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Polyphonies des Quatre Provinces
VDE CD-1358 (multi-media CD)
Stefano Valla & Daniele Scurati
Per dove?
Italie: Musiques de l'Alpennin Vol 3
Buda - Musique du Monde 3017926

Polyphonies des Quatre Provinces  1. A vóta vgni curé ant la mè vigna;  2. E la vien dal ciel;  3. Mamma mia dammi il biondo;  4. Dove vaí o ti Armando?;  5. Tri bei giuvin;  6. Leí mi voleva bene;  7. Sotto il ponte;  8. Cappellino rotondo;  9. Marcellina;  10. Stornèlli in risaia;  11. Cristoforo Colombo;  12. La strada di Mede;  13. Cinque minuti;  14. La sposina;  15. E darmi d'un ricciolo;  16. La bella si marita;  17. La figura;  18. Angiolina;  19. Serenatella proibita.   Duration: 58:28.   Plus M4V video file, duration: 12:59.

Per dove?  1. Alessandrina cache cache;  2. Marcellina;  3. Valzer in gennaio;  4. Alessandrina do la;  5. La neve va con il sole;  6. Polca in la minore;  7. Alessandrina in re;  8. Piana;  9. Il Sirio;  10. Polca Ernesto;  11. Mazurca Per Tilio;  12. Occhi neri;  13. Sestrina;  14. Mazurca Dau pien d'alas;  15. Vieni bella;  16. Valzer in settembre;  17. Il vecchio e il bambino;  18. Polca didl di;  19. Giga a quattro.   Duration: 51:15.

Cover picture The first of these two CDs presents the canto fermo (songs without rhythm) genre found, among other places, in the quattro province of northern Italy - a mountainous area situated where the four northern Italian provinces of Genova, Piacenza, Alessandria and Pavia join.  The local culture is very interesting in that it has incorporated disparate elements of Piemontese, Ligurian, Emilia Romagnan and Lombard tradition into a cohesive whole.  To the uninitiated, this canto fermo sounds a lot like the famous Genovese trallalero tradition - but only superficially; it tends to be less complex and 'arranged', and usually excludes the chitarra (vocal guitar) part.

Group harmony singing can, of course, be found all over the world and these 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 (Zena in the local dialect), 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 adventurous dwellers in the hinterland, and such people flocked there 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 participants 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.

So it may be said that the canto fermo is a rural forerunner of the urban trallalero, and it has continued to develop alongside it right up to the present day.  This present disc seems to be the brainchild of Stefano Valla, who I first encountered as part of a group called Voci del Lèsima, whose excellent 1996 CD, Splende la luna in ciel, I reviewed in fROOTS at the time.  As well as singing, he played a bit of piffero on that CD, and subsequently became known as one of the foremost exponents of that fine instrument ... but more of that later.

The CD features the singing of several goups: Le voci di Lesima; Le voci dei Confine; Le voci di Ferriere; Le voci di Fego; Colleri u canta; I cantori di Marsaglia; and the trallalero group La Squadra.  In addition there are a few songs from Stefano Valla and Daniele Scurati (accordion).  It starts, however, with a solo - which seems a bit odd for a record featuring polyphonic singing - from Paolo Marchelli (Chacho's cousin, and primo in Le voci di Lesima), but it's a good example of the true strambotti style, now becoming popular in the area.

OK - let's hear some of the singing.  I'll start with what I think may be the most typical example of the canto fermo style, E la vien dal ciel (She comes from Heaven), sung by Le voci di Lesima.  Next, here are Le voci di Ferriere with Sotto il ponte (Under the bridge).  I think this borrows a characteritic from the mondine of the Po Valley rice fields, in that the 'chorus' starts towards the end of the first or third line of the verses.  For a closer example of this style, Le voci di Fego sing Stornèlli in risaia (verses in the rice field).  As you can hear, this group includes some women singers - the mondine were always women (the only men empoyed in rice field were called trapiantini; they transplanted rice plants one at a time, by hand).  To make a change, let's hear a bit of Stefano Valla and Daniele Scurati playing and singing La bella si marita (The beautiful bride).  This is a composite of a song and two dance tunes (canto da piffero), which recall the old masters of the quattro province, Giacomo and Ernesto Sala, with hints of the old sestrina tune.  While Stefano sings with both Le voci di Lesima and La Squadra, it is (rather obviously) Daniele who is singing here.  To complete a sample of the sounds to be heard here, I'll finish with a bit of trallalero from La Squadra, Angiolina.  Although most of the group come from Genova, it has always been common for trallalero singers to visit the mountains for feste, singing and good company.

