Tue. Oct 3rd, 2023

When Antonio Castrignanò listens to pizzica, he hears much more than tambourines and drums. “This music really feels like a dream,” is how the musician and composer puts it. “It gives dignity to the sacrifices my people made for their own freedom, to no longer be inferior to anyone.”

It’s an emotion other natives of Salento would doubtless understand. Birthed in village squares and olive groves, right at the heel of the Italian boot, pizzica acted for centuries as the region’s daily soundtrack, its frenzied dances solace for Castrignanò’s forebears as they loved and worked and prayed.

Nowadays, however, pizzica has transcended these peasant roots – and nowhere is that clearer than at the Notte della Taranta. Spread over several weeks, and culminating in a mammoth show on 26 August for 200,000 people, this raucous celebration of pizzica is the biggest festival in Italy. At the same time, the music has become known far beyond Salento, its fevered rhythms common at weddings and fashion shows, and wafting from halls across the peninsula. Yet amid the glamour, musicians like Castrignanò worry that the deep heritage of pizzica is being lost, even as they try to balance the music’s old dream with a living, modern Salento.

Pizzica has a long history. Possibly related to the ancient cult of Dionysus, by the 18th century it was being performed for visiting dignitaries. Like other tarantelle, a family of related south Italian dances, legend has it that dancing the pizzica could cure women bitten by tarantulas. That certainly explains its trance-like intensity, with violins, guitars, accordions and singers all charging along at 100 BPM, while dancers whirl alongside. No wonder Alessia Tondo, a vocalist in the famous Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, characterises the pizzica as a “visceral rhythm”.

For all this energy, however, traditional pizzica spoke poignantly to the peaks and troughs of rural life. Appropriately for a form once used in courtship rituals, romantic yearning is a recurring theme. In one example, a singer tells his love not to worry when faced with stormy seas – the waves are but his tears. Reflecting the erstwhile links between pizzica and Catholic festivals, religious themes are frequent too. One tune, traditionally sung around Christmas, speaks of “the world changing in an instant” when Christ gave his blessing. At the same time, pizzica has also been a howl of peasant defiance in a region long ruled by landlords. “Now that the sun is going down,” go the words to one song, “hurry up boss, I’m leaving!”

Postwar urbanisation, and the drift of families from fields to factories, ravaged this history. Castrignanò witnessed this shift himself, recalling how his working-class father largely spurned the countryside. But starting in the 1970s, the winds would shift once more. Initially encouraged by folklorists and academics, often with a leftwing urge to reclaim rustic culture, the end of the century would see the start of a musical craze. Spurred on by those old infectious rhythms, and perhaps eager to revive what their parents had lost, Nadia Inserra – a US-based academic and writer on tarantella – says that says kids would get together and drink a whole bottle of wine as they snapped pictures and watched old timers perform.

Since then, continues Inserra, the form has gone thoroughly mainstream. Many couples, including those outside Salento, choose pizzica for their wedding music. If you want to try the moves yourself, you can find gigs across the country, even in chilly northern towns like Turin and Milan. Brands are climbing the pizzica coattails too. In 2020, to an online audience of 20m, Dior hosted a fashion show in the baroque Salento city of Lecce, with models striding down the catwalk to pizzica. Mass-market music has caught the bug as well: over the last few decades, there’s been techno-pizzica, reggae-pizzica, and even pizzica for children.

Pizzica dancers in St Peter’s square, Rome.
Pizzica dancers in St Peter’s square, Rome. Photograph: Alessia Giuliani/CPP/IPA/Shutterstock

How to explain this mania? Quiz its admirers and they return to those galloping beats. “The music is really suitable for dancing,” says Vincenzo Santoro, another pizzica expert and researcher, adding that this equally explains the form’s international appeal. Fair enough: you can now hear pizzica in London and Dubai. Beyond the cantering rhythm, however, you get the feeling that pizzica is now about more than mere music. As Santoro says, it chimes with stereotypes of Salento as a friendly, storied place, one “with fewer problems of organised crime … than Sicily or Calabria, and also northern Puglia”. And if Inserra suggests a patronising tinge here – “we have a history of being orientalised and sensationalised” by northern Italians, she says – this hasn’t stopped many southerners from embracing the trend themselves.

And if this is true across documentaries and tourist campaigns, the pinnacle of contemporary pizzica is surely the Notte della Taranta, hosted since 1998 in the small Salento town of Melpignano. With millions watching on TV at home, organisers proclaim it as one of the “most significant” events of popular culture in Europe. Certainly, guests like Fiorella Mannoia, a pop icon since the 1980s, give the proceedings a real sheen, as do partnerships with the Ministry of Culture and the European Union. But for Castrignanò, structuring the Notte around commercial television, and including acts that have little to do with pizzica, destroys the unstudied passion that made the music special. “It obliges them to invite pop singers who went to Sanremo,” he says, referring to the long-running music contest. “I don’t want to resemble Sanremo – otherwise I’d have gone there myself.”

Nor does criticism of modern pizzica only involve commercialisation. At the Notte, for instance, you’ll see men and women dancing sensually together, complete with choreographed routines. As Inserra points out, the historic conservatism of Catholic society precluded any touching, while participants tended to spontaneously learn dances as they went. For a festival professing to support the “valorisation” of traditional music, such alterations are too much for some. As far back as 2015, Sergio Blasi, the ex-mayor of Melpignano, resigned from his position at the festival, claiming it was no longer helping the “recovery and dissemination” of traditional Salentan culture. Castrignanò, for his part, has gone the same way.

Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino in full flow.
Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino in full flow. Photograph: Raphael Salzedo/Alamy

These debates are hardly novel, of course, nor are they unique to pizzica; weighing old customs and new forms, or even just tracing the frontiers of folk as a genre, is a struggle from England to Canada. To be fair, Salentan musicians are clearly alive to these tensions. As Alessia Tondo says, the very act of climbing on stage and singing into a microphone “changes the function” of a style long built around unselfconscious expression. “I, for example, still live in a family environment where we play and sing together after gatherings,” she adds. “Clearly, these feelings aren’t reproducible on a stage”.

Yet as these comments imply, Tondo isn’t against modernity in principle. In her own career, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino has interwoven pizzica with Indian bhangra, and worked with a Justin Adams, a famous international guitarist. The point, she stresses, is to always balance experimentation with the “real traditional music”.

A festival sceptic he may be, but Castrignanò shares a similar philosophy. Channelling the subversive aura of old pizzica, one of his songs recounts the story of an exploited African farmworker in the Salento of today. Elsewhere, Castrignanò describes the threat posed to the region’s olive groves by the Xylella bacteria. “Green and bitter oil,” goes the song’s haunting refrain, “you must hold dear.” It’s an injunction that could probably be applied to pizzica itself, as the music spins and twirls but never falls down.

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