The presentation of Onda is an off-kilter mix of tough talk and less tough reality. “If you can’t ride the wave then you’re gonna go unda,” suggests the tagline, hinting at something progressive and experimental, difficult to grasp and fun to hold, but after a few lines of mild rapping at the start of the disc we find ourselves in a folk-inflected mix-pop track that seems pleasant but familiar. Exactly how familiar becomes clearer when you notice that the album is dedicated to Martyn Bennett.
Bennett was a Scotsman who took the old art of solo piping and merged it with a love of dance culture to create a Scottish folk-techno with bagpipe accompaniment. He put out five albums before dying of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in January last year and was, along with Salsa Celtica, one of the more interesting things on Survival’s bland Future Sound of Gaeldom compilation. Bennett wrote formal acoustic compositions as well as the techno ones, but it’s his experiments in housepipe that the members of Fiamma Fumana are drawing on in Onda. The beetle-sharp tone of the piva emiliana that Lady Jessica Lombardi plays is similar to that of Bennett’s Scottish pipes, and she uses them, as he used his, to inject a febrile charge into a steady stream of computerised beats.
Bennett sampled regional speech and so does Fiamma Fumana. “Strade D’Appennino” begins with a recording of a murmuring woman named Liliana Delmonte who reappears later as a kind of native punctuation between the singers and the stormily scootching effects. “La Vein Giù” and “Manifesto” sample Bennett himself. In “Manifesto” we hear him talking about his approach to music. “I’m … trying to get a way into popular culture without diluting the origins of [folk].” Writing about Grit, the last of his albums to be released while he was alive, he quoted Alan Lomax:
“All cultures need their fair share of the airtime. When country folk or tribal peoples hear or view their own traditions in the big media, projected with the authority generally reserved for the output of large urban centres, and when they hear their traditions taught to their own children, something magical occurs. They see that their expressive style is as good as that of others, and, if they have equal communicational facilities, they will continue it ... even in this industrial age, folk traditions can come vigorously back to life.”
It’s this idea of “trying to get a way into popular culture” so that “something magical occurs” that Fiamma Fumana are working with, and the folk traditions they’re bringing “vigorously back to life” (or, at least, promoting) are those of their home territory in Northern Italy, with a particular focus on the women’s singing of their native region, Emilia-Romagna: part of the cuff on Italy’s boot.
Southern Italian folk is influenced by North African and Middle Eastern music, but the music of the north is closer to that of the Celts. There are indigenous tunes in Onda that could, with a little tweaking, be Scottish jigs and reels. The strong singing at the beginning of “La Vien Giù” would sound equally at home if you changed it to Gaelic; and if you were walking down an alleyway on a dark night and came across the bagpipes that roll into the skipping beat of “Mariulèina,” then you could be excused for calling them Irish. Fiamma Fumana slips into the model that Bennett has already established for it and the fit is good; the music is sweet and pleasurable although in some places they’re trying a little too strenuously—the hey mon you gonna go onda! Jamaican patois in “Prendi L’Onda” sounds like a calculated bid for hip credentials.
The album is breezily upbeat, which is both an advantage and a hobble. The chances of anyone being unable to catch this wave are slender. It’s a very gentle, likeable wave. The only people likely to be put off by the dance beats are those who already dislike them as a matter of course. The same goes for Lady Lombardi’s piva emiliana. (I know at least one person who can’t tolerate any high-pitched noises at all; she has an aversion to them that is practically genetic.) But you get the feeling that this lightness could slide into cheese if they didn’t keep it taut. Sometimes you sense that it’s a near thing. Onda‘s cover shows the four members of the group bouncing up and down and pulling faces like the hosts of Playschool trying to coax a group of children into the Jumpy-Jumpy dance and looking at this a sneaky thought crept into my brain: they really, really want me to like them.
This sherbetty eagerness makes Onda easier to disrespect than tougher albums that go their own way whether you love them or not. Fiamma Fumana’s countryfolk in Banda Ionica hooted rebelliously and butted their heads against the brass band music of Sicily until it cracked and the result is riveting; in Matri Mia they yell like louts on street corners and it’s a complete joy to hear. Onda is listener-friendly, but it could do with some yelling louts to bring the niceness into sharper relief. They get a way into popular culture all right (I predict inclusion in a Putumayo compilation); now they need to find a way to stay there without going unda.