As Grammy-anointed bands like Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers — not to mention a bunch of lesser lights–have proved, you don’t need a ton of digital hardware to make a big noise and thrill audiences. But Anglo and American bands aren’t the only ones playing folk and folk-derived music mainly on acoustic instruments, with the volume and energy of rock. Italy’s Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino — CGS for short — in the past few years has been building a growing fan base throughout Europe and North America with its full-throttle brand of pizzica tarantata, an ancient folk music that originated in Salento, the portion of the Puglia region that forms the heel of the Italian “boot.”
CGS actually was founded in 1975, during an era when left-leaning Italian artists were leading a revival of traditional musical forms. In 2007, Daniele Durante, one of the band’s founders, turned over the leadership to his son Mauro, a conservatory-trained violinist and percussionist. The current incarnation of CGS — a septet whose members range in age from late 20s to early 40s — has become a cohesive and captivating ensemble, in concert and on the two recordings they’ve made since Durante became their leader, 2010’s Focu d’amore and their latest release, Pizzica Indiavolata.
The new album comprises 13 tracks written by Durante or adapted and arranged by him and band members from traditional sources. The group’s name means “the Greek songbook of Salento”, referring to the area’s Hellenic antiquity, including the once-widespread use of the Greek-derived language known as Grecanico, or Griko. Pizzica, up-tempo and powerfully rhythmic, is the main menu item. But the album also showcases other styles from the Salentine songbook — ballads, serenades and work songs. Soulful, passionate, exciting and even a bit strange at times, Pizzica Indiavolata not only establishes CGS as premier exponents of Salento’s music; the album also stakes the group’s claim to being one of the most distinctive and brilliant bands on the world music scene.
Pizzica originated as the music of tarantismo, a cultural phenomenon peculiar to Salento. Tarantismo employed music and dance in a symbolic ritual to cure peasants, mainly women, of maladies purportedly caused by poisonous spider bites. In the rites of tarantismo, the afflicted would dance, to the point of collapsing, to the rhythms of the pizzica songs. The spider’s bite, however, was a metaphor for psychic conditions such as grief, anxiety and depression, as well as sexual frustration. The “spider’s dance” was a culturally sanctioned way for impoverished and politically disenfranchised peasants to act out their psychological conflicts and achieve catharsis.
Tarantismo has died out, but pizzica not only has survived but is thriving — as an expression of Salentine cultural identity — as Italy’s best-known folk music (the annual La Notte della Taranta, dedicated to pizzica, is one of Europe’s major festivals) and as “world music.” Yet in the work of CGS, there are echoes of pizzica’s original function. “Nu Te Fermare” (“Don’t Stop”), the opening track on Pizzica Indiavolata, finds a contemporary analogue to the peasants’ suffering in today’s economic crises, with the “bite” of unemployment particularly painful for Italy’s youth.
Mauro Durante has said that CGS aims for a sound that’s “both ancestral and modern”, and “Nu Te Fermare” pulls off that tricky feat with aplomb. The electric bass and a recurring, guitar-like riff played by Durante on violin lend a contemporary feel while the rhythms and the vocal harmonies are steeped in tradition. A word about those harmonies: they are extraordinary. The band has four main vocalists–Durante, Maria Mazzotta, Giancarlo Paglialunga (also the band’s lead percussionist) and Emanuele Licci (who also plays bouzouki and guitar). Each one is terrific, with Mazzotta and Paglialunga particular standouts. Mazzotta is heartbreaking on the lovelorn “Bella ci Dormi” (“Beautiful, You Sleep”); Paglialunga’s a melismatic powerhouse on “Tira Cavallo” (“Pull, Horse”). But the polyphonic mix the four singers create together often is stunning, and one of the band’s greatest assets. Diatonic accordionist Massimiliano Morabito, multi-instrumentalist Giulio Bianco and guitarist Luca Tarantino round out the ensemble, and they’re all superb players.
Two guest artists – the Malian kora virtuoso Ballaké Sissoko and the Anglo-Italian singer-songwriter Piers Faccini — join CGS for several tracks, “Aremu an me ‘gapà” (“Who Knows If You Love Me”), the instrumental “E chorà tu anemu” (“The Dance of the Wind”) and “La Voce Toa” (“Your Voice”), co-written by Faccini and Mauro Durante. They both have worked with CGS at the La Notte della Taranta festival, and their contributions fit seamlessly into the band’s sound.
Pizzica Indiavolata ends with the title track, a wild, six-minute-plus ride led by Durante on violin that surges, crests and subsides, only to build momentum and hit new peaks of rhythmic frenzy. It’s based on a piece by Luigi Stìfani, a violinist who played in tarantismo rituals, which Stìfani claimed had the most potent therapeutic effect on the “tarantati”, the “bitten ones”. Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino’s updated version is strong medicine, and the taste is irresistible.