Italy only became a unified country in 1860 and its constituent parts are still struggling to retain their local identities. Yet, it has a thriving scene of regional and roots music, which can be heard in the hip-hop of Almamegretta and in the soundtracks of Ennio Morricone.
Broadly speaking, northern Italian music offers a rich repertoire of both instrumental dance music and monodic and polyphonic singing, whereas the south might favour melody over words in its chants. The central regions combine both northern and southern musical elements, while Naples and Sardinia still offer a wide range of examples of a strong and autonomous cultural identity.
As elsewhere in southern Italy, Naples is at its best around events like saints’ days, or Holy Week when the devotional music and dances bring together its pagan and Christian roots.
There is a song from 1839, “Te voglio bene assaie” (I love you so much), which is still very popular and numbers countless interpretations. It is often considered the starting point of canzone napoletana (Neapolitan Song), the unique mix of popular and classical elements that cuts across Naples’ social classes and musical styles.
The musical heritage of Campania, the region around Naples was enriched by Beppe Barra, who collaborated with the only roots group to achieve national fame, Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare (NCCP). While canzone napoletana works best with the simple guitar and “thin” voice of Roberto Murolo, the current loud and cosmopolitan face of the city is reflected in the “thick” sound of Daniele Sepe’s groups.
In the Neapolitan area there is still a living tradition of dancing and singing to the accompaniment of frame drums. This has been adopted and updated in the music by groups such as Tamburi del Vesuvio and Tammurriata di Scafati.
Thanks to its lively jazz scene, Sicily boasts some of the country’s best instrumentalists. Based in Palermo, Enzo Rao (violin, bass and oud) has drawn on Sicilian traditions and the Arab influence that is so much a part of the island’s history. Meanwhile, an outstanding Sicilian percussionist, Alfio Antico has developed a technique which bridges many styles, including the widespread tarantella.
Holy Week is one of the best times to visit Sicilian villages to hear music traditions. The devotional songs are sung acapella exclusively by male singers. Brass bands are also a frequent feature of religious festivities and they have developed a rich repertoire often based on operatic and classical compositions. A collection of Easter and funeral marches from southern Italy was recorded by the twenty piece brass band Banda Ionica.
An instrument which occurs throughout Italy is the zampogna, a bagpipe of which there are around ten different types grouped into two broad families: double oboes and double clarinets. Ettore Castagna and Sergio Di Giorgio of the Re Niliu (Wax King) group have fed new arrangements and compositions to this traditional repertoire of Calabria.
Ettore Castagna has devoted his research to the Albanian and Greek-Byzantine worlds within the traditions of Calabria. He has also studied the regional lira (ancient Calabrian violin) tradition, an interest shared by Valentino Santagati, who has brought to attention the chitarra battente.
The region is also home to energetic tarantellas or soni a ballu, a widespread tradition kept alive by groups such as Cumelca, with lyrics drawing from their Greek heritage. According to musician Mario Salvi, the local version, the tarantella reggitana presents melodic and rhythmic variations which reflect the dynamic steps of the dance, rendering it especially “acrobatic.”
Traditional music from Puglia is best known for the tarantolati ritual. The tarantolati, usually women who believe they have been bitten and poisoned by a spider known as tarantola, are healed through long hours or even days of dancing to the rhythms of tarantella/tarantata.
Puglia’s links with the Greek world are being explored by X-Dar, while the multicultural Radio Deravish centre their energetic, electric live act on the voice of Palestinian Nabil Ben Salaméh. Other groups, such as Canzoniere di Terra d’Otranto and Uaragniaun, have devoted their research and acoustic repertoire to specific local traditions.
Puglia is a region with a lively history of brass bands, probably best represented by Banda Ruvo di Puglia. In recent years, the passion for brass bands has involved many outstanding jazz players including Enrico Rava and Battista Lena.
Singer Anna Cinzia Villani is well known both for her own work and for singing and playing with ensembles such as Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino. “Tradition should be kept alive”, she says, “by allowing room for improvisation.”
The medieval tradition of ottava rima is a way of singing widespread in central and northern Lazio, as well as in Tuscany and Abruzzo. It can be based on the poetic texts and might address social and political issues, or it can be totally improvised.
Singer Lucilla Galeazzi has worked in two outstanding trios: one with Carlo Mariani and Massimo Nardi, integrating different Italian and Sardinian roots elements, and a second named Il Trillo with the virtuoso percussion player Carlo Rizzo and Ambrogio Sparagna, exploring different types of song-formats in Italian traditional music.
Tuscany’s traditional repertoire seems best captured by orgnetto player Riccardo Tesi’s Banditaliana album Acqua Foco e Vento. In the ‘90s they selected some of the best songs from the Apennine Mountains around Pistoia and neighbouring provinces, and also from across the sea in Corsica.
At the beginning of the twentieth century in Polesine, northeast of Italy, peasants used to dance to the sound of organetto, violins and other string or brass instruments playing polcas and mazurkas. The years after World War II almost saw the disappearance of the traditional repertoire, yet, groups such as Baraban (Lombardy), who have gone hunting for northern Italian repertoires, have created outstanding recordings of both traditional and new material.
Based in Padua, the group Calicanto grew out of the research and field recordings of multi-instrumentalist Roberto Tombesi. After five records presenting for the most part the traditional repertoire of the region, their recent concerts and recordings feature new compositions open to other Mediterranean influences.
Founded in 1962 in Piadena, near Cremona, the oldest group still active today is surely Gruppo Padano di Piadena featuring the moving voice of Bruno Fontanella. Local instruments include the baghèt, the bagpipe from around Bergamo. It is the main instrument Valter Biella, who leads Bandalpina, an ensemble of over twenty musicians. More recent groups include Epinfrai, a quartet featuring Marco Domenichetti on piffero and the jazz-oriented Simone Guiducci Gramelot Ensemble.
The roots music of the Piedmont region achieved a national profile thanks to a dynamic and multicultural young group, Mau Mau, who mix the Piedmont language and organetto patterns with world beats. Founded in 1977 by Maurizio Martinotti (hurdy gurdy) and Beppe Greppi (organetto), La Ciapa Rusa mixed northern Italian traditional music and original material.
The great seaport on the Ligurian coast, Genoa has a tavern song tradition called trallalero, a polyphonic vocal style, possibly related to the nearby Sardinian and Corsican varieties, involving a complicated counterpoint by five male voices. The sound of trallalero is one of the most ornate and haunting in the Mediterranean.
Genoa remains the home of some of the best “modern” ballads written by the likes of Gino Paoli and the late Fabrizio De André, whose collaboration with composer Mauro Pagani brought together the Genoese language with various Mediterranean traditions.