Friday, March 24, 2006

Radio Show on Southern Italian Folk: do we come from where we really come from?

Here follows an adaptation of the script of my radio show, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, dedicated to Southern Italian Folk. Pieces of the script are complemented with playlists and links. At the end, some comments on the show itself, how it went, etc.

Click here to listen to this show in MP3 format.


Bands and musicians from the Apulia region, Southern Italy: Eugenio Bennato, Cantori di Carpino, Matteo Salvatore, Officina Zoe', Pizzica Salentina.


Do we come from where we really come from?

I know that the question sounds just like an empty game of words, but it is not. Do we really belong to the places we have been born? Is there something from our place of origin that is unequivocally and irremediably impress upon us? Is there something called ‘culture’ that leaves its print on people, a mark that can never be deleted or reneged?


Eugenio Bennato is originally from Naples and he is one of the driving forces behind the folk revival wave that is spreading throughout Italy, especially the South, in the last years. His artistic merits are beyond doubt, his songs being the result of a fusion of different genres, that of the Italian song, the influences of the rich Naples tradition, justaxposed on the ethnic beats borrowed from the ‘traditional’ music of Southern Italy, tarantelle, pizziche, all blended into arrangements that breath air from beyond Italy to touch the shores of North Africa and the Arab world.

In the attempt to produce a total music experience where interpretation and source material enter into a real dialogue with each other, Eugenio Bennato’s musical career has gone hand in hand with his work of rediscovery of the remnants of musical traditions which are centuries old. It is only thanks to his work and that of other enlightened musicians and intellectual that we can still enjoy this music. If we look at today’s music selection, he played a crucial role in the rediscovery of Pizzica from Salento (i.e. Officina Zoe’) and in the Gargano’s Tarantella (i.e. Cantori di Carpino). He has successfully launched a number of tournees over the last few years under the brand “Taranta Power”. After Matteo Salvatore’s death, Eugenio Bennato is now touring around Italy with the two guitarists who were supporting Salvatore in his latest performances. The ensemble performs a selection of Salvatore’s songs.


Taranta Power – 3’06”

Carpino, Italia – 3’45”

L’Anima Persa – 3’35”


All songs in the playlist are from the album “Taranta Power”, released in 1999 by DVF; this album is a good example of how Eugenio alternates moments of personal creations (he composes his own songs) and of re-interpretation of ‘traditional’ folk songs.

Among his latest works, you should definitely check out “Lezioni di Tarantella” (DVF, 2000), an example of his work as ethnomusicologist: it’s a collection of traditional tarantella songs, mostly from Apulia (including pizzica and Gargano’s tarantella); all the songs are recorded from the eminent bands and singers that dedicated their musical careers to this repertoire. Two songs played in the show (“Montanara di Andrea Sacco”, see playlist for Cantori di Carpino section; “Lu Rusciu De Lu Mare”, see playlist for Pizzica and Officina Zoe’ section) were from this collection.


Short info on the cd “Taranta Power” in English; you can also listen to a sample and buy the cd from the same webpage.

A biography of Eugenio Bennato and more info on the Taranta Power project (in Italian).

Two of his songs (among which Taranta Power; see playlist) were played on 1st October 2005 on Frank Hennessy’s Celtic Heartbeat radio show, BBC Radio 3.


The song “Carpino, Italia” by Eugenio Bennato is the musicated story of one of the miracles of the Apulian folk revival. In this small village in the interior of the Gargano promontory named Carpino, a group of over-70s continued to execute and reinterpret with voices and traditional instruments (the most important of which the chitarra battente, ‘stuck’ guitar, used since the 16th century in many parts of Italy) music that has been handed down generation after generation for centuries. Rediscovered by Bennato and other protagonists of the folk revival, the Cantori di Carpino (Andrea Sacco [in the photo], Antonio Piccininno and Antonio Maccarone) have since been touring in various parts of Italy. ‘Cantori’ is the plural of ‘cantore’, which means ‘traditional singer’ in Italian. Most surprisingly, their public is not constituted by middle-aged intellectuals romanticising about a lost age, but young people who launch themselves in crazy dancing, a modern yet instinctive re-elaboration of the tarantella beats.

Carpino itself is home to an international folk festival that takes place in the first week august each year. I have been there last year, if you are around in Southern Italy in that period of the year, do go check it out, highly recommendable.

I have listened to the Cantori live and it is a rather moving experience. The intensity the voices reach, it really gets at your guts, it is an overwhelming feeling, it’s something comparable to (and yet very different from) those opera pieces when you can’t help it but cry while you are listening.

I wonder for how long still we will be able to enjoy these live performances. Andrea Sacco, the oldest of the Cantori, has died on Friday 17th March 2006. Andrea was probably the most skilled among the surviving Cantori and his “Montanara” has become famous in the last decades, featuring even in the soundtrack of a movie by Mario Martone, “L’Amore Molesto”.

