The weekends of my first semester at Bard College Berlin were not spent the way many might assume, considering that this is one of the nightlife capitals of Europe. Rather than clubbing till 5 AM, I found a different path toward the Dionysian release we all need from time to time. I was deeply excited to find a group of eclectic people with whom I could share one of my most beloved forms of music. With five or six of us gathered in a dorm room, we would listen to the folk music of each of our homelands (something special about going to this school is how many nationalities can be found in the small student body). When my turn came, I would play the music of my mother’s country, Italy, where I had spent much of my childhood (either living there or visiting). Then the dancing would begin, and, as everyone spun wildly around one another until collapsing from exhaustion, I could see from the joy and intensity on my friends’ faces that, though this music was so culturally specific, so un-globalized and relatively unknown outside of Italy, something essential was being translated. The primordial ecstasy it evokes could be felt by anyone with the sensitivity necessary to really listen and really dance.
The tarantula, the drum, the bite. These are the words signaled by the names of some of southern Italy’s most ancient pieces of folk music. The Tarantella, Tammurriata, and Pizzica have carried our history from generation to generation. Many of the songs haven’t changed for hundreds of years, and are still played and danced to across the south of Italy. Understanding a people’s folk art is one of the best ways to get to the core of what they have been through, and understanding its modern day usage shows a great deal about how a people relate to their past, and what parts of it live on in a culture. In the south, myth lives side by side with reality, for better and for worse. Throughout these three genres of folk music, the mentioning of antiquated oligarchical power structures still holds in their modern usage (one will often hear the use of the terms master, servant, and sometimes slave in these songs); something which I feel keenly reflects how we still relate to power today in southern Italy. Poverty and hunger are often referred to in these songs, which is appropriate considering that the south of Italy is generally in dire straits and that this music is inherited from the peasant population. The role of agriculture comes across clearly, as these are often work songs, or refer to the earth, the sea and nature in general, reflecting the communities from which they were born. The vast diversity of themes covered by this music expresses the multifaceted and multicultural nature of the south.
The origins of this music are rooted in its being originally used as a form of trance music. In the past, women who were believed to be possessed were referred to as being bitten or “pizzicate” and that which bit them was the tarantula, a small spider usually hidden in the dirt, or beneath the wheat. The esoteric significance of the tarantula can be disputed, but the moral ambiguity surrounding it all is telling of the unquestionable Dionysian nature of this ritual. The way the exorcism would play out was that a woman who had been acting “hysterically” was diagnosed as having been pizzicata and musicians were called in to help relieve her of the bite’s effects through their music. They would usually play music with a repetitive beat; the drumming and the quick, continuous violin playing were a central part to the songs. This drum is called a tammorra which is a large tambourine, much like a rough version of a tabla used in Arabic music. Often they would sing songs dedicated to saints, especially Saint Paul, or to various incarnations of the Madonna. The bitten woman, “la tarantolata,” dressed all in white and barefoot, with her hair let down, would lay on a blanket placed on the floor. At the sound of the music she would begin to convulse and dance until she was paralyzed by exhaustion, at which point she would be cured. This process was often held outside of churches and in piazzas where the village would gather to watch as people brought their afflicted wives, sisters and daughters to be entranced. This ecstatic state granted to the afflicted women was one of the few moments of pure release they could have in many of these agricultural villages where they were often isolated and oppressed by the highly patriarchal society ruling over them. Today, when someone dancing to this music is overcome by ecstasy we say, regardless of the dancers’ gender, that la pizzicata’ a taranta’– the tarantula has bitten them. Here the musical group Encardia, from a region of the south where a Greek dialect called Griko is spoken–a remnant from its time as a Greek colony–plays a classic exorcism song, which is a call to Saint Paul. This video shows representations of what a trance would have looked like today, along with historical footage of trances.
This is the music of the oppressed, of the women, of the poor, the street urchin, the devout, and of the femminielli. Femminielli is an old Neapolitan word for trans-women. The word is a merging of the masculine and feminine into one: Femmina meaning feminine and elli being a masculine diminutive. The femminielli are an oppressed group, but a visible one nonetheless. In Naples, the working class neighborhood, called I Quartieri Spagnoli, is widely known as being home to a large transgender community of sex workers. The femminielli have a special, essentially mythical role within Naples. Dating back to ancient Neapolitan theater there have been famous femminielli characters, iconic in the identity of the city. This is a clear paradox considering the overall homophobia and transphobia that persist there today. Nonetheless, the femminielli even have a place within the religious context. The “hermaphrodite” was a sacred figure in Greco-Roman mythology–drawing from the cult of Hermaphroditus, and of Dionysus–the religious rites of which have remained greatly engrained within the southern Italian culture and have survived through a Catholic appropriation of ancient rituals (something anthropologists have studied within the contexts of various religious rituals, existent today throughout the south). This is manifested most clearly in their yearly procession to the Madonna of Montevergine, who is considered their protectress. A black Madonna, also referred to as Mamma Schiavona, meaning Mama Big Slave. This procession is an important one to Catholics in the region of Campania and is attended by all devotees including the femminielli who have a Tammurriata of their own, which is sung and danced to by everyone, being embraced by the culture of the procession at large and not just by the femminielli themselves.
A strong multicultural influence is heard in this music, which draws back to the times in which southern Italy was conquered by the Greeks, Moors, French and Spaniards. In the “deep south”, Sicily, Calabria and Puglia, these influences come across most evidently through everything, from the food to the architecture, language, music and cultural customs. The music, though, moved across the country. Flamenco guitar was hugely influential throughout the genres, and a style of singing comparable to the singing of many Muslim songs of devotion can be found in the Fronn’ e Limone genre. This is a style of singing originally used at funerals, which went on to be combined into dirges, songs of lamentation, and of devotion. The mandolin is also sometimes played in ways which are reminiscent of an Arabic song style. These Arabic elements have intentionally been accentuated by the more current generations of folk musicians. This accentuation of the multicultural elements in the folk music can be tied to a political statement meant to extend a sense of belonging to the growing number of Muslim immigrants and refugees presently in Italy. This next and final song presents many of the dynamic elements at play within this music. The video shows a young Spanish boy dancing Flamenco, a connection which, I think, makes perfect sense.