Various Artists

L'Appuntamento - Italian Folksongs, Mazurkas, Polkas and Waltzes
Played by the Great Mandolinists 1913-1928

Global Village CD 602

Various Artists

Speranze Perdute - Italian Folksongs, Mazurkas, Polkas and Waltzes
Played by the Great Mandolinists 1928-1950

Global Village CD 603

Robert Graves, in Goodbye to All That, recalls being hauled before his tutor at the end of his first term at Oxford to defend himself against what was clearly a serious charge: "I understand, Mr Graves, that the essays which you write for your tutor are, shall I say, a trifle temperamental.  It appears, indeed, that you prefer some authors to others."

OK, cards on the table.  I've had problems with these two records.  I mean, as a Nineties listener grazing freely in the postmodern global shopping mall, it's possible to be beguiled into thinking that all popular musical forms coexist in a kind of classless society; Tuvan throat-singing can have equal listening-space with seán-nos, pibroch shall speak peace unto Bacharach.  I feel very uncool, unscholarly and ungrateful saying this, but it appears, indeed, that I prefer some musical traditions to others.

This is an unfortunate, reductive and wholly unfair response to these discs.  I think it arises because they encompass a continuum between two traditions - one 'popular' and one 'classical' - and highlight the common ground between them.  The two records consist of 29 tracks featuring Italian mandolinists, all recorded in the United States between 1913 and the early 1950s.  Their subtitle is 'Italian Folksongs, Mazurkas, Polkas and Waltzes Played by the Great Mandolinists'  So what's my problem?  Simply that the tracks from the 'popular' end of the continuum grabbed me and most of those from the 'classical' end didn't.  Basically, some of the melodies, combined with the arrangements, the performance and singing styles, and the particular grain of some of the voices, made me put up some kind of instinctive barrier, a 'genre barricade' if you like, against the more 'classical'-sounding pieces.  Intellectually, I'm aware of the folk roots of early opera, and of the massive passion felt for opera by all classes in Italy.  Tens of thousands turned out for Verdi's funeral in Milan in 1901, for example, only approximately 79 of whom were upper-bourgeois classical music purists; this was a popular music form.  Indeed, during periods of political repression in the nineteenth century, according to music historian Paul Sparkes, opera became 'the principal rallying point for nationalist aspirations, achieving such popularity that it was no longer simply entertainment, but an integral and vital part of people's lives'.

But for most people growing up working-class in Britain almost anytime since the Second World War (including many readers of this magazine, I suspect), opera represented the kind of music you wanted to define yourself against.  It appeared to be the preserve of the upper class, it was symbolically elitist and middle-aged, it wasn't accessible or groovy or politically radical, it wasn't easy to participate in, it wasn't folk, blues, pop, jazz, rock, skiffle.  And even though I may often be tempted to kid myself that I've grown out of my inherited musical intolerances (assisted by the mixed blessing that is World Music marketing), I find it difficult to respond to anything that resembles opera as if it were popular or traditional music.  Does the fact that Sarah Brightman has just managed yet again to get a dodgy pseudo-operatic duet into the charts mean that I am alone in this affliction?  If so, I apologise for the first half of this review.

The point I'm trying to make is that our responses can still betray our upbringing, and that maybe we subconsciously choose world-musical forms which can be shoehorned into familiar Western popular moulds.  The expatriate Italian communities which were the original audience for the music on these records had very different moulds, however.

There were (and are) numerous popular traditions in Italian music which have flowed into and out of those stylised theatrical Opera House manifestations for several centuries (the traditional Tuscan stornelli and rispetti, for example), and which had an impact on musical genres in other countries.  Musicians, genres and audiences weren't segregated according to the distinctions I'm making here.  The bel canto singing style, light, flexible and far from the conventional operatic voice we are now used to, allowed widespread participation in operatic song far beyond Italy in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The mandolin itself made a massive comeback following a quiet period after the Napoleonic wars: mandolin mania swept both Britain and the USA following the 1878 Paris Exhibition, where new designs and performance possibilities for the instrument were highlighted.  By 1900, urban middle-class America was awash with mandolin orchestras and campus mandolin clubs, not to mention drawing-room soloists, all playing both light classical and popular tunes.  Sears-Roebuck spread the instrument to rural areas through its catalogue.  In 1919 Lloyd Loar designed the F5 for the Gibson Company, which was poorly received by its intended classical market but had just the right punchy sound for string bands.  And by 1925, Anita Loos could guarantee a sophisticated laugh simply by having fashionable Lorelei in 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' think twice about developing a musical career because of the amount of mandolin practice she'd been forced to do at home in Little Rock, Arkansas.

How far the Italian emigrant musicians featured on these collections benefited from this national mandolin fever, by selling records and getting bookings outside their expatriot community, is difficult to say.  Italians were the most numerous of the immigrants arriving in the USA after 1880.  They came mostly from Southern Italy, to escape from poverty (caused partly by a declining agricultural economy resulting from increasing Californian fruit production) and cholera.  Sometimes whole villages uprooted themselves and settled in the same neighbourhoods in the US.  The period from the 1890s to the Second World War (roughly the period of these recordings) was also when Italians and other Southern or Eastern European immigrants faced the most venomous racism.  Described by one contemporary commentator as 'the Chinese of Europe', Italians were often assumed to be criminals.  They were also frequently regarded as non-White; indeed, in many segregated areas of the South, Italian children had to attend Black schools.  A common saying in the New Yorks docks was 'one white man is as good as two or three Italians'.  I haven't come across any evidence either way, but I would guess that a large enough potential audience within the Italian communities, combined with racist hostility outside those areas, would tend to limit the wider exposure available to Italian musicians like these - unless they could cut it on the classical scene or, like Giovanni Vicari featured here, they targeted communities of other recent immigrants.

