Like so many bands worldwide, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino (CGS) were left stranded by the Covid-19 pandemic, unable to get together to record or perform concerts. For the Southern Italian ensemble, the forced respite brought a decade’s worth of intense activity to a halt. Their exhilarating shows had won them an international fan base and critical raves. They played folk, jazz, and global music festivals like WOMAD throughout Europe, North and South America, and Australia. They released a string of exceptional albums― Focu d’amore (2010), Pizzica Indiavolata (2013), and Quaranta (2015) ― that mixed traditional material and new compositions rooted in tradition but attuned, lyrically and sonically, to the present.
In late 2017, they released Canzoniere, recorded in New York and Italy and produced by Joe Mardin, son of the legendary Atlantic Records producer Arif Mardin. Canzoniere marked a new direction in CGS’s history. Bandleader Mauro Durante co-wrote most of the album’s tracks with American pop songwriters. The core CGS sound―the powerfully rhythmic pizzica, folk music from the Salento sub-region of Puglia, at the heel of the Italian “boot”―mixed with club-ready dance numbers and ballads and anthemic pop with big, catchy choruses.
In 2018, CGS won Best Group at the Songline Music Awards; in 2019, they had their own night at London’s Royal Albert Hall for the prestigious BBC Proms festival.
CGS planned a tour in 2020 that would have taken them to, among other places, India for the first time. But the pandemic, which hit Italy early and hard, made touring and recording a follow-up to Canzoniere impossible. Sidelined during that anno orribile, they’ve returned, with a new album, Meridiana, for 21 May release by the Italian label Ponderosa. The album, recorded in Lecce, the band’s home base, continues some of Canzoniere’s experiments with hip-hop (“Balla Nina”), international pop (the title track), and Southern Italian-South Asian fusion (“Pizzica Bhangra”). Like its predecessor, Meridiana augments the band’s acoustic sound with electric bass, synth bass, and electronics. But it’s more roots-based and less studio-sounding, closer to the band’s live performances.
That has a lot to do with Durante’s choice for a co-producer, Justin Adams. The British guitarist, known for his work with Robert Plant’s Sensational Shape Shifters, Tinariwen, Rachid Taha, and Sinead O’Connor, met Durante ten years ago at the Notte della Taranta festival in Salento. Adams subsequently performed with CGS at WOMAD, in Paris, and at the BBC Proms. He also joined them in the studio for Canzoniere, on “Pizzica De Sira.” He plays electric guitar on Meridiana (“Lu Sittaturu” and “Tic e Tac”), seamlessly fitting in with Durante (violin, percussion, vocals) and the other band members: vocalist and percussionist Giancarlo Paglialunga; diatonic accordionist Massimiliano Morabito; vocalist, bouzouki player, and guitarist Emanuele Licci; multinstrumentalist Giulio Bianco; and vocalist Alessia Tonda. Silvia Perrone, whose pizzica dancing is a feature of the band’s shows, contributed lyrics.
Meridiana also includes guest appearances by the Neapolitan singer, songwriter, and saxophonist Enzo Avitabile (“Tic e Tac”) and the Brooklyn-based bhangra band Red Baraat (Pizzica Bhangra”).
In late April, I interviewed Mauro Durante and Justin Adams about the making of Meridiana under the conditions imposed by the pandemic; the ideas behind it; and the joys of collaboration. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
The title of the new CGS album, Meridiana, means sundial, but it’s also associated with southern Italy—“Italia meridionale.” Did you intend this double meaning?
MD: Yes, I did. Meridiana is about our relationship with time. But that’s not only the abstract concept; it’s mainly about our own perception of time, now and here. In our land, our “South,” we are defined by our relationship with the sun. That’s why we called the album Sundial; it’s all connected.
What inspired the themes of this album?
MD: The concept started before the pandemic by reflecting on the peculiarity of our kind of music. CGS translates for today a music and a dance that comes from the past. Songs that were related to different times and contexts and precise functions. We’re always playing with time. Following that initial thread, there were many readings and inspirations: from folklore to the news, to various texts about time, touching on disciplines like philosophy―Nietzsche, Augustine, Aristotle; physics―Feynman, [Carlo] Rovelli, Einstein; sociology― [Zygmunt} Baumann; mythology and fiction. Then the pandemic amplified the intensity of this speculation about time. We are all living in some sort of suspended moment.
JA: It’s funny because I had been reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and then Rovelli on time, thinking about how we experience time and memory. And yes, the pandemic has suspended us and made us stand outside the normal rush of our lives.
