M&A CD Review


Italian Treasury
The Alan Lomax Collection
Rounder Records 1999 

"Italian Treasury" is the title of this remarkable new edition of a collection of music and songs originally recorded in Italy by Alan Lomax and Italian ethnomusicologist Diego Carpitella, from June 1954 to January 1955. The two researchers paired exceptionally in energy, courage, determination, and passion in the undertaking of their project. Within the span of seven months of a tight recording schedule, hopping from one location to the next, they managed to collect about three thousand recordings. The backgrounds as well as the intentions of the two scholars were different in their "voyage of discovery." Lomax was interested in comparative studies in the Mediterranean region and specifically how and why distinctive folk song styles develop, already preparing his mind for his Cantometric theory, while Carpitella was interested in how the music reflected the problems of the Italian south. Lomax and Carpitella set off to record the scarcely known music of peasants, fishermen, shepherds, street vendors, dockworkers, mountaneers, and suburban dwellers. They managed to accomplish their task shortly before everything in Italian society drastically changed following the developments of the economic boom of the second half of the 1950s. Rich in its historical and musical significance, presenting engaging and exhaustive liner notes, and provided with useful sources, the modern rendition of the Lomax Collection is an excellent example of the recent efforts to promote and re-master old recordings of traditional music from diverse countries and areas of the Western world.

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Folk Music and Song of Italy. A Sampler. Italian Treasury. The Alan Lomax Collection. 1999. Rounder Records Corp. 11661-1801-2. Recorded by Alan Lomax & Diego Carpitella. Notes by Alan Lomax. Edited by Anna Lomax Chairetakis & Goffredo Plastino. Series Editor: Goffredo Plastino.

Originally issued in 1958 for the Tradition label in LP format (Tradition Records TLP 1030), the recordings of the first CD of "Italian Treasury" include two samples from Sicily, six from Calabria, one from Basilicata, one from Apulia, three from Campania, one from Abruzzo, Lazio, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Friuli Venezia-Giulia, Piedmont, and Liguria and, finally, two samples from Sardinia for a total of twenty-two pieces. Lomax and Carpitella decided to research in areas that were left untapped in the past and, in their opinion, these recordings best represent these regions. It must have been quite puzzling for the editor, however, to decide what songs to keep and what to leave out, considering the high degree of diversity of the musical culture and styles characterizing the Italian oral tradition and the effective high interest characterizing each single piece. The music on this CD thus provides a sample of the diversity of the music of the Italian oral tradition even if someone may object to the choices appearing in it, or may wonder why other regions have been excluded, or why are the examples from Calabria so preponderantly numerous, considering that there is another CD in the collection completely dedicated to the rich tradition of that particular region. Furthermore, along with the Lomax-Carpitella recordings, the editors have sought to corroborate and broaden the musical scenario by adding other good examples recorded more or less during the same period by other Italian researchers. In this respect, selections n. 7, n. 8, and n. 9 were recorded by Diego Carpitella and Ernesto de Martino, while examples n. 20 and n. 21 from Sardinia were recorded by two other scholars, Giorgio Nataletti and Antonio Santoni-Ruju.

The two Sicilian examples include two songs, one is an amusing love story laden with double entendres and being part of the vast written repertoire of the rural-suburban genre known as popolaresco or popular-esque. Such songs are still extremely popular to date and are usually lumped together with the ones by the oral tradition. The other song is an example from the repertoire of the sulfur workers of central Sicily. Indicated in the notes as a serenade perhaps because of its mellow mood, it is rather a melancholic song whose text betrays a subtle irony.

The selections from Calabria are all remarkable pieces. Among these, a fishermen work chant from Vibo Marina called A Lina Lina & Urallirą, is particularly notable for its raw, essential quality and character, and stands as an admirable example of the effectiveness of functional music. The polyphony of the love song titled Alla Campagnola is another interesting example to be indicated as influenced in timbre and heterophony by the culture of the so-called Albanian settlements, little towns founded by citizens from that country in a distant past. The exquisite timbre and vibrant voice of an unidentified female singer from Pisticci in the love song entitled Učje-elģ is also of great interest.

Učje-elģ (mp3 file, 304 kb, 1.16 min) (wav extract, 187 kb, 16 sec.)

The culturally and musically rich region of Apulia is represented by one example of stornelli, a traditional composition originating from the central regions of Italy such as Tuscany, Lazio, and Marche, but present, to a certain extent, everywhere in the country in its form made of brief verses of two or three lines. A characteristic of the text of the stornello is to include the name of a flower in the first verse. In the example offered in the CD, however, the name of a fake flower appears not in the first verse but in the third for the sake of the rhyme, while in the fifth verse the flower of the blackberry is mentioned. The alternate singing of the verses is worth noticing.

