Antonio Alosi and Antonio Bandello - 'gli Ucci'

Bona sera a questa casa

Edizioni Aramirč EA01

Thanks to Gianluca Dessi of the Sardinian 'Kunzertu' organisation, I have just been sent three CDs from Salento - the 'heel' of Italy's 'boot'.  A small number of readers may remember me being particularly enthusiastic about a CD from this area a few years ago, called Bassa Musica - low music - which I reviewed in Folk Roots, as it then was.  (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).  What I didn't know then was that the tambourine player on that disc, Luigi Chiriatti was a serious collector of traditional music in the Salentine region.  What I didn't know until last week was that another band member, Roberto Raheli, was in the process of issuing Chiriatti's complete collection on a series of CDs accompanied by very substantial booklets - the first three of which are now published with English translations.  Cover pictureSo it's not unrealistic to consider these publications as a Salentine equivalent of the Musical Traditions CD releases.  How do they compare?

Volume one, Bona sera a questa casa (Good evening to this household) features the singing of Antonio Alosi and Antonio Bandello, two farm workers and greatly sought-after traditional singers who have become known locally as gli Ucci (I am unable to determine whether Uccio is a contraction of Antonio, or of uccello - making their name, appropriately, mean 'the songbirds').  Alosi also plays tambourine and they are accompanied on about half this CD's 17 tracks by accordion, play Sound Clipmandolin and guitar and additional vocals - the remainder being unaccompanied.  The singing is just fabulous (sound clip - Lu Trappitu) - impossible to believe that Bandello is in his eighties on some tracks (the recordings range from 1978 to 1998).

The songs are very well varied - the title track is not anything to do with a mumming play, but is a fairly all-inclusive Christian-oriented 'going round the houses asking for gifts' song which mentions the raising of Lazarus, play Sound ClipMartha and Magdalen, Christ sold for 30 pieces of silver, the Passion, Baby Jesus, Saint Christina, eggs, good crops, bread and wine ... and give us some eggs, please! - in its 7:25 duration.  Then there are love songs, songs about work, ballads (sound clip - Quindici Anni), a Camorra song, a saucy song, two examples of the pizzica form of extemporised dance/song with tambourine, and one of the stornelli improvised duets popular all over Italy.  play Sound Clip(Indeed, this appears to be the same song which Lomax and Carpitella recorded in Lecce in 1954 from two un-named farm workers with accordion accompaniment - though the words are, of course, completely different).  I'm still waiting for confirmation that gli Ucci were those two un-named farm workers (sound clip - Stornelli).

If I'm sounding a little vague about some of this stuff, it's because the very nicely produced booklet (80 pages, half of which are the English section) tells me comparatively little in the way of facts about these singers.  It tells me how good they are - which I can hear - and how important in their local community - which I can imagine - but not where or when they were born, what they did for a living, who they learned their songs from ...  The final track on the CD is a conversation between Chiriatti and Bandello in which the latter's place and date of birth are revealed, together with the statement "First, I was a farmer."  The song texts are shown in dialect, Italian and English - but there are no notes to the songs, so I don't know - for example - which are purely local and which are more widespread in the general Italian tradition.

Another unusual, and to my mind less-than-satisfactory aspect of the booklet is that it is glued to the slip-case which houses the CD - though this is fairly slim as the disc is housed in one of those thin 'CD Single' jewel cases.  This makes the whole package slightly unwieldy - half the booklet is rigid and the CD keeps dropping out while you're trying to read it.  I should add that this is improved in Volumes 2 and 3, where the booklet and jewel case are separate and packed together in a larger slip case.  The comparatively few photos are not terribly well reproduced in Volume One ... but again, they are much better in the later productions.

If the booklet is lacking in these areas, it does have two wonderful sections to act as a counterbalance: the three-page Preface by Ignazio Macchiarella of the Universitą di Trento deals with the idea of a traditional singer's role in the culture; what a great traditional singer is and the way in which the members of his or her society are able to recognise the truly great interpreters based upon a quite formalised, though rarely explicit, set of criteria.  It is a wonderfully pertinent piece of writing and I'd like to quote the first paragraph in full:

A good singer represents an inestimable patrimony of any musical tradition.  Not so much - or not only - for the songs that are transmitted: texts and melodies, in fact, are often known by all the members of a community and can even be found in books and printed sources from the past.  But only a good singer can transform those elements which constitute the deepest essence of a song in oral tradition: the style of execution, voice timbre, the modalities of the emission of sound, the ornamental techniques, etc.  More than anything else, these elements characterize every local tradition and are fully realized only in the performative moment.  For this reason it is absolutely essential to conserve at least the vocal and aural memory of the executions of great singers, more important than any transcription in tablature or a verbal description - however detailed they may be.
Amen to that!  The second of the above mentioned stand-out passages is that by Luigi Lezzi, entitled 'The Transcription of Ethnic Music'.  This is so good - so exactly what I wish I had the technical knowledge to write myself - that I've decided to include it in full:
The transcription of ethnic music onto a stave inevitably entails inaccuracies.  The codification of musical writings was born in, and defined by, western European culture, in the service of sacred and elite music.  Indeed, this praxis of writing, certainly influenced the development of these genres.  Ethnic music, on the other hand, is born and develops independently of writing systems and is transmitted solely through the oral process.  The transcription of this type of music, therefore, can only hope to grossly aid in the visualization and comprehension of its melodic line, and cannot aim to faithfully mirror musical reality, which instead, remains entrusted to the sound recording.

Time notations, when they are possible at all, always represent very unstable guides, since the performer, especially of monodic song, is not a slave to the metronome and feels free to manipulate time according to his breathing or to his own expressive intent.  The faithful transcription of such a rhythmic flow would continuously make recourse to dotted notes, staccatoes, legaturas, fermatas, and to time and metronome variations internal to the same piece...and even then would unlikely succeed in its intent.

The same would apply to the melodic contour.  The approach to the note is rarely direct; passing from one note to another by way of emotional glissandi (and hence anything but technical); at times the note is defined indirectly, circling it without ever expressing it.  A faithful notation of this melodic flow would often require microtonal notations and make continuous recourse to acciaccaturas, appoggiaturas, mordants, groupings, cadences, breathe pauses...all factors that would increasingly overburden the musical line and render it illegible.

And finally a note regarding harmony.  The alterations in key, when they are present, also have an indicative value and do not presume a tonal course of the passage.  The overlaid melody or melodies are woven on the basis of specific modes, not easily definable, even if one did make recourse to the classic nomenclature of modes.  The harmonic construct featuring 'modern' chords represents one of the major injustices one could enact against a music whose very nature excludes instrumental accompaniment, as well as the achievement of harmony through the superimposition of thirds.

All that needs to be said on the subject really, isn't it?  So you might excuse me my cry of disbelief when, on turning the page, I found six of the song melodies in staff notation!  I suppose it's something to do with this Italian insistence on academic credibility, which I think I may have mentioned before ...

Still, I cheered up when I noticed, quite small on the back cover, the legend L. 25.000, IVA inclusa.  In translation, that means that this superb CD and small book will cost you around £8.50!  Plus p&p, of course.  And nowadays they need Euros and, like MT, are too small to take Credit Cards - but it's still well worth all the trouble.  Check out right away!

Rod Stradling - 21.2.01

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