Italy is home to many distinct styles of folk music, and much of it can be traced back to the country’s formerly large peasant class. The music of the north was strongly influenced by its European neighbors, while the music of the south reflects Mediterranean cultures. Though instruments like the mandolin can be found throughout Italy, much dialect and cultural diversity remains in the peninsula that did not unite until the 19th century.
“The North is European Italy,” says Ethnomusicologist and Musician Roberto Catalano, a native of Catania, Sicily. “As you travel around the Alpine arch you can find different sounds.” Generally, choirs play an important role and there are strong French, Swiss, German, and Slavic influences. “For example, in San Giorgio di Resia, close to the Slovenian border, there is a strong tradition of a percussive dance called retzianika,” he says. “Dancers wear big clogs and dance on boards, accompanied by violin and cello.”
Moving south, in the regions of Emilia and Tuscany, you still find a lot of choirs, along with guitars and brass bands. Then, further south, in the regions of Marche and Umbria, sounds and rhythms begin to change rapidly. “We have bagpipes called zampogna and frame drums played with the hands,” says Catalano. “Music repeats the same patterns—it’s melodic and rhythmic.”
In Lazio (including Rome) and Abruzzo these instruments accompany the saltarello dance. Saltarello means “little hop” or “little jump.”
Moving southward to Calabria and Puglia, choirs sound distinct. “The sense of harmony and color of the voices is different,” says Catalano. “To listeners it may sound like they are singing out of synch, or even out of tune. This gives the singing an edge.”
According to Catalano, Puglia is an important place for musical development in Southern Italy. “The most important folk dance in Italy is the tarantella,” he says. “A type of tarantella dance known as pizzica, is the most popular here.” Danced to the point of exhaustion, the dance evolved from a healing ritual in peasant culture that was meant to cure the dancer of the bite of a real or alleged tarantula. Today, in its contemporary version, it has come to symbolize sweating life’s poisons from the body and it is danced throughout the country
“The pizzica is something that comes out of tragedy and is something people would do with great grief,” says Catalano. “The movements and steps were taken by others and made into a dance, which has no definite steps and a pounding rhythm that resembles a heart beat.” Traditional ac-companying instruments are violin, frame drum, accordion (or harmonica), and guitar. “This was the famous quartet that the family of the victim would call, instead of the doctor,” he explains.
“Naples and the region of Campania is also an important place for music in Italy,” asserts Catalano. “In that one region, you find styles and nuances that are as numerous as the people who play them.”
Calabria is home to as many as 30 traditional musical instruments, including the chitarra battente, a four- or five-string guitar, and a three-stringed, bowed fiddle called a lira.
Sicily is also home to many unique instruments, some borrowed from the many cultures that occupied it throughout history. For example, the friscalettu is a whistle made of cane with seven holes on top and one or two on the bottom, which can play a complete scale. The bummulu is a vessel whistle in the form of a terra cotta water container. During the 1970s the jaw’s harp (scacciapensieri or worry chaser) became a stereotype for Sicilian music, when it was added to the sound tracks of many mafia movies.
Somewhat isolated from the mainland, Sardinia is a world on its own, according to Catalano. “It is one of the most interesting places in the Mediterranean and has a strong cultural identity,” he says.
“In Sardinia they sing in perfect harmony,” says Catalano. In cantu a tenores, four male singers are disposed like a cross. The main voice gives the cantu and the other three answer in vocals that, at times, remind listeners of the sound of bleeting sheep.
Sardinia is home to two types of reed clarinet. The launeddas, with two melodic pipes and one drone, is the sound of Sardinia. “It sounds like a bagpipe, with the bag being the person who plays it, using a circular breathing technique that’s difficult to master,” says Catalano. The other clarinet, the bena, is a much simpler instrument of one to three pipes. Percussion on the island, once populated by many shepherds, includes sheep bells and friction drums.
Catalano is a strong proponent of Italian folk music. In 1994, he began the L.A.-based Italian traditional music group Musicàntica with Enzo Fina, an artist and musician originally from Lecce, Puglia. In addition to performing, the group hosts traditional in-strument making and dance workshops.
“We feel pleasure in playing this music,” explains Catalano, “but there is also the need to establish cultural identity. We don’t want to look at the peasant culture as if it were a beautiful statue to be unveiled, we want to make it live again.”
To get a sampling of traditional Italian music listen to Musicàntica’s CD, Auccalamma, available through the website www.musicantica.org.