The three examples from the region of Campania, one of Italy’s most celebrated for its oral and suburban musical traditions, were recorded in the southernmost province of Salerno and are all of great interest. However, while the ninna nanna, or lullaby, and the tammurriata, a dance piece with improvised lyrics accompanied principally by the frame drum plus other percussion instruments, are to be expected on a sampler, the real surprise for the listener is characterized by the Olive Pressing Song. This is a work song from the area around Positano, on the Amalfi Coast, featuring a team of workers pushing the bar of an iron press crushing the ripe olives and singing in a suggestive, African-like call-and-response, antiphonal fashion. The rhythm inciting the men to push is alternated by a two-lines melody sung by one man who is then joined by the rest of the crew.

Olive Pressing Song (mp3 file, 426 kb, 1.46 min) (wav extract, 377 kb, 33 sec.)

The rest of the selections, namely those from Abruzzi, Lazio, Tuscany, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Emilia Romagna, Piedmont, the Genoese Trallalero, and the two selections from Sardinia are straightforward examples the great singing, instrumental prowess, and poetic tradition of each area. Of these examples, I would like, nevertheless, to single out the saltarello from Cittareale in the province of Rieti, in the region of Lazio. This instrumental piece is notable for the timbre of the zampogna zoppa, or crippled bagpipe featured and the great rhythmic drive characterized and emphasized by the frame drum once it enters into the performance.

Saltarello (mp3 file, 898 kb, 3.45 min) (wav extract, 566 kb, 51 sec.)

Also, to be noted is the highly rhythmic, fun laden, energetic dance piece entitled Lipa ma Marica, from San Giorgio di Resia, in the province of Udine, in the region of Friuli Venezia-Giulia. The music from this small town occupied by a Slavic minority and nestled in a valley close to the border with former Yugoslavia testifies again to the diversity factor that can be encountered even today along the back roads of the Italian peninsula.

Lipa ma Marica (mp3 file, 657 kb, 2.44 min) (wav extract, 555 kb, 50 sec.)

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The Trallaleri of Genoa. Italian Treasury. The Alan Lomax Collection. 1999. Rounder Records Corp. 11661-1802-2. Recorded by Alan Lomax. Notes by Alan Lomax, Edward Neill, and Goffredo Plastino. Series Editor: Goffredo Plastino.

Alan Lomax was struck by the trallalero singers of the port of Genoa and he was able to dedicate to them many hours of recording during the month of October, 1954. This CD contains fourteen examples of all previously unreleased tracks with one exception, the famous classic La Partenza.

La Partenza (mp3 file, 657 kb, 2.44 min) (wav extract, 433 kb, 38 sec.)

The Trallaleri of Genoa is a clever compilation of a folk vocal style that could be easily deemed as amazing if we consider that the polyphony created is largely improvised. For this reason the trallalero tradition indeed finds a place among the most interesting examples of organized vocal sounds both in Europe and around the Mediterranean basin.

The regular group of trallalero singers is usually made up of either five or six members, but Lomax mentions, for instance, bass sections composed of up to four singers. It is worth, at this point, to remind the readers of the names and functions of each single voice or section. There are two lead melody singers, a tenor and the falsetto known as la donna (the woman), an individual who is trained in this singing technique since childhood; two "rhythmic" baritones, a regular one and another called la chitarra (the guitar), who is said to vocally "strum" his part. Often the two baritones may sing the same rhythmic phrase while harmonizing the pitches. Aside from these "solo" voices, finally, there is a bass section capable of anchoring the overall sound providing a round and robust bottom. The parts of the trallalero are exemplified for the listeners in the following selection, an example which shows quite clearly each voice as it comes into the song.

The Trallalero Parts (mp3 file, 922 kb, 3.50 min) (wav extract, 670 kb, 60 sec.)

The recordings of this CD well represent the vocal prowess and tightness of these singers. In his historical note, Lomax speaks about their vocal skills in terms of a "display of unmatched cohesiveness, compactness, finesse, and flexibility" but the listener can sense that the historical weight of the tradition is well evidenced in this "compactness." The singers offer to the listener a variety of vocal features including mixed ranges, counterpoint, parallel fifths, sixths, and thirds, stunning falsetto, deep bottoms, the amusing riffs and broken arpeggios of the chitarra and the other baritone, and an overall great musical feel. A truly interesting and fun listening exercise is to try to single out all the various parts, and experience pure amazement at how these interact and play with or against one another. This CD is worth purchasing just for the sake of active listening entertainment.

The text of the trallalero deals with various life situations and feelings. The examples on this CD include for the most part texts about women, love, and kisses, and other topics such as geographical locations dear to these men such as Quarto and Genoa itself. Edward Neill, a scholar who studies and performs trallalero, remarks that when not impossible, it is hard to transcribe these songs because of the intricacy of their parts. Nevertheless, the lyrics are faithfully reported on the CD helping the listener to understand the otherwise mostly incomprehensible words. Another curiosity worthy to be mentioned is characterized by the American classic In The Mood, a song the men wanted to dedicate to Lomax, here interpreted in a surprising personal way that remains perhaps closer to the port of Genoa than that of New York. In all, this is a recording not to be missed for its uniqueness and importance.

