Friday, February 26, 2016
The Sounds of Music
August is an indelible time in Calitri, as it most certainly is throughout Italy. It marks the beginning of bountiful harvests, and especially in the evenings when the day has cooled, it’s a time of celebration. At times like these, people appear on the streets and towns comes alive long into the night. There are many types of activities, some frankly bordering on a total lack of activity, as for instance, as people relax outside a cafe or simply stand on the sidewalk or in the roadways themselves, to converse with friends, relatives and even relative newcomers like ourselves. We could never be quite sure who we might meet or what we may come upon next, which only adds to the fascination.
In the States, with its general lack of town square gathering places, the closest I can come to a similar cultural gathering place is the front porch. This unassigned part of the American home, that so helped define America, belonged to everyone and yet no one in particular. Unfortunately, it appeared long after de Tocqueville had a chance to include it in his characterization of the fabric of American idealism. That form of charming civility, however, is a rare find these days, having been eroded by the advent of mobility, social forces and security worries far too subtle to have anticipated when porches first made their architectural debut and gained popularity in the 19th century. The advent of air conditioning and America’s fascination with the automobile may have played a role in the eventual disappearance of this iconic gathering place. While air conditioning got Americans inside, off their porches, the automobile made it possible to get away from home entirely. Imagine if you can an alien race in some distant, far-off corner of the sky observing our every movement here on earth. From their remote vantage point they could be easily convinced that the objects seen moving around in mass numbers, our cars, many entering and exiting structures, our garages, were the true inhabitants of our planet, while the much smaller objects occasionally seen moving about, we humans, were simply an infestation of sorts, mere insects. Alien musings aside, rural Italy nevertheless remains untouched by such complex forces of modernity. Even a garage in Calitri is a rarity. While it still remains that way, the outdoor living room charm of the town square promenade and its entertainments in the natural cool of an evening can still be enjoyed.
It is an emphasis on music, grounded in tradition, that is so evident, especially here, this time of year. Though Calitri's population is rather small, there is clearly an intense musical heritage about the town. I recall one evening when we attended a sort of music recital in the basement of San Canio Church where people from experienced adults to rookie beginners showcased their talents on a wide variety of instruments ranging from the unwieldy tuba to diminutive piccolo. Per capita, I can only imagine the large number of families with members involved in playing an instrument. This may have something to do with the status attached to being a member of the Calitri Town Band. For young and old alike, it appears to be an attractive form of social interaction in existence long before the advent of Facebook and the ubiquitous "tweet".
The town band in their tailored blue uniforms with flashy brass buttons, red cuffs and matching epaulettes performs concerts, and by my count has a jazz element, marches in parades and at times accompanies the Madonna on her religious processions through the Borgo. One summer evening, in response to fliers posted about town, we drove to neighboring Bisaccia, along with friends, to attend one such presentation.
The audience arrayed itself all around the bandstand. In anticipation, every space had been taken. Many sat in formal rows of white plastic lawn chairs, but the town had miscalculated the draw. Some stood or leaned against trees and filled storefronts, while others like ourselves enjoyed an elevated vantage point from the stone stairs of a nearby church. The evening was made for the event. A clear inky sky dappled with stars, a rising moon, and the pleasant temperature combined to promote a convivial mood. Needless to say, the atmosphere was charged in electric anticipation by the time the conductor flicked his baton to begin.
More than a regular concert on a late-summer moonlit evening, however, this performance offered an operatic interlude. Beyond simply playing excerpts from well-recognized classic works from Tosca, La Bohème or Rigoletto, though by no means simple feats in and of themselves, their Puccini and Verdi repertoire accompanied an operatic troupe. The ensemble consisted of five singers, three women and two males. They were dressed all in black with an occasional overlong white scarf or loopy boa for a distinctive added flair. Their collective vocal registers spanned a range that included subtle operatic distinctions I am still incapable of naming or adequately discerning. Needless to say, there were deep basses and at times high soaring crescendos of the kind that could easily threaten stemware.
But through it all there was one particular stand-out moment. It was during the performance of Nessun Dorma, an aria from the final act of Giacomo Puccini's opera, Turandot. The name of this opera is not commonly overheard in today’s households. Unfortunately, it has been relegated to the trash-heap of obscurity, at times resurfacing if need be, in an occasional trivia contest. Just about everyone, however, is familiar with its vocal centerpiece. It was made popular in the 1990s by none other than Il Maestro himself, tenor Luciano Pavarotti. Everyone waits for love-struck Calaf to utter its first words, “nessun dorma” (no one sleeps) only to hear him repeat them once more. It is so well recognized by these lyrics and opening notes that at this point in the performance I was sure no one could sleep. Its finish also held an added twist that sent a shiver, at least through me, when the orchestra’s brass section stood, the blare of their horns adding dramatically to its rousing conclusion. Talk above a climatic crescendo. It was a week later that they performed the same concert once again, this time in Calitri. There under the lights on a temporary stage erected in the Post Office town square, it showcased a different tenor. I’d already been spoiled by then and knew the Nessun Dorma I liked best - the first tenor got my vote.
