La Musica Calabrese – Calabrian Folk Music

chitarra battenteOne of my favorite parts about living here is that you never know when you’ll be caught up in an impromptu concerto. Seriously.

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.

32 Beans of Wisdom to “La Musica Calabrese – Calabrian Folk Music”
  1. witnessing am i

    Oh Sognatrice, I believe, I believe. This is lovely. Thank you for the musical recommendation. I think there is a lot in common between Calabria and Sicilian folk music.

    One of my favorite memories of Italy when I was there over ten years ago was such an impromptu concerto in the streets of Rome. Still makes me smile.

  2. qualcosa di bello

    i had so much fun on marasa` s website that i almost forgot to come back here! i very much enjoyed my stay with their music & i am especially fond of the bagpipes. oh, to hear it live must be a real treat!

  3. Linda

    How encouraging to see young people enthusiastic to keep their culture alive. Other parts of the world could sure learn from this.

    Congrats on winning the contest at 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree.

  4. Shameless

    Wonderful, Sognatrice. What a treat! Happy New Year to you and yours. 🙂 I look forward to reading more of your blog in 2008.

  5. Wanderlust Scarlett


    I love this. The music and your words and passion for them both are such a treat.

    Thank you!

    Scarlett & Viaggiatore

  6. tongue in cheek

    oh a touch of Italian music and a glass of red wine. Take me away calgon I mean calabrese!

  7. sognatrice

    *David, yes, Calabrian and Sicilian folk music are very closely related! And I’m so happy you got to experience an impromptu concerto. They’re just the best 🙂

    *Qualcosa, glad you enjoyed (and found your way back here) 😉 The bagpipes are certainly moving in person if you’re into them. You can almost hear them crying.

    *Linda, I agree, and thanks!

    *Shameless, thank you and best wishes to you as well 🙂

    *Scarlett, you know I *know* that this type of music isn’t for everyone, but I just can’t help expressing how it makes me feel. Which is so warm and happy 🙂

    *Corey, you bring up an excellent point about the wine….

  8. nyc/caribbean ragazza

    I love it when people can express themselves passionately without being embarassed.

    Sometimes I forget when I’m in the car not to sing too loud. People will stare at you like you’re crazy even if you are singing in tune. 🙂

  9. saraarts

    Hey, neat! Thank you for sharing that. 🙂

    Mention of the tarantella brings back memories of the first time I heard the word defined. I was cleaning my house on a sunny day listening to live orchestral music being broadcast on the radio from a local festival, and the definition I heard was part of the commentary preceding John Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1: Of Rage and Remembrance, which I’d never heard before and which was such a powerful piece it made me stop what I was doing, sit down, and sob. This was about fifteen years or more ago, right around the time I first began to not just understand but really feel abstract art and modern music. It was like some obscure “on” switch had been thrown in my head.

    Look what you made me think of. 🙂

  10. Mama Zen

    Sounds so lovely!

  11. Eryn

    i loved learning about the calabrese folk music. there’s something about music that’s hundreds and even thousands of years old that’s so pure and raw.

    enjoyed the video clip!

  12. Geggie

    Lovely! I’m so happy to see traditions being passed down. What a fun NYE you had!

    I’m having a little contest at my blog, stop by for a visit and play, will you?

  13. A Novelist

    HAPPY NEW YEAR! I hope you had a lovely holiday and I hope 2008 will be the best year yet for you and your family. 🙂

  14. Geggie

    Ok…you were first to help me with my “sticky post”. So, I have some goodies for you.

    Drop me a line so I can get your address??

    geg5150 at gmail dot com

  15. Cherrye

    We had an impromptu concert at OUR NYE party, too…only, it wasnt as good!!

    I am planning to post about it, if I get the nerve! 🙂

  16. Expat Traveler

    very cool! Definitely reminds me of Italy. And no I don’t mind you adding me to your flickr list. thanks for the input!

  17. Debbie Egizio

    My father always said that the Italians are the greatest musicians. Then he also said that they are the greatest chefs, artists, architechts and designers!! Do you think he’s a little biased?

    Anyway, we always had Italian music playing in our house growing up. We still listen to one titled “Calabria mia”!