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Calabria. Italian Treasury. The Alan Lomax Collection. 1999. Rounder Records Corp. 11661-1803-2. Recorded by Alan Lomax & Diego Carpitella. Selected and annotated by Goffredo Plastino, with an introduction by Vito Teti.

Lomax and Carpitella "stormed" through the rough terrain of the southern region of Calabria and recorded some wonderful material in the two southernmost provinces of Reggio Calabria and Catanzaro. The music of these rural areas is without a doubt well represented in this CD. The twenty-eight tracks of nearly all previously unreleased pieces complement other field recordings from Calabria prior and after the Lomax and Carpitella project by satisfactorily contributing to the musical mapping of a region with a remarkable oral tradition.

As I have indicated above, the sampler CD of this collection contains six pieces from Calabria, out of which three (n. 4, n. 5, and n. 6) are re-proposed here. Also to be noted is that the editor has deemed it appropriate, perhaps rightfully, to "dedicate" some of the recordings to a vocal polyphony that is no longer in existence, as well as to celebrate the tarantella, the well known dance style that is still performed to these days. The tarantella and the vocal polyphonies are two different aspects of the music of these areas of southern Calabria that truly contribute to render this CD so pleasurable and interesting. The tarantella, appears in eight tracks and is performed on diverse instruments, from bagpipes to a diatonic accordion, from guitars and mandolin to solo voice accompanied by a frame drum. The other aspect is undoubtedly the power of vocal polyphonies so typically Calabrese, and so well represented here by the long gone vibrant and ancestral timbres of the voices of the Pingitore sisters from the little town of Feroleto Antico, in the province of Catanzaro. This family of spectacular female singers is featured in six selections presenting different stylistic pieces in which the natural passion of their singing is fully evidenced. Lomax and Carpitella loved especially one of these songs entitled simply Alla Campagnola, or country style.

Alla Campagnola (mp3 file, 688 kb, 1.45 min) (wav extract, 268 kb, 24 sec.)

Of course, the CD presents other admirable examples, for instance, love songs, songs of sdegno, or disdain for a lost love, lullabies, Christmas songs known as pastorale, work songs from tuna and swordfish fishermen as well as numerous and always striking polyphonies. All this is music that, once again, had a function in the daily life of the people who performed it; it served to identify them as individuals along with their respective communities, and constituted for them a unique means of expression. "Calabria" remains my favorite of the three CD for its exquisite immediacy and variety, not mentioning the inspired greatness of most of its examples

As a conclusive thought, I would like to reiterate that the Lomax Collection is extremely important not only for its obviously pleasurable content but also because it calls us all to further reflect on matters of change and continuity. Change, as we all know, is inevitable. The change the folk music of Italy experienced in the1950s was not an effective gradual process. In his "Introduction" to the Calabria recording, the editor of this series, ethnomusicologist Goffredo Plastino, invites the listeners to "ponder the continuities and discontinuities in musical genres and instruments over time." Plastino points out to the abrupt, violent interruption of a world and the concept of life that governed that world; a world that was never questioned about its future and was never faced with the respect it deserved. Plastino invites us to think about that past world; a world of which I was able only to catch the last dying breaths in my native Sicily. I would like, nevertheless, to extend Plastino's invitation by proposing to "re-think", at least theoretically, this past and the values which are ironically encapsulated in the music of these CDs (but obviously not only in these).

Far from trying to bring back memories of a faded world or express a dangerous nostalgia, re-thinking the world through the music of the oral tradition may be an exercise in aesthetics that privileges meaningfulness in human works of art. Instead of thinking of these songs as dead, their meaningfulness remains immortal because these works indeed continue to give us a precise idea of how that world was like. Musicologist Angeles Sancho-Velązquez stated that, "the importance given to the world unfolded in front of the work is tied to the notion of the work as the locus of the mediation of reality"(Sancho-Velązquez 1994:47). If we focus on this mediation of reality every time we listen, or better yet, every time we somehow internalize the meaning of recordings such as those from the Lomax Collection, the past that encapsulates that world we acknowledge as no longer existing, comes back to us as part of our own identity. This is the way this music lives again and again through our perceptions and interpretations of it. These perceptions and interpretations facilitate, as Sancho-Velązquez again suggests, "the understanding of the new worlds projected by the works" (Sancho-Velązquez 1994:48).

Roberto F. Catalano, Ph.D.
University of California, Los Angeles

References Cited

Sancho-Velązquez, Angeles
1994 "Interpreting Metaphors: Cross-Cultural Aesthetics as Hermeneutic Project." Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology 10: 37-50 (Los Angeles: The University of California Los Angeles).  

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