How did the pandemic affect the process of writing, rehearsing, and recording the album? Were the band members in the studio at the same time?
MD: Frankly, it was really challenging, very hard at times. I think this album is a remarkable collective achievement. It wasn’t easy to meet, make music together, and be a band in the usual way. We recorded at different moments, but we somehow managed to be together for the final week of recording. Justin also managed to be with us. It was intense, different, and beautiful. This album is proof that the desire to share, to dance together, is irresistible.
JA: A few moments in the recording stand out when the power of live music performance was almost overwhelming―when you played your tamburellos in unison for “Ronda,” Alessia’s quietly intense performance of “Meridiana,” an early rehearsal of “Stornello” …
How is Meridiana different from Canzoniere? What are the continuities, if any?
MD: Meridiana is not as pop-song-oriented as Canzoniere. That’s the main difference. We weren’t necessarily looking for radio song lengths, hooky choruses, or standard song structures. But we weren’t against that, either. We let each song develop according to its nature and inclination. Justin was great with that, trying to get every piece to its maximum potential. Meridiana feels to me like the natural continuation of Canzoniere.
What did you learn from the experience of Canzoniere, particularly collaborating in writing and recording with American and other European artists?
MD: Canzoniere was an amazing experience. I had the chance to meet and make music with so many different people. I learned a lot. And I got the opportunity to spend so much time in NYC, my second place in the heart after Salento. I miss being there so much. Meridiana, on the other hand, taught and gave me a lot. I learned to adapt even more than before. Whatever it takes to continue making music, following my dreams and what I love. The songwriting process with Sunny Jain and Enzo Avitabile happened remotely, and I missed breathing the same air. But I still welcomed the opportunity and loved the result. Besides, the work with Justin on CGS’s album and our own duo album [Still Moving, to be released September 2021], which happened in person and remotely, gave me the chance to further strengthen our relationship. I have always loved his music and approach and have known him for a long time as a beautiful person. But this last year might have earned me a friend for life.
JA: I certainly hope so! When you go through the intensity of a creative process with someone, and we’ve made two albums in this last crazy year, it creates a friendship that years of small talk couldn’t replace.
When you write for the band, do you do so with the particular members in mind? For example, “this would be a good number for Giulio to play harmonica,” or “I’m writing this one for Alessia’s, or Giancarlo’s, or Emanuele’s voice?”
MD: Yes, I always think of who should perform what I’m writing. Often, my writing goes in that particular direction because I’m being influenced by my bandmates’ way of singing or playing. There’s no such thing as objective or absolute beauty. It all depends on the interpreters and the emotions they’re able to deliver when they feel at ease, where they can shine. Besides, many of the songs In Meridiana were co-written or co-arranged with Giulio, Alessia, or Emanuele. Silvia [Perrone] wrote the lyrics for “Balla Nina.”
JA: Mauro is amazing in this way. He knows the musicality of the band members inside out, and he works on every level to get each of their musical DNA to shine.
How would you describe the Salento music scene now, during the pandemic? How are musicians surviving—what opportunities are there for them?
MD: It’s bad, really bad. No shows, no clear plans for the future. We’re relying on the financial support of the government, plus some other music industry entities. We’re surviving, but the future is still uncertain. Many had to quit being professional musicians or technicians. Technicians are being hit even worse.
Meridiana has the track “Pizzica Bhangra,” which features the New York-based bhangra band Red Baraat and their leader, Sunny Jain. How did that come about?
MD: We met Red Baraat during our international tours. We shared many of the same festivals, and we liked and respected each other. I stayed in touch with Sunny Jain, both of us looking for opportunities to collaborate. That happened last year: I am part of his latest Phoenix Rise project, born and produced during the pandemic, and we co-wrote “Pizzica Bhangra,” involving Red Baraat. I love them! Also, I’ve always thought bhangra music and pizzica shared a similar beat and vibe, dance-y and melancholic at the same time. I think “Pizzica Bhangra” proves me right.
Enzo Avitabile, a leading figure in southern Italian music of the past several decades, is on Meridiana. Did you write “Tic e Tac” with him in mind?
MD: Enzo is one of my points of reference. He is one of the most talented and relevant Italian musicians. His history and his music speak for him. I was excited when he told me he’d like the idea of a collaboration, and we started to make plans for this to happen. Then the pandemic came, but it didn’t stop us. We actually wrote “Tic e Tac” together, music and lyrics. And then I kept developing it with Justin and CGS.
