Music Review: Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino Lets the Pizzica Sing

June 29th, 2013

Traditional songs at rocket speed: that’s the music of Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, who played a breakneck, euphoric set at Joe’s Pub on Thursday night. Songs that may date back millenniums flew by in a whirlwind of tambourine rhythms and the call-and-response of raw voices that also aligned in harmony. Silvia Perrone, a dancer in a bright red dress, twirled and skipped at center stage, barefoot.

Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino Silvia Perrone performing with the group, which blends old and new, at Joe’s Pub.

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Salento, on the boot heel of southern Italy in Puglia, is the home of pizzica, a Southern Italian folk dance that is part of the larger family of tarantellas: hurtling six-beat rhythms and songs that were used in ancient, ecstatic healing rituals to cure the bite of the tarantula.

“Times have changed, but we believe that this power can still be alive,” said Mauro Durante, the violinist and drummer who has led Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino since 2007. The group was conceived in 1975 by the writer and folklorist Rina Durante, a cousin, and initially led by Mr. Durante’s parents, Daniele Durante and Rossella Pinto.

New Yorkers have long had a chance to hear the traditional tarantella performed by the singer, percussionist, dancer and researcher Alessandra Belloni, who has also combined the music with other styles. Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino takes its own liberties with the tradition, incorporating a few modern instruments — including, for some songs, electric bass — and arranging its songs with a variety of textures and details that suit the stage and recording studio. On albums, it has collaborated with musicians from Africa and Europe.

At Joe’s Pub, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino used the microphones to focus on the huffing chords of a button accordion that Massimiliano Morabito bounced on his knee, and to pinpoint the many sounds the large tambourine called the tamburello can produce: thuds, jingles, patterings, sharp attacks, slides (with a thumb across the drumhead) and clearly pitched melodies.

In arranging the songs — and writing his own — Mr. Durante hasn’t violated the spirit of the tradition; the group doesn’t bury pizzica in some rock or dance-club beat. With zampogna (Italian bagpipes), recorders and violin carrying melodies, the songs could sound like Celtic jigs hopped up by their frenetic tambourine propulsion, but they also showed their Mediterranean heritage, using Middle Eastern modes that would disappear from later European music. The set at Joe’s Pub ended with a guest appearance by Peppe Voltarelli, an Italian folk-rocker wielding his own tambourine to join a traditional song.

The group’s lyrics were about music, perseverance and romance. In “Bella Ci Dormi” (“Sleeping Beauty”), a troubadour serenaded the closed window of his beloved, vowing to die for love; Maria Mazzotta sang it with a cutting voice and rising drama, growing more distraught as the window never opened. The song was old; the passion was immediate.

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