Italian Treasury : Alan Lomax Collection
Rounder CD 1816
Italian Treasury : Alan Lomax Collection
Rounder CD 1817
These two CDs have appeared, together, rather more than 2½ years after the excellent Trallaleri of Genoa (Rounder CD 1802) - the only other Ligurian offering from the Alan Lomax Collection to date. Having enjoyed that disc and having heard, from other sources, some of the polyphonic singing from the mountain villages and towns surrounding Genova - where the roots of the Trallalero style probably originated - I was greatly looking forward to hearing these present CDs.
So I was a little disappointed to find that all the music came from either the coastal city of Imperia or from the two small towns of Baiardo and Ceriana. Imperia is some 100km west of Genova, and Baiardo and Ceriana another 15km further west. This is an area known as the Ponente Riviera, and which is, culturally, strongly influenced by the southwestern part of the Piemont regione to the north and by Provençe to the west. Indeed, as Edward Neill tells us in his short introductions, the inhabitants of the mountain village of Verdeggia still speak an Occitan language. So it's fairly evident that this singing will have few, and only tenuous, links with the Genovese polyphony.
Let's start with the Baiardo and Imperia disc. It begins and ends well with a group of musicians from the Caffè Santa Barbara in Imperia, playing a waltz and a 4/4 'Tarantella Napoletana'. The instrumentation is unusual, consisting of guitar, triangle, spoons and friction drum, with a banjo lead - not what you'll find every day of the week ... almost anywhere, I would imagine. Track 2 is Non posso mai aver un'ore di riposo (I can't get an hour of rest), very well sung by Guiseppe Maccario and a chorus of ten men in Baiardo, in much the same style as that used in Ceriana (see below). This is followed by Povero merlo mio (My Poor Blackbird), a children's cumulative song, sung by six women, who also give us Elisa Trabacini at track 17. Both are spirited, tuneful and most enjoyable. The same group as on track 2 return with an equally delightful La cena della sposa (The Bride's Banquet), but things deteriorate rapidly thereafter. Many of the succeeding 15 tracks might be termed 'worthy but unremarkable' without too much injustice. It does seem as if Lomax's almost magical ability to find the best singers and elicit from them their very best performances eluded him in Baiardo. Even the performance of part of A Barca, a long festive ballad cycle performed on Pentecost Sunday, sound strangely muted here ... being five months out-of-season can't have helped, I suppose.
This is a great pity, because it's clear that there was some fine and unusual material available at the time, and because Lomax was able to work wonders elsewhere in his Italian journeyings. I wonder if the fact that his co-worker, Diego Carpitella, had returned briefly to Rome at this point, may have had anything to do with it?
The Polyphony of Ceriana disc is rather different. All 15 songs here are performed by one group of singers, the Compagnia Sacco, who were a regular grouping of singers who had sung together since their formation in 1926. The name Sacco refers to the sacks which agricultural workers in the area used for carrying their midday meals - appropriate, since they began singing together informally during such work, and later formed a formal group (which survives to this day and has recorded several times; indeed, the Discography in the booklet seems to indicate that they have three CDs available on the Amori label).
It should be stressed that the Compagnia Sacco appears to be a secular organisation (though they have several religious pieces), and not anything like the religious lay confraternities which exist widely throughout Italy, and provide the music associated with so many religious rites. I say 'appears' because I have now given you pretty well all the information provided in the booklet about the singers, apart from the names of the three of four members mentioned in the notes to each track. These typically run 'Performed members of the Compagnia Sacco including ... 3 or 4 names'. Call me old fashioned, but I would have expected rather more information about performers who are considered important enough to have been allocated a complete 60-minute CD to themselves! Surprisingly, we are not even told what, if any, social function the compagnia's music fulfills within the community.
It must, by now, be apparent to both the Lomax Archive and Rounder Records that these CDs sell only to a small audience of generally informed and interested enthusiasts - the sort of people who would like to know a little more about what they're listening to than your average folk fan. In other instances, all the information that's available is contained in Alan Lomax's field notebooks - but here, the group of singers is still in existence. To judge from the list of names of the current eleven members, some of them are the sons of the singers Lomax recorded in October 1954. Dr Goffredo Plastino is a musicologist, Mauro Balma is at the Conservatory of Music in Genova - why didn't they ask the present members some pertinent questions?
The singing style used by the Compagnia Sacco is fairly uniform - most songs start with a low-pitched tenor voice, joined after a few phrases by a second, high, tenor in harmony and a number of basses singing what may be termed a drone. This drone sometimes follows the words of the song, or some of them, at other times it's just an appropriate vowel sound. Occasionally, the harmonics of the three parts combine to produce a chimeral fourth high voice, akin to the quintina so beloved of the cantu a tenores groups of Sardinia. On two songs, a guitar provides accompaniment. On another two (or the beginning and end of the same song, in different keys, on separate tracks), the compagnia is joined, or rather, led, by two women singers. The song notes begin: 'In this performance two women from Ceriana join in singing with the men, an unusual occurrence in Ceriana polyphonic singing.' As this is on tracks 2 and 3 of the CD, and since both the women and the compagnia seem pretty unsure of both the song and each other, it seems an inexplicable choice for the start of the record. But, as so often with these Lomax CDs, both the women's presence and the choice of running order remain a mystery.
Lomax spent one day and part of another in this area of Liguria before moving east to Genova, where he recorded the fabulous trallaleri, mentioned above. We are told that he made 26 recordings during this short stay; presumably all from the Compagnia Sacco. One must assume that eleven of these recordings were not of sufficient quality to warrant inclusion, since almost 15 minutes of the present CD's duration remains unused. This may sound like a harsh judgement, but I feel it's warranted because a number of those that were included are, in my judgement, decidedly questionable. The inclusion of ' * Previously unreleased' against all but one of the track titles can, in some cases, be seen as a warning rather than an indication of hitherto unknown delights.
The only song which has seen a previous release (in part, at least) is the glorious Donna Lombarda, a ballad well-known throughout Italy, and superbly sung here as track 5. Grouped around it are three more excellent performances: Lauda da Madona da Vila; La fontanella; and Lenga serpentina. I fear the rest of the CD does not live up to the standard set by these four tracks.
Rod Stradling - 19.3.02
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