The order of these recordings is roughly chronological, which means the kind of uphill start familiar to archive compilation addicts; there doesn't appear to have been much remastering or digital audio-wizardry lavished on this release.  Indeed, I'm not sure if even a damp flannel had been wiped over some of the pre-1930's records (particularly on L'Appuntamento) before they were transferred to CD - sadly, many of the most appealing tracks have the most distractingly poor sound quality.

Much more could have been done in terms of presentation to contextualize this music and throw light on the individual musicians who developed it.  Both sleeves have the same illustration - a drawing of a six-handed man in a red suit playing a purple mandolin - and both have the same perfunctory few paragraphs, mentioning that some of the mandolinists took to playing the American flat-backed instruments after arriving in the States, and that some even translated their music onto the 4-string banjo in order to be heard in the larger performance spaces.  And that's about it as far as illuminating sleeve notes are concerned, although each track does have a recording date and where possible a personnel listing.  To add insult to injury, each sleeve has the same notes twice, so even shortage of space isn't a convincing excuse.  (Judging from the list printed on the inside sleeve, Global Village Music produce a fascinating range of stuff, much of it early European and Middle Eastern music recorded in America: I hope they do more justice to their other releases in terms of presentation.)

The two opening tracks on L'Appuntamento, recorded by Guglieimo Voccia in 1913 and Eduardo Ciannelli in 1921, contain some of that emotive operatic singing (lots of macho rolling r's) accompanied by some fairly sophisticated harmonies and arrangements.  This, for me, was not an auspicious start, though I started to warm to the next tune by F Manello and J Tripoli, one of several mazurkas scattered around the two albums.  It is also one of those tunes which could easily have drifted into the repertory of English country musicians; another instance is the opening track on Speranze Perdute, recorded by the mandolin and two guitars of I Tre Abruzzi in 1928 - a waltz tune which could have become attached to a Victorian parlour ballad if it had hung around the wrong parlour for too long.

The star of this collection for me is undoubtably Giovanni Giovale, who contributes six tracks in total, solo and in a trio, all recorded in 1928.  The performances include Waltz Brillante, a showy Flight of the Bumble Bee-style solo piece with Django Reinhardt touches, and L'Appuntamento, a mazurka played with great control and sensitivity on banjo in duet with Eugenio Cibelli's guitar.  According to the notes on Rounder's 1989 Early Mandolin Classics Vol 1 compilation, which features one track also included here, Giovale was a violin-carver who had a music-shop in New York.  I was particularly taken with his trio's virtuoso unison playing on another mazurka, Viale Fiorito, and with Amorino, a polka where the light metallic clarity of the mandolin and the jauntiness of the tune put me inappropriately in mind of The Harry Lime Theme.

The other player given extended attention on these collections is Giovanni Vicari, who provides four expert but slightly restrained and lifeless performances from the late 1940s.  His pieces feel like formal recitals, with the possible exception of Cristina where he goes in for a little Giovale-style decoration: a safe three pairs of hands, if you like.  According to Paul Sparks in his superb book The Classical Mandolin, Vicari was actually an extremely prolific and versatile performer, issuing dozens of recordings on Harmonia and Columbia of popular music from Naples and Sicily, but also using a Spanish form of his name (Juan Vicari) to sell Spanish and South American tunes outside his traditional audience.

However, for me the greatest pleasures came not from the obvious virtuosity of the performances but from the great tunes and the sheer attack on some of the tracks.  Frank Fazio, for example, provides Rose di Maggio, a driving polka on banjo; he's obviously simplified his style for the new instrument, missing out some of the clusters of notes he would have slipped in, which makes for a wonderful directness.  Other great traditional-sounding tunes include a tarantella by Elisco and Salfrizzo (including scratches that sound like eccentrically-played maraccas), and a sparkly medley of Neapolitan songs by New York music teacher L Paparello's sublime Mandoline Orchestra.  Special mention also to the DePace Brothers, who contribute a beautifully-paced mazurka reminiscent of an Astor Piazzolla tango, and who apparently played for three seasons with Blackpool's Winter Gardens Orchestra and then toured British variety halls for seven years before emigrating to America in 1910 for film soundtrack stardom and leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera.

As well as the transition from round-backed to flat-backed instruments, and the adoption of the banjo, these records give a few pointers to other innovations.  On one 1928 track, a saxophone is playing what would have been the violin's line in a trio performance.  Most astonishing of all is the joyful mandolin and clarinet-led Diavoletta played by the aptly-named Sestetto Di Varietta, which also contained violin, guitar, two banjos, trap drums and what sounds to me like an unattributed tuba.  As a sub-genre, Italian oom-pah klezmer jazz probably has its own fanzine and web-site in downtown NY today, but it must have been pretty radical in 1929.  (Or then again, maybe not?)

After living with these collections for several weeks, I've found more and more to enjoy and appreciate in them, which makes it all the more frustrating that Global Village have provided so little detail to bring them to life.  As it is, I'm left to make sense of this lost world of early twentieth-century Italian-American musical life with just my instincts and prejudices.

Adrian Banham - 18.8.98

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