I wonder what this means; whether with the death of these great musicians we are not actually losing pieces of history, a history that can be remembered, can be recorded on CD, but will never be there again as a lived experience. Yes, it is an interesting time; the time when you can see the present turning into past, life turning into history, and yet a very sad time too. I now understand what some anthropologists mean when they put forward desperate-sounding calls for the recording of ways of life which might soon be wiped out. It has nothing to do with romanticism or the idealization of a golden age; there was nothing necessarily bucolic about the past history of Southern Italy and Apulia; a long history of domination, starvation and exploitation. And yet I feel respect for what has been, a natural respect for life in itself, in all its manifestations; the music of the Cantori is one of these manifestations and carries with it a long history.

This does not mean that the sound structures themselves have remained unchanged. Compare for example the famous Montanara performed by Andrea Sacco in “Lezioni di Tarantella” (curated by Eugenio Bennato, 2000) with another version recorded in 1980 (from the cd “La Tarantella Del Gargano”, edited by ethnomusicologist Michele Gala), when the Cantori where closer to the original tradition and virtually unknown outside Carpino: the differences between the earlier sound and the more ‘contemporary’ version are noticeable. The guitars sound out of tune and the whole rhythmic structure shows a syncopation of some sort. At first I found it hard to get accustomed to. Now, I prefer it by far to the newer versions. Call me a romantic, but there is something purer, a touch deeper, about it.


Montanara di Sacco Andrea – 3’22” (version from “Lezioni di Tarantella”, 2000)

Montanara di Sacco Andrea – 2’58” (version from “La Tarantella del Gargano”, recorded in 1980)

Viestesana di Antonio Maccarone – 1’56” (version from “La Tarantella del Gargano”, recorded in 1981)

Rodianella di Antonio Piccininno – 3’14” (version from “La Tarantella del Gargano”, recorded in 1969)


We don’t have much recorded material from the Cantori. Three albums are worth of notice (and might indeed be the only ones in circulation at the moment). “La Tarantella del Gargano”, curated by Michele Gala, contains recordings from the end of 1960s until the early 1980s; the sound here is closer to what must have been the original tradition. In “Lezioni di Tarantella” (DVF, 2000), curated by Eugenio Bennato, the Cantori feature prominently in many songs. Bennato also curated the cd “La Tarantella del Gargano” (different from the one mentioned above, released in 2001 by DVF), which features exclusively Cantori di Carpino and their traditional songs.


A review in English of the cd “La Tarantella del Gargano”, featuring (relatively) old recordings of the Cantori di Carpino. You can buy the cd here (scroll down the page and you will find it, it’s listed together with other cds produced with the Ethnica series).

Information on “La Tarantella del Gargano”, released in 2000 by DVF and curated by Eugenio Bennato, featuring Cantori di Carpino; you can listen to a sample of a few songs, among which the famous Montanara di Andrea Sacco (in this cd called ‘Per Amare Questa Donna’ [‘To Love This Woman’]); you can also buy the cd online from the same webpage. If you prefer a UK online store, click here.

Check out the movie documentary “Craj” (‘Tomorrow’ in many of Apulian dialects), released in 2005 and presented to the Venice Film Festival; it’s a journey through Apulian musical traditions. It contains a section on the Cantori di Carpino, where they are interviewed and excerpts from live concerts are shown. Click here for more information (in English).

Carpino Folk Festival


Pizzica, the oldest form of tarantella, originated in Salento, in the southern part of Apulia. In recent years, Officina Zoe', Pizzica Salentina and other local bands that rediscovered this music which dates back to a millennium ago have been the protagonists of one of the most successful experiments of cultural marketing: Salento, known for its beautiful beaches, gets literally invaded in summer by tourists coming from all parts of Italy and beyond. The highlight is the big festival ‘La Notte della Taranta’ (‘The Night of the Tarantula’) that lasts two weeks, taking place from mid to end August. During these two weeks, folk and ethnic bands from all over the Mediterranean get together, and obviously pizzica is heard everywhere.

What’s great about all this is the way in which the new generations have been able to re-appropriate a piece of history and make it their own not by a passive act of submission to ‘changeless’ traditions, but by dancing and moving and listening to these archaic sounds in their own way. The very label ‘traditional’ music is in this respect misleading: the folk revival is a new cultural production altogether, and execution is never neutral. What was once meant as a dance for couples or bigger groups rather orderly moving from one position to another, from one partner to another, now becomes an occasion for hundreds of people who ecstatically push one another, expressing all their inner desires for physical contact and psychological liberation.

