The first three CDs of the Alan Lomax Collection ‘Italian Treasury’ series are with us at last - this Sampler, and the Calabria and Trallaleri of Genoa volumes. If Rounder keep to their published schedule, a further two - Sicily and Emilia-Romagna - should appear next May. As far as I am aware, only three collections of Lomax’s Italian recordings were ever published - two in Columbia’s World Library series and Music and Song of Italy on the Tradition label - and it is this latter which is reissued here as the Sampler. As this selection was made back in 1958, it is unlikely to be a reflection of Rounder's current release plans - so why label it as if it is?
Since a number of their current releases seem to be only re-releases of LPs, one can't be too sure. Certainly, the reality has not always lived up to the publicity surrounding the launch of the 'Collection' two years ago, and a number of 74 minute Lomax CDs (both from the Collection and the Library of Congress 'Archive of Folk Culture' series) containing only around 45 minutes of music, cut-down versions of songs and the original 40 year old sleevenotes is not what I was expecting. The Sampler is 59 minutes long and the Calabria volume a very respectable 71 minutes, but the Trallalero disc only manages 38 minutes - and doesn't even contain the track from the sampler!
A Series Sampler, to my way of thinking, might be expected to contain examples of recordings to be found in the Series, thus acting as a preview of what's going to be on offer, and also as a possible purchase for those insufficiently interested in, or unable to afford, the whole series. It is a little unnerving to discover that Rounder frequently put tracks on their Lomax Samplers which are not in the series. Thus, the Calabrian track from the Collection Sampler is not on the Calabrian disc and nor are four of those from this Treasury Sampler. I've since learned that several other of these tracks - those not recorded by Lomax - will not be on the Treasury volumes, either.
It certainly contains a great deal of wonderful music - but I wonder if it is a very representative selection of all that was recorded. Of the 22 tracks, 6 are from Calabria, 2 from Sicily, 3 from Campagnia, 2 from Sardinia and only one each from Basilicata, Apulia, Abruzzo, Lazio, Tuscany, Friuli, Emilia-Romagna, Piemonte and Liguria. "Many hundreds of hours" of tapes resulted from Lomax and Diego Carpitella's six month field trip in 1953, but I have seen no clear indication of how much of this material Rounder intends to publish on CD as part of the Italian Treasury.
How representative of the eventual series is a 1958 LP likely to be? Was its selection based upon the fact that the two Columbia LPs had come out the previous year? It certainly seems odd that the north/south divide should be so unevenly represented, with only 5 of the 22 tracks coming from northern Regions. We are left with only speculation, since the booklet gives us no information on these subjects.
Mercifully, the booklet notes spend far less time than has become common in telling us what a wonderful chap Alan Lomax is, but make up for it by saying similar things about Diego Carpitella instead. Both men are undoubtedly worthy of all the praise they get - but what about the performers? It will come as no great surprise, to those who have seen some other volumes in the series, to hear that they get nothing. I though that this record might be different because there is actually a whole paragraph about the performers of the first track - 'a group of artisans, led by a cobbler, performing in typical urbanized Sicilian folk revival style'. It goes on to say, rather disparagingly, that they display influences from Neapolitan popular song, in contrast to the authentic artisan and rural styles to be heard later. But when we get to the tracks from the performers of these 'authentic styles' we are told nothing about them - often, not even their names! I've subsequently learned that Alan Lomax had the notes for much of the trip stolen from his car, and so wasn't able to include such information. A shame this was not mentioned in the booklet, then.
Actually, this first track is a rather jolly affair and sounds, to me, much closer to the tradition than any British 'urbanized folk revival style' groups I remember from the 1950s. The second song, though, really does take us far from any revival - a Sicilian sulfur miner sings a passionate and arhythmic serenata, accompanied by a jews harp (scacciapensieri). Astonishingly, the combination works brilliantly. (sound clip).
The next six tracks are from Calabria and are not what I'd call easily accessible to the newcomer. For the most part the music is of the tarantella/saltarello type, being made up of short phrases endlessly repeated to a fairly rigid rhythm with minute melodic variations each repeat. This description may sound pejorative, but it's not - this was never intended to be 'music for listening to in your comfy armchair in Stroud'. There's a good variety of material - a shanty from the tuna fleet, some sung dance music, a tarantella on zampogna a paru, another serenata and a Calabrian/Albanian Christmas song. The songs are mostly by small groups - who sing in 'forced' voices, high, harsh and loud - particularly the one from the amazing Pingitore family, whose track on the series Sampler I liked so much. I generally love this style, but here I find it just a little too alien and challenging - for the moment, anyway.
Moving up-country into Apulia we encounter the first of a couple of Stornelli. These are the loosely improvised, competitive songs which have a presence throughout Italy and the islands; two or more singers, usually with accompaniment, improvise lines, couplets or even entire verses - to be bettered or replied to by the other singer(s). Perhaps because of the competitive element, these songs are always exciting, passionate, and often teeter on the brink between success and failure, producing that frisson which guarantees wonderful music. The one on track 10, by a couple of farm labourers, is lively and full of fun, and is basically a praise-song to a lovely girl. (sound clip). The remainder of the southern tracks include a ninna nanna (lullaby) from Campagnia which would awaken and terrify any child I've ever encountered, an olive pressing song, another example of an 'urbanized folk revival style group' from Abruzzo and two tunes - a tammurriata from Campagnia and a saltarello from Lazio, played on ciaramelle, a type of double oboe with air bag.
Finally making it into the north, we have the second stornello on the disc, from Tuscany. While still romantic at heart, this one is more ironic and allusive, and is just brilliantly sung by 'Calamita' and 'Gucci', each of whom come up with an entire verse and refrain before handing the song over to the other. As each section lasts for over a minute and a half, this example can only be a part of one singer's contribution (sound clip). The music of the north of Italy is European, rather than the Mediterranean of the south, and seems to me more familiar, approachable and varied. We hear a song from the Slavic areas of Friuli in the northeast with fiddle and cello accompaniment, a big chorus from the rice fields of the eastern Padana plain in Emilia-Romagna and a charming song from Piemonte with brass band accompaniment. From Liguria, almost inevitably, comes a trallalero piece; this one is to the tune of La Partenza (heard on the series Sampler), but with different words.
The CD ends with two tracks from Sardinia, again inevitably, a piece of cantu a tenores dance-song - though we're not told which sort. The other is most unusual, for me at least, because it seems to be a piece of the launeddas triple-pipe repertoire, played on flute and guitar. It loses something of the flowing quality inherent in the circular breathing employed by launeddas players, but is very effective nonetheless. (sound clip).
So - a slightly strange record and not, it would seem, an accurate sampler of what the Italian Treasury will eventually turn out to be. But it does contain lots of wonderful singing and playing, much of which will be unfamiliar to most listeners. I would recommend it to everyone, despite the fact that it doesn't 'do what it says on the tin'.
Rod Stradling - 20.6.99
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