One of the delights of a labour of love like this CD is the little insights that those 'within' the tradition let 'out'.  When reviewing CDs of the Sardinian coro (sacred) tradition, I've often mentioned the quintina - the fifth harmonic which can emerge from the four perfectly attuned voices.  When this happens, the singers believe that it is the voice of the Virgin Mary joining in with them.  Unsurprisingly, we are told that this phenomenon also sometimes occurs in the canto fermo, where it is said to be the voice of the grandmother - "Ah, Granny's come to help us out" say the singers!  Isn't that just beautiful?

This is a multi-media CD, so pop it into your computer and - if it can play M4V files - you also get a 13 minute film of a couple of the groups singing, plus a lot of extremely interesting comments from Stefano Valla about the style, and the crucial differences between social singing round the table and getting the songs recorded properly for a CD.  I think this is an utterly admirable - and hugely enjoyable - production.


Cover picture Now - having mentioned Stefano Valla's piffero playing earlier - we come to per dove?, which means, roughly, To Where?, or where are we going?  This slightly strange title should be seen as part of the sequence of Stefano Valla and Daniele Scurati's earlier CDs: E prima di partire (And before leaving); and Segni (Signs).  Where they are going, it seems to me, is straight into the hearts of the people of the quattro province villages.  I can say this with some authority, having been taken a fortnight ago, by Felmay's Beppe Greppi, to a patronal festa e ballo in Cartasegna, high in these mountains, where Stefano and Daniele were playing.  A fabulous and quite unforgettable experience, which brought to mind the old Darmoor village dances Bob Cann's Pixie Band used to play in the '60s.  No need for a caller - as soon as the tune starts, everyone's up and dancing ... they know which dance goes with which tune.  The extent to which these two chaps are valued in this area is indicated by the fact that they played 27 such events in this small area in the month of August alone!

These villages really are remote - we drove for almost an hour up winding narrow roads, which soon degraded to a track with grass growing in the middle, to reach Cartsegna (population aroud 40), to find about 100 people aged between 8 and 80, eager to eat and dance in a marquee set on the only flat space in the village.  In the breaks between the five courses, Stefano and Daniele would play a set of tunes, or go to sit at a table with some other singers and break into the canto fermo songs featured on the first of these two CDs.  When the food was over and the last coffees and grappas had been drunk, the long tables and benches were cleared away, a small table was set up in the corner with two chairs on top for Stefano and Daniele - reminiscent of the farmhouse harvest suppers in England 100 years ago - and the music and dancing began.  Everyone danced, from the tiniest children to the oldsters with sticks!  Even the dog danced!

The dancing was of two broad styles: the old traditional tunes each had its own traditional dance; the more recent rural liscio (waltzes, polkas, mazurkas) are also an important part of the repertoire.  The dance style for these is called a saltini and it’s typical of these mountains - you don't see liscio danced like this anywhere else.

Enough of our holiday experiences - what of the music?  There are more tunes here are for the Alessandrina circle dance than for any other type (though they don't come from the Piemontese province of Alessandria; no one knows exactly why they are so named.  Similarly, the Monferrina doesn't come from Monferrato either!)  A good example would be track 1, Alessandrina cache cache.  The slightly odd format of 16 bars + 4 bars makes perfect sense when you see that dance.  In a way, it's a pity that this isn't also a multi-media CD, because it would be marvellous to see the dancing as well as hearing the music!See Note below.  Another circle dance is the piana, and the tune at track 8, Piana, is very interesting both chordally and rhythmically.  Again, you need to see the dance to understand its complexity.

An important section of the quattro province piffero repertoire is the tunes played by Ernesto Sala, 1907-1989, 22 tracks of which could be heard on the old Albatros LP, VPA 8269 which, sadly, does not seem to have made the crossover to CD.  The 3-part Polca Ernesto is one such piece.  I mentioned the truly wonderful Sestrina tune earlier (another Sala piece), and it would be remiss of me to leave it out of this brief survey.  Finally, having mentioned Stefano Valla's singing fairly often, I guess you should hear him, with Daniele Scurati on accordion and harmony with a lovely old love serenade, Vieni bella - "Leave your balcony and come with me; listen to my song".

As well as 'into the hearts of the people of the quattro province villages', one must also say that 'To where?' is also 'forward' - in that the duo are writing tunes and songs which appear to be equally acceptable to their mountain audience ... long may they continue.  Both these excellent CDs are available from Italy's Felmay record distribution company: find them (and buy them) at:   You won't be disappointed!

Note: Our old friend, Enzo Conti of the band I Tre Martelli, was with us at the Cartasegna festa, and made a video with his mobile phone.  I've edited this into a 2 minute clip which you can see here.

Rod Stradling - 26.9.12

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