Not all the sounds of music in Calitri are planned and scripted with sheet music at the fore. Many an impromptu, unrehearsed flair-up occurs. As an example, there was the time we were sitting on the patio outside the home of our friends, Gerry and Bernie, when down the stairs and around the corner a young man appeared with a guitar slung across his back. For us it was a "trick or treat" moment for this minstrel wasn't getting by unless he'd afford us a tune. This he did with the flip of his instrument to the ready and his rendition of Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind. How quickly he’d picked up on our use of the King’s English! Luckily he obliged us with this "treat" for we had no "trick" to come back with in reserve. Later, we came upon this same troubadour in the borgo, near our home. Drawn by his music, a crowd had gathered around him as he preformed his one man concert. He paused only momentarily, offering a simple wink and nod in recognition of our presence, and then he continued, completely skipping his Bob Dylan English impersonation, preferring instead to croon entirely in his native Italian.
There is also the tradition of a groom crooning to his bride-to-be a night or so before the big event. Many a night, with our balcony doors open to the night air, we’ve fallen asleep to such romantic crooners - hopefully their betrothed stayed awake. Out for gelato one night, we were attracted by a similar occurrence, though I confess not exactly the same, for this groom had some help. In fact, he didn’t even have to sing. Instead, he had help from friends, many conveniently with guitars. We stumbled upon this pre-nuptial celebration across the street from a popular Calitri pastry and ice cream shop, Zabbata’s Pasticceria. Bypassing the Romeo and Juliet imagery altogether, we found the happy couple dancing on the sidewalk below the bride’s apartment to the serenade of their talented friends. Everyone was in a festive mood especially as others passed out plastic cups of chilled Prosecco and squares of pizza to all comers.
And finally, in the impromptu category, there was the time when our precocious granddaughter, five year old Harper, decided to join in. After all, music is music. From her limited repertoire, as the lyrics recount, she stuck out her chin late one evening when all five year olds should be asleep, though apparently not in Calitri, and sang her favorite song, Tomorrow, from the movie Annie to the delight of everyone. I don’t recall how she got the accordionist, who was playing at the time, to stop, but he obliged her. She soon commanded the stage, which in her case were the uneven bricks on the island in the town hall square. Hers had been an acappella performance and in appreciation some of the local women in attendance rewarded her with candy. Her mom and dad now have to convince her that public singing in the subway or on the street is not their idea of a professional career.
The Roxy Bar strikes a more contemporary note when it comes to music than our granddaughter’s focus on a Broadway hit. Owners Massimo and Vito have hosted some well-organized evenings at Roxy Bar with music at their core. Some of their entertaining evenings occur outside their door on Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi. We lucked upon one recently when we stopped by for Aperol Spritzers one evening. We never did make it inside and were lucky to find a table, a table we soon discovered close to where two young guitarists were setting up. A couple chairs, amps and “test, test, test” later and they were underway. If I didn’t know I was in Calitri, I’d have easily believed we were back in the States listening to oldies on the radio or were attending some 70's to 90's rock concert. They duplicated American originals perfectly, stopping only long enough for one to flip the ash from his cigarette, the other to adjust a control. The younger of them was especially gifted and expressed it in his vigorous assault on the strings of his instrument and his vocal rendition of House of the Rising Sun, Juke Box Hero and Eminence Front to name just a few.
Although American music is widespread throughout Italy, especially on the radio, it was on another outing, again back at the Roxy, that we were entertained by a troupe of musicians but this time of a percussive persuasion. That evening, three African drummers dressed alike in colorful trousers arrived and played in the street beside Max and Vito's version of a Paris sidewalk cabaret. I love the sound of drums and their rhythms had soon attracted a gathering. Two large drums set on the ground produced deep base notes when struck with long handled sticks while two other performers, their drums tightly clamped between their thighs and played like bongos, added tinny metallic notes to their wild beat. Their chant, though indecipherable in an unfamiliar African language, was nevertheless wonderful to listen to there under the trees outside the Roxy.
An additional musical phenomenon, this one with Calitri’s particular brand of authenticity stamped all across it, is what has become an annual event - the Sponz Fest. It is during this two week period of musical celebration that entertainers from many places across the globe perform. Venues vary with the last one we attended kicking-off when a posse of men arrived not on horseback but aboard mules as was common in olden times. Like a rare earth magnet the Sponz Fest attracts thousands of people, many of whom are descendants of longstanding Calitri families … the Cestones, Cerretas, DiMaios, Maffuccis, Toglias, and on through the alphabet … who return to relish in their heritage by joining in the festivities. The festival is themed for a revivalist's kinship with history where old ways and traditions are given new voice and revered, not denied or distained, for they represent the culture of the enduring and resilient people.
