One of the pleasures of spending more time in a place you thought you already knew well is the gradual development of a deeper relationship. Like an onion, we’re peeling back the layers of the Valle d’Itria. As we go, we’re confirming some basic truths while discovering genuine surprises. Happily, most of these are the welcome kind, although we sometimes we find ourselves scratching our heads in puzzlement, trying to figure it all out.
In December, we joined friends to help with a new event in a nearby town. The idea was to develop a kind of festival that celebrates local food ways and artisanal traditions of the region, joining time-honored traditions with new audiences and participants. The event, called Terra per la Terra (Earth for Earth’s Sake) was a huge success that culminated in the first Italian potluck we’ve ever experienced. Like most Italian events involving food, potluck here bore little resemblance to its American cousin, which was a very good thing.
At the event, we were captivated by a photo essay depicting a series of doors in the small town of Cisternino, a classic little borgo in the heart of the Valle d’Itria. We couldn’t stop looking at them, finally taking home three of our favorites to adorn our white plaster walls. But it was the photographer, Massimiliano Morabito, who captured our imagination in the end. It turns out that he is drawn creatively to photography, although he hasn’t had any formal training. His real passion, supported by years of classical study, is music. He plays the organetto, a diatonic accordion. Since 2009, Massimiliano is part of a Salento-based group called Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, regarded as Italy’s leading and longest-standing traditional music ensemble from deep in the heel of the boot of southern Puglia.
Following the release of a music video directed by one of Italy’s most noted directors, Edoardo Winspeare, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino or CGS and our friend Massimiliano are on tour in North America. CGS is taking the U.S. by storm after considerable success at home, both in Italy and in Europe. The music, called pizzica, has been described as “ . . . fast, hypnotic and tambourine-driven . . .” an homage to a cultural tradition in revival. CGS’s music ranges from tender love songs to pagan rites played on guitar, drums, accordion, and bagpipes accompanied by pizzica tarantata dance. The vocals are often sung in dialect, with a polyphonic texture that lends complexity to each piece.
The legend is that pizzica was performed by itinerant musicians to help peasant women recover from a tarantula’s bite. It’s more likely that pizzica served as a kind of exorcism or cure in a time and place when there were few doctors. Accompanied by the sensual beat of Salentine tamburelli, women would dance themselves into a trance as the music got faster to kill the “spider” inside. In a culture that provided few outlets for women, it’s more likely that the trance brought on by the pizzica dance provided a culturally acceptable way to overcome grief or shame.
Pizzica has become wildly popular in the Salento and its fame is spreading far beyond this remote corner of southern Italy. CGS was recently named the top world music group in Italy and was selected to perform as part National Geographic’s Live! series. Last year, La Notte della Taranta, an annual music festival featuring pizzica held in the Salento during late summer, hosted over 200,000 fans over a two week period. It’s the largest music festival of its kind in Italy and growing in size and influence every year since its inception in 1998.
Massimiliano has also formed his own ensemble, Fore’, performing music he has written and arranged. There are echoes of pizzica in these compositions, but the music is more exploratory, even introspective. That’s not unlike his haunting photos of the doors of Cisternino, which come alive with the rhythm of the Valle d’Itria whenever we see them. Like our acculturation process, these doors are portals into the heart of a culture that is, by turns, welcoming and mysterious, encouraging us to step through them to a world beyond our experience.