Now I’m sure some of you are thinking “Ah there goes another one of those stereotypes of ‘la dolce vita’ that simply doesn’t exist in real life Italy.”
Well I’m here to tell you that in small town Calabria, most males of all ages seem to play the guitar and will gladly break it out and start singing — especially the later into the evening it gets (and the more grappa that is flowing). And for those of you reading this who have visited here, chances are you can back me up on this.
In other words, we may miss out on a lot of “conveniences” down here, but at least we have la musica.
In fact the other night at New Year’s Eve dinner, one of the younger boys who is just learning to play the chitarra battente (pictured at left) asked for some advice from Mimmo, our host and lead singer/guitar player of Marasà, a local band that performs traditional Calabrese music with a bit of an updated twist.
I just love how generation after generation picks up these songs and instruments with pride, keeping the tradition going, not feeling embarrassed or shy in the least as they sing along (loudly) when the guitar shows up.
For anyone who thinks that Calabrese music and Calabrese in general is dying out, here’s a short clip of Mimmo encouraging yet another Calabrese boy on how to play the traditional way:
Although Italian musical heritage goes back centuries, including the famous chants of the Gregorian monks, Calabrian music has its own unique tradition and is rooted in songs about peasant life in the feudal system and all it entails–sung in Calabrese accompanied by Calabrian instruments.
It is music of the people, by the people, for the people, so to speak, and tells stories of both hope and hopelessness–common conflicting emotions for many Calabresi throughout the centuries.
Traditional Calabrian folk music has some common elements: high, strong vocals, a catchy, nearly hypnotic rhythm, and a bittersweet raw passion with any combination of tambourine, guitar, chitarra battente, accordion, zampogna (bagpipes), lira, mandolin, drums and more. The song rhythm you’ll hear often is the tarantella, a traditional southern Italian folk dance that was performed by female victims of spider bites to rid themselves of the venom.
There’s a great description of Calabrian music heritage here if you’re interested, but I think George Gissing sums it up pretty well in his 1901 travel memoir:
Listen to a Calabrian peasant singing as he follows his oxen along the furrow,
or as he shakes the branches of his olive tree.
That wailing voice amid the ancient silence,
that long lament solacing ill-rewarded toil,
comes from the heart of Italy herself,
and wakes the memory of mankind.
~ George Gissing
By the Ionian Sea: Notes of a Ramble in Southern Italy
For me, there’s just nothing like that distinct Calabrese cry accompanied by the chitarra battente to take me back to when my ancestors walked these same streets, living much simpler yet much harder lives, imagining what they could offer their families if only they could get to l’America.
Goodness I wish I could go back and tell them.
You can hear more of Marasà here by clicking on “il disco” and then choosing songs. My favorites are Aquila bella, Canto ad aria, and Facci di n’ammendula and if you like bagpipes, be sure to check out A Nuziata.
If you’d like to order a Marasà CD of your very own, you know where to find me.