Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino: 8 October 2013 – New York

“…it is through its music that the Mediterranean is continually and variously defined, and defines itself. In the Mediterranean…there are many ‘Mediterranean’ musics to be heard, each of them an expression of identity, of economic, social, and musical relationships, each of them a result of local, regional, national, and global circumstances.”

— Goffredo Plastino, “Sailing the Mediterranean Musics”

Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, an Italian band hailing from the southern region of Puglia, began its set at the Highline Ballroom with its diatonic accordionist, Massimiliano Morabito, alone on the stage and seated, playing the opening bars of “Pizzica Indiavolata”, the title track of the group’s latest album. Then appeared the lead percussionist, the leonine Giancarlo Paglialunga, bearing the large tamburello frame drum that provides the heartbeat of pizzica tarantata, the ancient folk music that is the specialty of Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino. When Paglialunga started beating out a rhythm on the tamburello, a young woman seated nearby let out a scream. She looked momentarily abashed, but she needn’t have been – she just was a bit ahead of the curve. Before long, many in the audience were just as vocal in their response to the band.

The Highline show – part of this year’s edition of Hit Week, a touring concert series featuring contemporary Italian music acts — was the third that Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, also known as CGS, played in New York in 2013. In January the band performed at Pace University’s Schimmel Center for the Arts; in June, it had a prestigious showcase gig at Joe’s Pub, which earned the group a rave review from New York Times critic Jon Pareles. As fine as they were, those appearances were sit-down affairs, and pizzica demands –and incites — dancing. And at the Highline, we danced. The band fired up the dancers and the dancers spurred on the band, the mutual energy exchange producing the most exhilarating show I’ve seen by this remarkable group.

CGS’ music – whether you call it pizzica tarantata, pizzica, or, its more recent marketing tag, taranta – originated centuries ago in the Salento peninsula of Puglia as a ritual healing music associated with tarantismo, a phenomenon that is part of Salentine cultural heritage. Tarantismo has been likened to voodoo and Mediterranean and North African mystery cults that employ music and dance to induce trance-like states that culminate in emotional and physical catharsis. It originated in rural and small town Salento and its devotees mainly were peasants and workers, and mostly women, who believed they had become ill from the bite of poisonous spiders. In tarantismo rituals, the tarantate would dance to the pizzica rhythms played by small groups of musicians until they collapsed, “cured” of their illnesses, which actually were intra-psychic and emotional – anxiety, depression, sexual frustration and the repressed rage of women whose lives were circumscribed by patriarchy and poverty.

Tarantismo has died out in Puglia, but pizzica not only endures but is thriving – as an emblem of Salento’s cultural identity and now a fixture on the world music scene. Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, whose members range in age from late twenties to early forties, has become the premier exponent of pizzica. CGS, comprising six accomplished musicians and vocalists, plus a dancer, keeps faith with traditional pizzica (and other Salentine roots music) while making the venerable idiom sound fresh and up to date.

There’s a good reason CGS has been winning raves from critics and musicians and growing its fan base outside Italy. It is a great band that sounds like no other. It has an exotic mystique and a unique musical identity and, though mainly an acoustic ensemble, the band can rock like crazy.

At the Highline Ballroom, CGS focused mainly on the material from Pizzica Indiavolata, a first-rate album of traditional and updated pizzica, love ballads and work songs. As good as it is, though, the songs really come alive in concert, in all their rhythmic intensity, soulful melancholy, and even strangeness.

The band is led by Mauro Durante, a violinist, percussionist and singer whose musical education included the conservatory and deep study of traditional Salentine music. His father, Daniele Durante, co-founded the band in 1975, and turned over its leadership to him in 2007. Under Mauro’s leadership, CGS has recorded two albums since 2010, Focu d’amore and Pizzica Indiavolata.

The lineup includes, besides Durante, percussionist and singer Paglialunga and accordionist Morabito, the vocalist Maria Mazzotta, multi-instrumentalist Giulio Bianco, and guitarist, bouzouki player and singer Emanuele Licci. Silvia Perrone, who is married to Durante, is a beguiling presence in the group’s shows, clad in flowing dresses and dancing barefoot. I’ve seen the band about a half-dozen times over the past three years, and each time not only the musicianship but the stagecraft seems stronger. The sets are well-structured, mixing the wilder dance numbers with entrancing ballads and driving work songs. For some songs, the band breaks down into smaller components – “Sta Strada” was just Mazzotta on vocals and percussion and Bianco on harmonica – and then re-assembles.

And though the group’s music is solidly rooted in the musical soil of Salento, CGS incorporates other Mediterranean influences, Greek and Arabic, as well as Afro-Brazilian, as in Durante’s percussion solos. On “Cogli la rosa”, Emanuele Licci and Maria Mazzotta traded off wordless qawwali-style vocal lines. My companion at the show, who’d never heard CGS before and was mightily impressed, said CGS’s “Bella ci dormi,” sung beautifully by the extraordinary Mazzotta, reminded him of the Russian-Jewish love song, “Tumbalalaika.” On “Tira Cavallo,” Paglialunga unleashed his big, rough-edged voice and Arab-like melisma as the band churned out insistent rhythms evocative of a horse-drawn cart driving through the countryside (the song’s title means “Pull, Horse”).

Late in the set Mauro Durante announced that the main part of the concert was over and that he wanted to see everyone “in piedi,” on their feet. “Let’s get this party started!” he exclaimed. But by then, hardly anyone was sitting anyway, and, as the band tore through two numbers from Pizzica Indiavolata, one traditional (“Tamburrieddhu mia”), the other an original CGS composition (“Nu te fermare”), the floor was packed. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that the excitement and release we felt in the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan wasn’t all that remote from what the tarantate in Salento experienced as they danced their sorrows away.