing can be found all over the world and the Ligurian mountain villages are no exception - but the normal form was for a 'first' and 'second' voice (often a tenor and a baritone) to carry the song over a bass accompaniment or drone. In a few areas, a vocal 'guitar' part was added to the accompaniment. A broad repertoire of such songs developed over a long period. Liguria is a poor area for most sorts of agriculture and many villages operated at near subsistence levels whenever the circumstances were less than perfect. Having a city like Genova, rich from trade and commerce from the 11th century through to fairly recent times, acted as a magnet, as all powerful cities do, to the more adventuresome dwellers in the hinterland, and such people flocked to Genova in search of fame and fortune ... bringing their songs with them. For reasons which it would be impossible to fully explain, the polyphonic singing style of the mountain villages found a particular place among the gangs of longshoremen, stevedores and those working in the various metal-working trades which supported the industry of the port. The male contralto part may well have been borrowed from the castrati who formerly sang in the church choirs of the city.
The practice of singing in trallalero groups, or squadre, probably reached its height in the early years of the 20th century, when the bars of Genova's waterfront played host to informal singing on a very regular basis, and formal competitions between the various bands were great social occasions. In the 1920s and '30s it is said that there were over a hundred bands of trallaleri (each from distinct professions as diverse as the bakers and the male nurses) all active in these competitions. Inevitably, by the 1950s such activity had dwindled considerably - not only for the reasons which led to the decline of traditional music throughout the developed world, but also because of the peculiar difficulties in presenting and maintaining the trallalero tradition.
The magic number for trallalero is said to be nine - that is: tenor, contralto, baritone, chitarra ('vocal guitar') and five basses. Many groups were much bigger. Each also required a conductor / leader / music arranger / organiser to keep such a show on the road and up to competition standard. Similarly, regular practices were needed both to maintain standards and train up new singers. It's hardly surprising that trallalero suffered badly in the black years of the mid-20th century - but enough of it struggled on to provide the renaissance of the 1960s with a repertoire and a stylistic model.
I don't know how many bands of trallaleri sing regularly today - I've only come across about five personally - but it should be obvious from the foregoing that to do so even semi-professionally will require that the gigs are very well-paid ... and that implies that the music and performance style must have an appeal across a far wider spectrum of listener than is the case with most traditional musics. The result has been that most of the groups I've heard have focussed on perfection of sound, and presentation ... the joy, zest and passion of the traditional group you heard a snatch of earlier has been largely lost.
However, there is a group which is not professional and which sings just for the hell of it, and which came together, as their name implies, spontaneously, out of a love of the trallalero repertoire and style. They didn't emerge from the Genovese docklands - and they have a female contræto rather than the traditional male one. They are Gruppo Spontaneo Trallalero, and this is their CD, celebrating their twenty years of singing together. The cover picture, by the way, is a really atmospheric photo of the Genovese waterfront, where so many of the songs heard here originated.
I have to admit to a personal interest here; I have met GST, I have actually sung an approximation of a bass part with them at one of their practices/socials, and Danny and I spent a truly unforgettable evening with them in a superb restaurant in Voltagio, where almost every course was preceded by one of their songs! That's the sort of people they are ... and it shows here on their CD.
Words would be superfluous here - let's just listen to a little of what they do (sound clip, left - Quarto a-o mà). That was a bit of track 2, a song written in 1929, and which became an instant favourite with squadre all over the area. A nice second example would be a snatch of track 11, L'usignuolo (sound clip, right), a song in the o roscigneu dialect, and considered to be part of the ancient repertoire, even though it isn't a true trallalero but an arrangement for a squadra of an old parlour song.
No need to say any more, I think. You can get this lovely CD from Felmay at: www.felmay.it I strongly recommend it.
Rod Stradling - 3.12.07
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