Italian Treasury: Folk Music and Song of Italy
It is an elegantly designed CD, simply titled, Folk Music and Song of Italy. On the cover is a black and white photo of four women in worn out 1940s-style clothing, standing arm and arm as they sing. This is a sampler from the 10-volume Italian Treasury series of the Alan Lomax Collection, which when completed will run to twenty volumes of riotously diverse, beautiful, and unexpected music. The series is curated by Italian ethnomusicologist Goffredo Plastino, a Reader in Music at the University of Newcastle. Alan Lomax was an American folk song collector and musicologist held to be one of the most influential figures in 20th century American intellectual and artistic life.
The CD was produced with scholarly care by Alan’s daughter Anna, a fluent Italian speaker who spent a good part of her childhood in that country. For anyone seriously interested in authentic Italian music, this sampler has the sonic and emotive force of a double shot of grappa on an empty stomach-it will stir you up, excite every one of your senses and leave you gasping for breath, or make you cry, for on it you will hear some of the most unusual and beautiful folk music ever created and recorded in rural Europe.
Italy's Folk Music
In 1954, despite the social dislocation of Fascism and the recent devastation of WWII, rural Italians were still linked to the land. Since the fall of the western Roman Empire and the rise of the cities of the Renaissance, rural Italians had developed a “counter culture” that often stood in opposition to the hierarchical city based music and literature that gave the west Dante and Italian Opera.
If that of the city was hierarchical, literate and church based, Italian folk culture belonged to the peasantry and urban artisan classes. It was highly local in character and contained practices and beliefs that anthropologists and folklorists consider pre Christian, linking Italian peasant life in many ways through an unbroken chain of oral tradition to the soundscapes of Old Europe. medieval Byzantium. the Spanish empires, Arab conquests and Moorish invasions and the Greece and Rome of the ancient Mediterranean.
Jump ahead to track 13, Tammurriata, recorded by Alan in Salerno, Campania on January 6, 1955. The melody sounds like something you would hear at a Moroccan wedding or in a Tunisian café. You do not need to be an ethnomusicologist to conjure up visions of North African caravans, the Silk Road or the travels of Marco Polo when you hear the woman solo singer and the driving rhythms of the accompanying frame drums, ending the song with a lascivious lyric, “It’s under a girl who does it with everyone.” Had Fellini used this piece in his film Satyricon he would have had a more authentic soundtrack, for it has the pathos of a lament by slaves on an ancient Roman Latifundia. Not surprisingly, film director Pasolini did use it and several pieces like it, in his film, The Decamerone.
If this song does not stir you, jump to track 7, Serenata, sung in Albanian in an ancient form of polyphony which resembles the liturgy of Greek Orthodox or Bulgarian Church music. We may ask ourselves, which came first, the style of music, or the liturgy? As a scholar of comparative musicology, Alan Lomax argued for the first option.
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