And I don’t think it is too far-fetched to draw parallels with the collective musical rituals of the 70s. In some ways, the original tarantella (from Salento and from Gargano) is as explosive and innovative today as let’s say Pink Floyd were a few decades ago.


Lu Rusciu de lu Mare – 3’02” (performed by Pizzica Salentina, in “Lezioni di Tarantella”, curated by Eugenio Bennato)

Canuscu na Carusa - 4'21" (from the album "Terra", by Officina Zoe')


Check out the live cd of the final night of the folk festival “La Notte della Taranta” in 2003; it contains traditional pizzica alongside re-interpretations and fusions with more contemporary traditions. This is one of the best final concerts for the folk festival in the last years. The artistic direction was given to Stewart Copeland, the ex-Police drummer, who literally fell in love with the pizzica beats.

Another interesting album is the soundtrack of the movie “Life Blood” (original title: “Sangue Vivo”), set in Salento and directed by Edoardo Winspeare (of mixed descent, half British, half Apulian from Salento). The members of the local folk band Officina Zoe’ (their work is entirely focused on the rediscovery of pizzica) feature in it as the main actors and have also composed the soundtrack. The movie has been appreciated well beyond the Italian boundaries and has greatly contributed to the ‘cultural marketing’ operation recently taking place in Salento.


Info about Officina Zoe' (in English)

Script of an interview with musician Luigi Chiriatti about pizzica, broadcasted on TV by BBC as part of a series of two programmes on Italy.

A review in English of the cd “Pizzica Tarantata”, released as part of the Ethnica series (same series under which “La Tarantella del Gargano” was released; see previous section on Cantori di Carpino).

An article from the Guardian about Salento and its ‘cultural tourism’ boom.


Born in 1925 in the small town of Apricena (at the border between Gargano and the Foggia province plain, the ‘Tavoliere’ area), Matteo Salvatore occupies a very special place in the history of Apulian and Italian music. His work is not directly related to any particular tradition and does not consist of re-interpretations of traditional songs. He couldn’t read and write, and yet he is a natural poet. He composed all his songs, from the music to the lyrics. He is the precursor of the glorious tradition of Italian singer songwriters. His simple and gentle words, often in local dialect, together with the lyrical intensity of his voice, make him by far the greatest musician Apulia has ever given birth to. A great loss for Apulian and Italian music, Matteo died 27th August last year.

His songs are the harsh and factual commentary of what life was like in the forgotten lands of Southern Italy before the economic boom. Many of Matteo Salvatore’s ballads are sad representations of a social reality that resembles in many ways the images that pop into our mind when we think about the medieval ages. There is nothing bucolic about the life narrated by Matteo. The classic social structure of Gargano villages was that of a very small class of landowners who lived at the expenses of the exploited and resigned peasantry.

No wonder then why my parent’s generation show very little nostalgia and romanticism about the ‘old ways’. The material conditions and the level of social exploitation were simply appalling. In the 1950s, it was still common practice for the ‘padroni’ (the masters) to dispose of the male workers’ wives as their own personal property. Sick children were brought to the local witch and many reached the hospital and proper medical assistance when it was already too late.

It is through him that I started to listen to and appreciate Southern Italian ethnic music. Among all the songs in today’s selection, his are the most depressing and yet the most touching ones. The creativity of this man who through an amazing mix of genius and expediency made it up from street singer to internationally renowned performer, the existentialism and serene pessimism that resonate through his lyrics, the natural and unconventionally trained musical touch, these are all elements that have touched me in a unique way, that magic touch that distinguishes what I consider my favourites of all times from lots of other good music.


Fra Me e Te – 3’44”

In “Between me and you”, a man phantasises about a future when him and his lover will manage to break the ‘wall’ in between them that makes it impossible for them to understand each other. Recorded in 2001.

Li Chiacchiere de lu Paese – 2’14”

Matteo Salvatore’s repertoire is constituted by two main types of ballands: those that narrate the harshness and misery of peasant life; the light, soft-touched ballads that he performed to cheer up those very peasants in public gatherings. “The Gossip in Town” belongs to the second type. Recorded in 2001.

Pasta Nera – 2’17”

“Black Pasta” is set against the background of the striking poverty of Gargano villages in the 1950s. Matteo narrates the story of a poor man who works, works, works but can never eat; the only kind of pasta he can afford is what was then called the third quality, the worst. Matteo has later revealed that the poor man was his father. Recorded in 2001.

Sempre Poveri – 3’03”

“Always Poor” starts with the spoken piece by Matteo which shows his striking poetic imagination. He coins a catchy and ambiguous metaphor for the state in its relation to the southern Italian people: ‘the state is a stone wolf, it can’t bite because it has no teeth, but it is still a wolf. The poor southern sheep starving and without shepperd are scared of it. The stars of the law cannot protect them’. This is the saddest ballad of Matteo, where poetry, social commentary and a universal consciousness merge into a lacerating chant. Recorded in 2001.