How did you connect with Justin Adams? What does he bring to CGS?
MD: I met Justin for the first time at La Notte della Taranta in 2011. We were invited by Ludovico Einaudi to be part of the final Concertone, which we were leading that year. I was Ludovico’s assistant. We immediately felt some common ground in the trance rhythms of Taranta. Then Justin kept collaborating with CGS through the years, performing with us in special live shows in Paris, Bath, WOMAD, and in the show that was possibly the most important one in our history: BBC Proms 2019 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. By that time, we had already started planting the seed of what would become our duo project. I felt he would have been the best and natural choice as the producer of Meridiana.
Justin was incredibly supportive. He worked hard to get the most from the album, despite the complex situation. He worked remotely to help develop the songs and then came to Salento for a week for thefinal recordings. He used his great experience and personality to get the most energetic and spontaneous performances from each band member. Justin played a key role on this record.
Justin, what attracted you to CGS? Did you research or otherwise study pizzica and Salentine music?
JA: I knew virtually nothing about pizzica music when I was first invited by [composer and instrumentalist] Ludovico Einaudi to come to Salento to play at the Notte della Taranta festival, but I was interested for a number of reasons. Music used for trance and healing fascinates me as it lies at the heart of the function of music. I became interested in the link between frame drums, found in traditional musics around the world from China to the American Southwest, and trance rhythms. The countries where I’d been most exposed to that link were in North Africa, just across the water from Salento. So here was a chance for me to find out a bit more about another piece of the jigsaw. When I arrived, the combination of the warmth of the musicians I met, how audiences responded to the rhythms, and the Mediterranean way of life all enchanted me. I developed my friendship over the years with Mauro and CGS, central figures in the pizzica scene. I wouldn’t say that I have studied the music in any formal way, but it’s become part of my life over the past 10 years.
MD: We basically seized every chance we got through the years to explore our affinities. All of us just love playing with Justin; he makes us feel more like a rock band!
Justin, CGS plays contemporary versions of traditional Salentino music and new music in the tradition. How would you say this music differs from other European folk music?
JA: Every folk music has its particularities and its areas of kinships with the music of its neighbors or even distant cousins. I particularly relate to the seeming simplicity of the pizzica rhythm, which for all its repetition, seems to hold an infinity of possibilities, while the melodies and harmonies of Salento have a balance between sweet and bitter flavors that is very emotive. Understanding the power of those authentic roots, mixed with openness and contemporary awareness, makes CGS a band that I’m excited to work with.
Did your experience in Robert Plant’s Sensational Shape Shifters prepare you for playing with CGS?
JA: In my life as a musician, I find that every experience and collaboration feeds the next. Each new piece of work broadens you, and then you bring that to the next project. Working with Robert and that band taught me so much about confidence, spontaneity, and how to recognize and cultivate magic moments. To allow things to happen and then develop them. Also, how to work as a team, to allow others to run with the ball and be free. I’ve had quite a lot of experience with Robert and other artists, like Sinead O’Connor, Rachid Taha, Tinariwen, and Lo’Jo, where acoustic roots instruments and approaches have been mixed with more contemporary sounds. It seems to me a logical thing to do. Ancient things have a lot of power, they have endured because they are effective, but I wouldn’t want to be recreating the sound of a vanished era. I want to participate in what’s going on now!
Justin, this is your second time recording with CGS. How is it different from the first (Canzoniere)?
JA: On the last album, I just came in to play guitar on one track. I loved the last album, but I felt this one could be closer to how the band sounded live and that we should try to capture the musical personalities of the band members. On this album, I think Mauro and the band had very clear ideas of what they wanted to do. I saw my role as just looking at the big picture of the album, seeing it from the outside, as an overall piece of work. At the same time, their attention to detail was incredible, creating what I think will be a lasting piece of work with a lot of depth to it. Because of the pandemic, I worked remotely a lot more than I am used to, but together we found a new way of working that meant spending very little time physically together, but I think each of us in our isolation was helped by the feeling of being engaged in a communal project, which is what musicians, and maybe all humans, thrive on.
When will CGS be able to resume performing and touring?
MD: Hopefully, this summer. We really can’t wait.
JA: Me too!
Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino will present Meridiana on 20 May, at CGS’s social network pages, 9:00 pm CET (Central European Time). At midnight, the Project Meridiana website goes live as a multidisciplinary, immersive experience, with the album, video, photos, artwork, and text.