Italian Treasury - Alan Lomax Collection

Rounder CD1808

This new offering from the Alan Lomax Collection follows in the footsteps of last year's Calabrian volume and shares many of its strengths.  Almost 75 minutes in duration, accompanied by a forty-page booklet with musicological notes by series editor Goffredo Plastino and an introduction to post-war Sicily and track notes by Sergio Bonanzinga.  Cover pictureThese latter also contain some sizeable extracts from Lomax's original field-notes and from contemporary letters.  Experiencing the Lomax 'voice' at such length is a real bonus - you begin to get a feel for the man, to understand his infectious enthusiasm and oft-reported charisma.  He also, it must be said, writes some lovely - almost poetic - prose.

As is usual with this series, I'm sorry to find so little information about the actual performers of the songs and tunes in the booklet notes.  I can fully understand why - the current interest in the performer and the performance, as opposed to the piece being performed, was not so much on the agenda in the mid-fifties when these field trips were being made ... and then there's the time factor. Lomax and Diego Carpitella took just 20 days to record all their Sicilian material - over 160 different songs and instrumental pieces - so it's hardly surprising that they didn't have time to get the life-stories of their informants!  In fact, there's actually rather more of such information in this booklet than has been the case in the past ... whether this has anything to do with our continual nagging, I'm not in a position to say.

The booklet makes a fascinating read - at least for someone like me who knew very little about Sicily beforehand.  The first section (by Bonanzinga) shows how the island's harsh climate, poverty, isolation, poor communications and complex cultural influences 'favored the persistence of an extraordinarily rich oral tradition of songs, poetry, fables, drama, prayers ...'  He describes how stirrings of change in post war Italy, the dismantling of feudalism and the slow progress of democratisation were largely derailed on the island due to reactionary 'separatism', violent banditry, corrupt politicians and, of course, the Mafia.  My only real criticism of the booklet is that it contains not one single photograph.  This does seem extraordinary, given that both the Collection Sampler, the Series Sampler and all three of the previous volumes in the series have been liberally provided with them - and damn good ones too.

The CD itself is also extremely interesting - though not an easy listen, by any means.  play Sound ClipPerhaps the most accessible and enjoyable of the 29 tracks are those featuring instrumental music (of which there are only 8), or songs by women singers (just 3).  Of the former, there are two suonate (tunes) for bagpipes, tracks 14 & 28, which are very engaging (sound clip) - both by the same unnamed ciaramedda a paru player in Maletto, as far as I can tell.  Other instrumental tracks feature reed flute, Jew's harp, accordion, all with assorted percussion, and one tarantella is played by a trombonist!

play Sound ClipThe women are represented by Antonia Sergi, who sings a ninna nanna (lullaby), two 'unidentified women' who sing a song a la nicusiota - in the style of Nicosia (a town in central northern Sicily), and a 'chorus of unidentified women' with an Almond Sorters' Song (sound clip).

The remaining 18 tracks are by men - most of whom sing in a harsh, high, almost shouted style which is apparently characteristic of the island.  These are the ones which are, for me, not easy listening - play Sound Clipalthough one is the astounding sulphur miner's song with Jew's harp accompaniment, which I mentioned in the Sampler review.  Solo voice in free rhythm and Jew's harp may not be an obvious pairing, but it works astonishingly well here.  If you want passion - try this (sound clip - Rocco Meli and Elio Perconte: Sulfarara).

play Sound ClipThere are also a couple of tracks by 'professional' - or, at least, working - male singers which are far more easy on the ear.  One is an excerpt from La storia di Ccciu Ulivieri (sound clip), a long murder-ballad (the actual performance lasting between three and four hours in total) by Orazio Strano - whose song Turi Giulianu, re di li briganti featured in Scorsese's film Raging Bull.  It's worth commenting that these two working singers use a very different style to that exhibited by almost all the other men to be heard on this CD.

I've left 'til last the most unusual track on the disc - neither a song nor a tune, but a ballad recital/enactment/telling.  This is a remarkable example of the folk performance genre which spread through Sicily and Naples in the mid-ninteenth century - ongoing recitals of episodes from the chivalric cycle of Orlando, and the deeds of Charlemagne and his court.  Performing in a little piazza in Palermo, Roberto Genovese, one of the last of the jongleurs, acts out this Battle Between Orlando and Rinaldo in a recitation which lasted for over an hour and a half!  A series of photos of Genovese in full flight adorns the cover of this CD, though they are, of course, too small to be adequately displayed in the cover picture (above).

Not many years before this recording was made, these recitals were a common piece of public theatre in Palermo and cognoscenti would gather for the day's instalment.  Roberto Genovese's complete recitation of the Reali di Francia comprised an astonishing 340 episodes, each lasting about two hours!  In the face of that, this excerpt of 8 minutes and 22 seconds duration may seem like a drop in the ocean, but I challenge any listener to emerge from the end of it not feeling absolutely exhausted.  Alan Lomax's description of the performance is almost as powerful as the piece itself.  Wonderful stuff - but utterly pointless my trying to give you a 45 second sound clip of it!

I like this CD very much, perhaps most of all for the huge amount of new and fascinating information it has given me.  I hope the standard it sets will be upheld by all future Alan Lomax Collection releases.

Rod Stradling - 21.9.00

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