Curre a Mamma Tua – 3’13”

“Run Towards Your Mum” is an old live take, probably from the 1970s. The song was later called “Lu Bene Mio” (“My treasure”). You can notice a much younger voice and how some of the arrangements and vocal styles have changed over time, if compared to the previous songs in the playlist (all recorded in 2001, when Matteo was 76).


Very little is available for sale of the immense discography that Matteo Salvatore has put together throughout his life. Lots of his albums have never been reprinted and a number of rows over copyright issues have further decreased the chances of reprinting.

The first four songs from the playlist are from the cd recorded in 2001 and sold together with a book about his life, written by his friend and manager Angelo Cavallo, and published by the Italian press Stampa Alternativa. If you can read Italian, click here for more info on book and cd and/or if you want to purchase it.

Another album that is available on a number of online stores is “Lamenti di Mendicanti” (“Beggars’ Songs”). Available at CD Universe and Studio 52.

Two of his songs (“Il Pescivendolo” and “Mo Ve’ la Bella Mia da la Muntagna”) are also available in the soundtrack of the movie “Big Night”. You can buy the album on Amazon US or Amazon UK.


A review in Italian of the book on Matteo’s life and the attached cd with his music published by Stampa Alternativa.

A review in English of the album “Lamenti di Mendicanti”. Written by violinist Zhang Zhang.

Check out the movie documentary “Craj” (‘Tomorrow’ in many of Apulian dialects), released in 2005 and presented to the Venice Film Festival; it’s a journey through Apulian musical traditions. It contains a section on Matteo Salvatore, where he is interviewed and excerpts from live concerts are shown. Click here for more information (in English).


I seem to have eluded the very question I set to ask at the beginning; I got lost into the music, into the meanders of tarantelle, pizzicate, old ballads, and I didn’t say much about how I feel about my Southern Italian origins, whether I identify in any way with my place of birth, etc etc. I have avoided the topic of my own departure from the South and of the likelihood of living abroad for many years to come.

Maybe I have done this to preserve that feeling of nostalgia and belonging that I only get when I listen to this music; it is a very natural feeling, and I don't think it has much to do with Southern Italy in itself. I used to experience something similar when I was in Swaziland, listening to Myriam Makeba or Kwaito.

Music has this magic power, the power of creating spaces and emotions to be remembered, places to phantasise and be nostalgic about which have never really existed and do not have a definite spatial configuration. This explains why rationally I will always deny that there is anything intrinsically Southern Italian about the way I do things, the way I think, the way I talk; after all what is culture? Just a fiction, my mind tells me. True. And yet, this fiction we call culture becomes so powerful at times to get a life of its own, where explanations, justifications, questions, answers, rationalisations, seem to make little sense. I like this music. It makes me want to dance and jump around. Some times it makes me cry. And there is nothing I can do about it.


From the feedback I have got for this show, the music was very much appreciated. I was quite surprised of these comments. I was a bit scared that for people who have never heard these sounds before it would have been hard to get quickly into this music. This tends to confirm the potential this material has for attracting audiences beyond the local boundaries. Something similar is happening with lots of other so-called ‘ethnic’ music.

As for the talk, this time theme and music seem to fit together more harmoniously than in other shows. However, it was mostly music-focused, and the purely ‘personal’ element was minimized. In a sense this was due to the fact that I felt compelled to present this music in the appropriate manner, to provide some context for a better understanding of the music. Overall, I think that my passion for this music and how deeply personal it is for me did transpire and that is probably what made the spoken parts work.

I am starting to see some patterns in terms of brilliance of exposition and tiredness. The first half an hour is very good. In the second part I start getting tired. I then put extreme care again in the very final link. Next time I should try to keep the tension all throughout. I also think that besides the script preparation and objective quality, a lot depends on the performance at the moment. This time I seemed to show a particular energy which was lacking in some of the previous shows.

Also, a small detail, but with a significant effect: the beds this time very high enough and complemented the voice for a very pleasurable result. Again, part of it was due to the nature of the music itself.

One technical cock-up: I pressed the wrong cd player to pre-fade (i.e. setting the volume at the right level) the next song; the song that was actually playing on air stopped and I had to restart it again (it was towards the end of the first half hour; the interrupted song was "Li Chiacchiere de lu Paese" by Matteo Salvatore).

Overall, I do make progress, but I realize how difficult it is to build your ‘radio persona’ in a way that truly expresses your potential and your messages. It takes lots of practice and perseverance. I have to keep on trying, trying, trying, until something close to satisfactory, with a definite structure and purpose will emerge. This process does take lots of faith too…


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