Trema La Terra, the latest album by the Sicilian percussionist and composer Alfio Antico, is nothing if not atmospheric. As I immersed myself in it, its powerful, complex rhythms, plaintive melodies, and eerie electronic (and analog) effects carried me to Mount Etna on a cloudy, windswept day, with currents of sound blowing in from many directions, a shepherd’s jangling bells as he herds his flock, the subterranean rumblings of an active volcano, voices speaking and singing the Sicilian language. The album’s title — “the earth trembles” — refers to a memory of Antico’s. But it’s also an apt metaphor for the deep, visceral pulsations conjured up by Antico and his band.
Alfio Antico, 64, was born in Lentini, a village in eastern Sicily. His was a pastoral life; a shepherd until he turned 18, he grew up not only with the sounds of nature that surrounded him but also his grandmother’s voice telling him local tales, myths, and ancestral histories; peasant gossip and harsh wisdom. In the 1970s, Antico, like so many Sicilians, left the impoverished island for the mainland. While singing and playing his tamburello (frame drum) in the Piazza Della Signoria in Florence, he caught the ear of the Neapolitan singer-songwriter Eugenio Bennato. He invited Antico to join Musicanova, an influential neo-folk band Bennato co-founded with another musician from Naples, Carlo D’Angiò. Over a career of more than 40 years, Antico has performed worldwide and recorded with such eminent Italian cantautori (singer-songwriters) as Fabrizio De Andrè, Lucio Dalla, and Vinicio Capossela. He is an esteemed master of frame drums who makes and decorates all his instruments, from the skin membranes to the frames and cymbals, all hand-cast, hammered, and tuned.
Trema La Terra, Antico’s sixth studio recording, continues the mix of rusticity and modernity heard on its predecessor, Antico (2016). There are shepherd’s bells and electronics; zampogna (Southern Italian bagpipes) and synthesizers; Hammond organ and prepared piano; acoustic and electric guitars, and instruments from other musical cultures, the ngoni, an African lute, and the bansuri, an Indian flute. Antico used new drums for the sessions and, on one track, a metal bowl.
The recording process began with Antico singing and playing the songs to his musicians. From the ground floor of his vocals and drums, he and they built the arrangements. His son Mattia Antico and Cesare Basile (the album’s producer) play guitars and other acoustic and electronic instruments. Longtime associate Puccio Castrogiovanni plays various instruments associated with traditional music (chitarra battente, a double-stringed acoustic guitar played percussively; ciaramella, a type of oboe; marranzano, a jaw harp, and zampogna). American composer and instrumentalist Gino Robair plays synthesizers, prepared piano, organ, guitars. Then there’s backup singer Alice Ferrara.
The title track, with its thunderous percussion, was inspired by Antico’s memory of a scene he saw many years ago: a mountain and a tractor that was “sballando” (moving) it. “I thought, how strange! I went back to that place many years later, and half the mountain was practically gone, so maybe that work had been done badly. I tried to poetically describe the suffering of a mountain, and the mountains have been my family for a long time.”
“Pancali Cucina” was inspired by the panoramic view from a mountain range overlooking Lentini. But the music is anything but bucolic: midway through, an explosion of electric guitars turns it into hard rock. “Vendemmia” is the selection closest to traditional music; it is a saltarello, a lively, ancient dance usually performed outdoors. On “Rijanedda”, one of the album’s less turbulent tracks, Antico sings the tender lyrics about a swallow that symbolizes love to a spare arrangement of guitars and without percussion.
“Nun n’aiu sonnu”, a chant peppered with what sounds like electronic effects (they’re actually analog, made by adjustments to acoustic instruments), was born when Antico “found myself conversing with the stars one night when I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about the sleazy people of this world, the scoundrels and those who take advantage of their neighbors.”
Trema la Terra is concise, with 10 tracks that total a little more than a half-hour. (The final selection, “Trema La Terra – Muntagna Scura”, is an extended remix of the title track). The innovative blend of traditional and contemporary sounds, the bucolic beauty and metallic harshness of this intense, expertly crafted recording make you wish it were longer. A voyage into Alfio Antico’s Sicily is one you don’t want to end too soon.