Photos: Rob Eisdorfer

La Notte della Taranta: Celebration and Solidarity

The "big concert" of Italy's biggest folk festival was almost canceled after a devastating earthquake. But the show went on -- as a benefit for relief and reconstruction.

“Tradition is not to preserve the ashes, but to pass on the fire”.

— Gustav Mahler

La Notte della Taranta (NdT), a three-week, roaming festival held every August since 1998 in the Salento peninsula of the southern Italian region of Puglia, is not only Italy’s biggest celebration of traditional music, it’s one of Europe’s major music events. NdT culminates in a four-hour “big concert” — Il Concertone — in the main public square of the Salentine town of Melpignano. The Concertone features leading musicians from Salento, while also presenting Italian and international world music, rock, and pop artists. NdT draws its audience from all over Italy, Europe, and beyond — some 200,000 come for the Concertone — and generates substantial revenues for the local economies of Salento.

But this year, the show almost didn’t go on.

On 24 August, the central Italian town of Amatrice was struck by a major earthquake that killed several hundred people and caused immense property damage. Under Italian law, when such a disaster strikes and a national day of mourning is declared, mass gatherings supported by public funds must be cancelled. (All NdT events, including the Concertone, are funded by public and private entities, and are free to the public.) The 27th of August, the day of mourning for Amatrice, coincided with the Concertone, and for a while it looked like the Melpignano event would not be held. However, after discussions between the nonprofit foundation that sponsors Ndt and government representatives, the Concertone was allowed to proceed, as a fundraiser for earthquake relief and reconstruction.

The live broadcast of the event on Italy’s national RAI TV network included appeals for donations. Performers at the Concertone made pleas for contributions, and they donated a portion of their fees; vendors contributed proceeds from sales of festival merchandise. By the end of the Concertone, over 1.6 million euros had been raised for Amatrice. Proceeds from a forthcoming CD recorded at the Concertone also will be donated as part of a “Puglia for the Reconstruction” campaign.

The Concertone began on a somber note, with a moment of silence to honor those who died in Amatrice. But that, and the recurring appeals for donations, didn’t put a damper on an evening that was both a great party and a glorious celebration of the unique musical culture of Salento. Some have called NdT southern Italy’s Coachella or Glastonbury, but comparisons to those pop festivals only go so far. Ndt, rather than being a commercial event linked to the corporate music industry, is all about cultural heritage: the traditional music of Salento, and especially pizzica, a now world-famous style that originated as a ritual healing music.

Pizzica was never intended to be performed for audiences. It was played in magical/religious rituals, usually held in private homes, to cure the victims of tarantismo, a state of physical and emotional distress that has been likened to spirit possession, purportedly caused by the poisonous bite of a tarantula spider. Those afflicted — the “bitten” — would dance to the powerful pizzica rhythms until they collapsed, purged of the spider’s “poison”. Tarantismo, a once-widespread cultural phenomenon with roots in Dionysian rites of ancient Greece, has died out, but its music has outlasted it, and pizzica now serves as an emblem of Salentine cultural identity.

Tarantismo was associated with poor and politically marginalized people — “subalterns”, in the terminology of the Italian Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci — peasants and laborers, and mostly women. In post-World War II, modernizing Italy, its pre-Christian “pagan” beliefs and practices, and its ritual music, came to be seen as relics of the bad old days, when Salento’s poor basically were slaves of the landowning aristocracy. In the ’70s, young and predominantly left-wing musicians began to revive pizzica, as well as other traditional Salentine folk forms — love, work, and prison songs, many of them written in Griko, a Hellenic language that had been widely spoken in the towns that comprised “Grecia Salentina”. The pizzica revival coincided with a larger Italian folk music movement that rediscovered and valorized traditional idioms, as authentic expressions of grassroots cultures, and as cultural resistance to the pop music that dominated Italian radio and television.

The Ndt foundation recruited two leading figures of the ’70s revivalist movement to direct this year’s festival: Luigi Chiratti, a musician and scholar of tarantismo and traditional Salentine music, and Daniele Durante, a musician and ethnomusicologist who, in 1975, co-founded the leading pizzica revivalist group, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino. (Under the leadership of his son Mauro, the second-generation version of the band has achieved international success. Three nights before the Concertone, CGS put on an electrifying show in a park in Martano, as part of NdT. ) Chiriatti was responsible for the smaller, “itinerant” NdT concerts held in various Salento towns while Durante was artistic director of the festival and the Concertone.

The hiring of Chiriatti and Durante was hailed by critics of NdT who felt the Concertone in recent years had become more of a world music event than a celebration of Salentine music. The critics particularly faulted Ndt for hiring foreign pop stars to direct the Concertone – in 2015, the concert master was British rock guitarist Phil Manzanera.