For me, a most enjoyable Sponz Fest musical event came from a troupe of fiddlers and an attractive tambourine player from Crete. All together there were four in their group. While an old gentleman with a scraggly beard played what looked like a fiddle, a woman thumb-rolled a giant tambourine to the accompaniment of two others strumming across the strings of acoustic instruments, possibly mandolins, faster than my mom could grate cheese. Though she had initially caught my attention, my eye was soon drawn, like a moth to the light, to the wizened old man to her side and the unique sounds he produced, both vocally and from his instrument. Everything about him was different. His instrument, surely, his appearance, definitely, but most of all he possessed a distinct manner and sound. His voice has been referred to as "the cry of gods" and it was thus the pagan voices of Zeus, Apollo and Poseidon that I heard in his music.
I soon learned the name of his stringed instrument. He played a lyra, something at least for me that held a biblical connotation, and today continues to be the most dominant of Crete folk instruments. Though I’d not seen anyone play the lyra before, I felt certain his style was distinctive, not at all conventional. He held it vertically on one leg, positioned so its base, for the most part, resting just back from his knee as he savaged at it with his bow ... back and forth in wild sawing motions. His other leg, not satisfied to remain still, pounded the pavement to the beat as though he was experiencing some tic-like spasm. His bow flicked, clicked and crisscrossed the strings. Unique indeed, even his bow, unlike that of an ordinary violin, happened to be embellished with jingle-bells. I soon learned his name. It was Antonis Xylouris, better known by his nickname, Psarantonis, today the recognized voice of Cretan folk music.
Psarantonis leads a renowned musical ensemble from Crete with Antonis the last to still play traditional Cretan music with a lyra. His first performance, at a wedding, was at age 13. By the time he'd reached 16 he had evolved into one of the most recognized talents in Crete. Once a shepherd, it was in the still of the mountains where he taught himself to play the lyra. Home to Greek gods, it may have been their breezy whispers and thunderous growls that had a hand in his learning to play. As I sat there on the pavement with the crowd, as close as I could possibly get, I could see he was a restless performer. With one mic close to his instrument, another captured his song. Try as I might to associate his unique verbal sounds, the closest I came was to the raw, earthy, guttural sounds emitted by those proud, warlike Star Trek characters, the Klingons. But then I’m not used to hearing Greek, be it spoken or sung, though maybe his was a Cretan Greek dialect. It didn’t matter though because I was mesmerized by what I saw and heard. He played with sheer energy, unlike his companions, with a range of emotion from charmingly demure to wild and anguished. Often he'd hesitate from his vibrant play for just a few moments. Quickly he'd place his instrument across his lap as though he'd had a sudden thought he had to verbalize. Assailing the microphone with a outburst I couldn't comprehend, though it didn't matter, he'd expunge the thought with a few quick utterances only to snatch up his instrument once again and continue his play. At other times, his bow and folkish voice carried on this love affair together. His singing was also like no one else's, ranging from breathy murmurs and low sighs to course cacophonous bellowing and warbles. A few flays of his bow later, his lips almost devouring the microphone, the texture of his sound approached an incomprehensible, almost painful moan. Clearly his is an acquired taste, but I caught on fast. After a few sets, I was hooked on the special timbre of his voice and the bold imagery of his interpretation. As a child who, god forbid, attempts to write with a pencil in their left hand is quickly corrected, a spirit like Antonis' could have never survived something as structured as a Juilliard School of Music. And for this, it is we who should cry to the gods in thanks as beneficiaries of his unconstrained, energetic odes to life.
This had been Italy in context, like a ride in a convertible with its top down along the historic cultural crossroads where music of east, west, north and south intersect. For me these moments and experiences had been special, not simply the everyday my pen might attempt to hype in hopes of connecting with readers with something bordering on drama. No drama here, simply a saga of musical traditions whether they be the lore from dusted-off American decades-old 45 RPM vinyl, the sleepless heights of Italian operatic excellence, random impromptu sounds on the street or the centuries old sounds in strange tongues from forgotten lands. Brought together, they were seeds of pure fascination, the things that gave me joy, rooted in global musical traditions worthy of remembrance. We need only open our hearts and listen to the common language of music.
From That Rogue Tourist
For related photos, click here on "Eyes on Italy". Look for and click on a photo album entitled “Sounds of Music”.
Posted by Paolo and Maria Elena at 8:03 AM