Italian Group Revives Folk Tradition for a World Audience

Mention "Italian music" to most Americans and they might think of opera, the Big Night soundtrack or some kitschy version of "O Sole Mio," but the country so dearly beloved here for its food and films also has a deep but overlooked wellspring of traditional music.

One of the performers looking to change that oversight is an Italian band with a name as long as its history -- Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino.

It began in the 1970s as a self-conscious effort to revive and reinvent traditional Italian music. Now they are making inroads into America, touring on the heels of the release of their wonderful Pizzica Indiavolata, a vibrant and beautiful collection that bristles with soulful vocals and the chattering rhythms of tambourine-like frame drums. The album juxtaposes high-energy tunes with quieter songs such as the heart-melting "Bella Ci Dormi."

The band -- let's call them CGS -- was part of a folk music revival in Italy that paralleled similar movements around the world, including the folk revival in the United States. As a circuit of world-music festivals developed in more recent times, CGS and other Italian neo-traditionalists such as accordionist Riccardo Tesi, have been able to bring the old styles to modern audiences in Italy and beyond.

"My grandparents' generation rejected the culture of their parents," said CGS's Mauro Durante. "That culture, with the arrival of TV and what was then new media, was painted as old or ridiculous, a sign of the extreme poverty of the rural populations."

We need to keep the tradition alive and important for the present, without betraying its meaning and its depth. -- Mauro Durante

The band was founded in 1975 in Salento, Puglia, by Durante's parents among others. "The mission of the band," Durante said, "was to research and represent traditional music in opposition to the commercial mainstream productions that were growing bigger and bigger, in order to create a unique, renewed identity."

Much of the band's music stems from the tradition of the tarantella -- an ecstatic dance taken up by women who had bitten by a mythical tarantula.

While Durante and the members have a deep love for traditional music, they are keenly aware that they live in a different world from their ancestors.

"Every tradition needs to acknowledge the present," Durante said, "not to turn the music into 'museum material.' The balance between pureness and isolation is narrow. We need to keep the tradition alive and important for the present, without betraying its meaning and its depth."

For example, on the track "E Chora Tu Anemu," the band collaborates with Ballake Sissoko who plays the kora (an African harp-lute) and while the mix is completely atypical to tradition, the combination of acoustic sounds works beautifully. While CGS has not gone the route of some neo-trad bands and added electric instrumentation, their music has the energy and sparkling production values of any contemporary folk-rock artist. The band even tries its hand at one English language tune, "La Voce Tua."

"We must not be afraid of dealing with modern forms such as electronics or incorporating other languages," Durante said. "Traditional music has centuries of history behind it, but it has endured only because people made it 'modern' for their times and carried it forward."

"Today times have necessarily changed," Durante continued, "but our new album is a modern music therapy, coming from the tradition of tarantismo, composed to exorcise the evils of our day...We are living in tough times: it's hard to find a job, to feel realized and gratified. But it's fundamental not to surrender, to believe in your own ideas and make your voice heard."

A creative visualization of CGS's "Nu Te Fermare"

Excerpts from a recent show in NY featuring their dancer, Silvia Perrone