Bleu de Zena - Trallalero, Polyphonie Génoies
Buda - Musique du Monde 92728-2
Aside from the mandolin music of Napoli, it seems to be the Genovese Trallalero tradition which most comes to mind (among the people I know), when Italian music is mentioned. This is particularly astonishing when one realises that most people have only ever heard one song by one group - the truly incredible La Partenza sung by an unnamed 'group of longshoremen from Genoa', recorded by Diego Carpitella and Alan Lomax in 1954. (The song is one long piece, with no separate verses, so a short sound clip from the beginning will have to suffice for those of you who've not heard it before). This single recording appeared on the Columbia World Series LPs (and now on the Lomax Sampler and soon-to-be-released Rounder Italian Treasury series) and was featured in a radio program Bert Lloyd made in the early 1970s(?). Nonetheless, the aural experience is so extraordinary that no one who heard it seems ever to have forgotten it.
The trallalero tradition is unique in that the usual line-up of tenor, baritone and bass voices is augmented (as you will have just heard) by a male contralto and a man imitating a guitar! It is also unusual in that comprises a traditional repertoire of only around sixty songs, and that it flourished in just one area of one fairly small city, Genova, in Italy's smallest regione, Liguria. The history of the genre is interesting.
Liguria is an odd place, composed almost entirely of the southern side of a range of mountains. The Appennines , the 'backbone of Italy', swing to the west where they meet the continental landmass and join up with the Maritime Alps, forming the northern coastline of the Ligurian Sea. Their feet are in the water except for a few places where, presumably, glacial erosion has created a narrow strip of coastal land. The east-to-west centre-line of the Ligurian Appennines forms the border between Liguria and the neighbouring regione of Piemonte to the north. In the few places where the coastal plain is wide enough there are towns, and Genova, right in the middle, is the largest and most important. The mountain valleys to the north are scattered with small towns and villages - and it is here that the beginnings of the trallalero can be found.
Group harmony singing can be found all over the world and the Ligurian mountain villages are no exception - but the normal form was for a 'first' and 'second' voice (often a tenor and a baritone) to carry the song over a bass accompaniment or drone. In a few areas, a vocal 'guitar' part was added to the accompaniment. A broad repertoire of such songs developed over a long period. Liguria is a poor area for most sorts of agriculture and many villages operated at near subsistence levels whenever the circumstances were less than perfect. Having a city like Genova (Zena), rich from trade and commerce from the 11th century through to fairly recent times, acted as a magnet, as all powerful cities do, to the more adventuresome dwellers in the hinterland, and such people flocked to Zena in search of fame and fortune ... bringing their songs with them. For reasons which it would be impossible to fully explain, the polyphonic singing style of the mountain villages found a particular place among the gangs of longshoremen, stevedores and those working in the various metal-working trades which supported the industry of the port.
The practice of singing in trallalero bands probably reached its height in the early years of this century, when the bars of Zena's waterfront played host to informal singing on a very regular basis, and formal competitions between the various bands were great social occasions. In the 1920s and '30s it is said that there were over a hundred bands of trallaleri (each from distinct professions as diverse as the bakers and the male nurses) all active in these competitions. Inevitably, by the 1950s such activity had dwindled considerably - not only for the reasons which led to the decline of traditional music throughout the developed world, but also because of the peculiar difficulties in presenting and maintaining the trallalero tradition.
The magic number for trallalero is said to be nine - that is: tenor, contralto, baritone, chitarra ('vocal guitar') and five basses. Many groups were much bigger. Each also required a conductor / leader / music arranger / organiser to keep such a show on the road and up to competition standard. Similarly, regular practices were needed both to maintain standards and train up new singers. It's hardly surprising that trallalero suffered badly in the black years of the mid-20th century - but enough of it struggled on to provide the renaissance of the 1960s with a repertoire and a stylistic model.
I don't know how many bands of trallaleri sing regularly today - I've only come across about five personally - but should be obvious from the foregoing that to do so even semi-professionally will require that the gigs are very well-paid ....... and that implies that the music and performance style must have an appeal across a far wider spectrum of listener than is the case with most traditional musics. And so we come to La Squadra - of whom this is obviously true. I've only ever seen them advertised as appearing in the huge municipally funded European concerts and festivals of which Lorient is the epitome.
They are a nine-piece group with the classic line-up as above. In a situation like this it's not really appropriate to describe the singers as either traditional or revival, but a new (and, at 36, the youngest) member is Stefano Valla (chitarra) whose name will be familiar as a piffero player with numerous other North Italian and European bands. He also used to sing with another professional trallalero group, La Squadra di canto popolare de la Valpolcevera. The rest of the group is older, and thus, perhaps, closer to the tradition - most are in their sixties, and one of the bassi, Giovanni 'Nani' Noceti, is 73.
I first heard them on an earlier record, 'Compagnia di Trallalero' (Buda 92514-2), released I think in the early '90s, and was impressed by a whole CD of a music of which I had previously heard only the one example on record. However, enthusiasm did not blind me to the fact that they didn't have the sheer edge and raw excitement of that Carpitella/Lomax recording. Nor, to be honest, were they as enjoyable as another group I'd heard live in Genova a year earlier, who just sing the songs for the hell of it, without a thought for paid gigs - and who feature a female contralto! La Squadra of that period were an 11-piece band with a different tenor, baritone and chitarra, and it would seem that the intervening years have seen a move to get the very best singers of the genre into the most compact touring line-up.
One result has been that the singing is now exceedingly tight and features the best voices that can be found - emphasised on the present CD by employing multi-track recording to enhance tone colour and presence. There are some moments of the most wonderful voice-noise I've ever heard.
Another result is that - these moments aside - the record is terribly dull, even boring at times. That edge, verve, joy, passion, call it what you will, has been utterly lost in the search for perfection. You know for an absolute certainty that everyone concerned, from the capo to the recording engineers, is concentrating on getting the best possible sound. The song: what it means; what emotions it expresses; how the singers feel about it - is completely forgotten. No communication is taking place! And what is the point of singing to someone else, if not that?
I'll leave you with a sound clip of La Squadra singing the same first part of La Partenza - make up your own mind.
Rod Stradling - 21.5.99
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