    Well, I have to thank you for signing up for my giveaway and for your sweet, sweet comments about my blog. You are too kind!! Thank you for making the blogosphere a more meaningful and lovely place to visit.

  18. Taffiny

    I really enjoyed that. It was not at all what I had expected. Later I will have to go hear more.

    I am however still a little confused on the spider venom women dance thing. ???

  19. rochambeau

    Like your musical taste! I’m on board with it all!!
    Stopped by to wish you a very happy New Year! So glad we met!
    How is your puppy?
    Sending a hug.

  20. anno

    oh beautiful…

  21. Maryann

    Beautiful post! I can hear the music playing in the background 🙂

  22. The Freelance Cynic

    Hey. long time no see. Glad to see you’re writing as brilliantly as ever 🙂

  23. Jen of A2eatwrite

    This brings me back to life in Southern Russia during the Communist era. There weren’t many *things* but there was always music. A great form of free, spontaneous entertainment. Wonderful clip!

  24. Pasticcera

    Lovely clip capturing the flavor of your friends and life. Music is a great glue…

  25. sognatrice

    *NYC, sing sing sing away!!!!

    *Sara, wow, all that from a little spider dance. I’m so honored! Thanks for the link too 🙂

    *Mama Zen, glad you enjoyed!

    *Eryn, so true. Glad you liked it!

    *Geggie, definitely fun, and what a fun contest you have going!

    *Novelist, thank you much and same to you 🙂

    *Cherrye, can’t wait to read it, or at least hear about it 😉

    *Expat T, thanks for stopping by!

    *Debbie, thank *you* for sharing your lovely creations; it’s always such a pleasure visiting you 🙂

    *Taffiny, yeah well the Tarantella confuses a lot of us. I hope you read the Wikipedia link–good stuff!

    *Constance, thanks and same to you! The last puppy has been adopted out and I’m left with my two mutts Luna and Stella. We couldn’t be happier together 😉

    *Anno & Mary Ann, glad you enjoyed!

    *Cynic, hello and thanks! I’ve been reading you through Bloglines so I feel like I just saw you 😉

    *Jen, music is such a constant, isn’t it? Glad you liked it!

  26. sognatrice

    *Pasticcera, so true so true!

  27. Leanne

    Ciao Sognatrice,
    I am all for a bit of the Calabrese folk music…and all the history and passion that comes with it. In my bf town they have this traditional ‘band’ of sorts who come around on special occasions and there are all these songs and dancing you need to do to let them into your house. It is not so simple as opening the door, they have to chant and we have to hide behind the door and chant back and this goes on for a while until the door is opened and the party begins!
    For the life of me I cannot recall the name of this ‘band’ and the ‘ceremony’ they do!

    Leanne, there’s something similar here although no chanting that I’m aware of. We are supposed to let them sing outside for a few songs before letting them in and giving them some wine though 😉

  28. Patricia


    Im getting married in May and I trying to find professional folk Calabrese dancers to perform at my wedding. I live in the tri state area, can anyone point me in a direction?

    Sounds like a great idea and lots of fun…wish I could help!

  29. Bryan Smith

    Please help me identify a song! I recorded this off the radio years ago. I love this song. Someone told me it is probably from Calabria. If you recognize the artist. Or just a fragment of a lyric that might indicate the title. The singing starts at 1:17. Any help is appreciated. Did I mention I love this song.

    Thank you!

    michelle Reply:

    Hi Bryan, I’m sorry I’ve never heard it, and to be honest, it doesn’t sound particularly calabrese to me…for one, the lyrics are in Italian 🙂

  1. [...] 17. Pick up the flute again. And then I could join a Calabrese band! [...]...
  2. [...] Kicking things off is a new CD by my friend Mimmo’s band, Marasà. You may remember Mimmo from our...



Homemade apple butter
Green beans, potatoes, and pancetta
Glazed Apple Oatmeal Cinnamon Muffins
Pasta with snails alla calabrese
Onion, Oregano, and Thyme Focaccia
Oatmeal Banana Craisin Muffins
Prosciutto wrapped watermelon with bel paese cheese
Fried eggs with red onion and cheese
Calabrian sausage and fava beans
Ricotta Pound Cake