This year’s concert master was Carmen Consoli, a Sicilian singer-songwriter who debuted in the ’90s as a rock artist inspired by PJ Harvey and Janis Joplin. (Her more recent albums have explored a mainly acoustic, pan-Mediterranean folk-pop.) Durante worked with Consoli and the Orchestra Popolare, the 20-plus-piece house band, to select, arrange, and perform the 44 songs that comprised the Concertone. Consoli conducted the orchestra and, from her conductor’s stand, sang backup for the orchestra’s lead vocalists. In one of the show’s most memorable moments, she and Durante dueted on “Quistione meridionale” (Southern Question), a Gramsci-inspired song Durante and his cousin and CGS co-founder Rina Durante wrote for Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino.

The Orchestra Popolare was a well-rehearsed, cohesive unit that could “go big,” giving the pizzica and other Salentine styles heft and power while never becoming grandiose or overblown. The music overall was phenomenal, rich with texture and color, soulful and often piercingly beautiful. And with frame drums, tambourines, and two drum kits generating a tsunami of beats, powerfully rhythmic.

The 2016 Concertone had a definite feminist aspect. Consoli was the first woman concert master in the festival’s nearly 20-year history, and the evening’s lineup was dominated by female singers. From Salento, there were Enza Pagliara, Ninfa Giannuzzi, Stefania Morciano, and Alessandra Caiulo, as well as Alessia Tondo, who, at 25, is the youngest and newest member of Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino. Fiorella Mannoia, a veteran pop star from Rome; Tiziana “Tosca” Donati, also Roman; and Nada, from northern Italy, were the Italian guest artists, all three turning in strong and well-received performances of Salentine material.

Antonio Castrignano

The guys were pretty impressive, too. Giancarlo Paglialunga, one of Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino’s three lead vocalists, shone on “Vorrei Volare” (I’d Like to Fly), rendering the Salentine standard in his signature, powerfully emotive style. Antonio Castrignanó, a gifted vocalist, percussionist, and composer, came on like an Italian Mick Jagger, leaping and dancing across the huge stage while singing and beating a tamburello (large tambourine). Antonio Amato, who resembles the Cuban-American rapper Pitbull — but with actual musical talent — sang and danced up a storm during his featured numbers.

The Concertone’s two international guest artists, Lisa Fischer and Buika, thrilled the audience, and this reviewer, with their assured performances of Salentine songs. Fischer, best known for her 26-year stint as a member of the Rolling Stones touring band and for her appearance in the documentary, Twenty Feet from Stardom, looked fabulous in a low-cut green top and diaphanous wraparound dress. She blew kisses to the audience before delivering an entrancing version of “Tonni tonni”, with lyrics in Griko. The crowd gave her a rapturous response, and she deserved every bit of it. Buika, the Afro-Spanish, flamenco-jazz singer, in a clinging red dress, gave maximum expression to the “malinconia” (melancholy) of “Ntunucciu”.

In its review of the Concertone, an online Italian magazine praised Fischer and Buika for singing in Griko, a language that poses formidable challenges even for Italian singers.

The Concertone concluded around 2:30 in the morning, with the entire cast of singers and musicians performing the traditional closing number, “Kali Nifta”, a Griko serenade with an earworm of a chorus.

Lisa Fischer

Back in New York a week later, I spoke with Lisa Fischer about her involvement with the Concertone. She’d gotten the invitation to perform in Melpignano through her connection to the Rolling Stones — a member of the Stones’ organization whose Italian wife works for the NdT foundation. She worked hard to master “Tonni tonni”, learning the Griko lyrics phonetically while studying the English translation. She listened to a recording of a woman speaking Griko, even playing it as she slept. She had nothing but praise for concert master Consoli and Concertone director Durante, and for the singers and musicians of the Orchestra Popolare. She said that pizzica was new to her, but she fell in love with it.

Diego Carpitella, the musicologist who was Alan Lomax’s research assistant when Lomax traveled through Italy in the 1950s to record traditional music, noted that pizzica’s structure has many features in common with West African music and jazz. There is, he observed, a “clear division between the beat of the rhythm section…and the offbeat of the violin, shown above all in the syncopation and repeated notes.” Fischer agreed with the assessment, saying she was impressed by pizzica’s “rhythms inside rhythms”.

She’d done her homework about pizzica and its relationship to tarantismo, and she perceptively observed that although the spider cult no longer exists, the music still seems to retain its ecstatic and healing aspect. Fischer said that although she’d been to Italy before, she’d never been to Salento. She loved its open spaces, its beautiful coastlines (on both the Ionian and Adriatic seas), and the quiet of the countryside.

Do you think you’d go back? I asked.

“Go back?” she laughed. “I want to live there!”