A few days ago I asked a young lad of about 8 years old whether he played an instrument. Proudly he told me that he had been learning one for the last two years. “Piano?, guitar? or maybe violin?” I enquired. “No!” he said beaming. “Tambourine!” If you smile, as I would have done a few years ago, then you underestimate its place in the order of things in Calabria. For the humble tambourine is the key to Calabrese music. It is the conductor for the accordion, singer and (sometimes) guitarist and the subtle step-caller for the dancers and it’s very encouraging to know that the young take it as seriously as their great, great grandparents. Tarantella is uniquely Calabrese (a sort of cross between delta Cajun and free-form highland fling) and when you visit you will hear and see it performed in village squares and forest clearings, by the sea and in the mountains, usually impromptu. If you do, then don’t stand too close…you will undoubtedly be pressed into dancing. I warn you, it will lure you into its web like a tractor beam until you’re unable to escape its trance-like effect. This is an apt analogy as Tarantella means “Dance of the Tarantula.” The dance is meant to mimic what happens to victims when they’re bitten. Basically you hop around a bit! Before dying of embarrassment!
My own attitude to old music with a young heart changed some years ago, the first time I came to Italy. I was staying with a Scottish friend in a village near Florence and it was during a rare World Cup venture by our homeland. We had found a little out-of-the-way bar used only by three old men who played dominoes all night round three empty coffee cups and a glass of Grappa. The owner was happy to let us watch whatever game we saw fit over the fortnight as we were disturbing no one and spending more money in a week than he had probably taken all winter. At the end of the last match we were about to leave when the owner beckoned us over. “Follow me.” He said conspiratorially. He took us over to his white BMW and signalled to us to get in. My friend and I looked at each other doubtfully, there was a distinct language barrier and even as a couple of adults outnumbering him 2-1, we didn’t think getting into a stranger’s car was a terribly clever idea, especially when we couldn’t understand a word he was saying. However he smiled and reassured us with the words. “Me thank you for good business.”
This was in the days before mobile phones, so after we had driven up into the mountains in the middle of the night for about an hour, the lights of civilisation having long-since disappeared below us, we began to fret a little. Eventually we turned through some imposing iron gates and arrived in the courtyard of a large villa which had been built into the rock-face of the mountain. We got out and followed our host to the top of the wide stone steps and a huge solid-looking wooden door. He pulled on the bell rope and smiled at us as we waited. “You like” he said. “You like many.” A little hatch in the door slid open to reveal the dark eyes of a diminutive woman in her mid-forties. “It’s a flamin’ brothel.” Hissed my friend. “How the hell to we get out of this one?” We started to panic, looking around vainly for some means of escape. The woman and our driver exchanged a few words before the hatch slammed shut again. He turned and went back down the steps indicating we should follow. Relief flooded through our veins. “They’re shut, thank God.” As we headed straight back to the car. “Where you go?” said the driver. “Go here.” He had turned round a corner of the building and was standing in front of a very wide garage door that looked as if it could accommodate a small fleet of cars. He opened a little side door and indeed we found ourselves in the company of three vehicles covered in canvas under one of which was the unmistakable shape of a Ferrari. Before we could think further however, a door slid open to reveal a spacious anti-room with a large cavern disappearing into the rock beyond. The woman whose eyes had greeted us at the hatch called us into the room. There was a great square wooden table in the middle with eight chairs, two on each side. From the ceiling hung rows of salumi and rounds of netted cheese whilst on the table there were a few plates, a chopping board and some hunting knives. “I don’t think it’s a brothel.” I whispered to my friend. “Maybe we should relax a bit.”
Our guide took us into the long cavern and switched on the single bulb that dangled from a cable in the roof. Down each side of the long room stood man-sized Chianti bottles half-wrapped in straw while down the middle, from floor to ceiling, were row upon row of packed wine-racks. The woman came over and explained. “This is where all the local producers bring their wine for blending with others. The best is bottled and the rest is in the flagons. Come, let’s sit down.” Another four people had joined us and, as we all shook hands and exchanged names, we sat down round the table and accepted the wine and food that was now being poured and served.
After a few drinks and trying to answer what we thought we were being asked about ourselves, we began to relax and enjoy the evening and the company. Without warning one of the women at the table started to sing. This quite beautiful soprano voice treated us to a complete aria from a faintly familiar opera, so when she finished everyone clapped enthusiastically. This was wonderful. After some more wine had been sampled the man next to our soprano began to sing. “It’s a Neapolitan love song.” Whispered the woman next to me. “ It sound so sad.” I whispered back. “All Neapolitan songs are sad, that’s how you know they’re Neapolitan.” She grinned. My friend and I were really enjoying ourselves now, rich wine, strong cheese and fabulous singing. It was only when a third quality performer got up and started singing what we were told was a Sicilian folk song that the ‘Lire’ dropped. My friend and I looked at each other in absolute horror.“This is going round the table.” He groaned.
“What are we going to do? I don’t know anything remotely cultural. We can hardly sing Stuck in the Middle with You, can we.?
“I don’t even know the firsts verse to that!” We started to panic even more as we realised, shamefully, that as a nation we’d left our cultural heritage in the hands of pipe band competitions and Arran sweaters to keep dimly alive in petrol station CD racks. We’ve been careless with our traditions!
“Okay, I’ve got it!” Said my friend triumphantly. “What have we been listening to on TV for the past fortnight? Quick, write down the words to Flower of Scotland! I’ll do that.”
“And what do I sing then? No way mate, I know the words, you don’t.”
“You can recite a little Robbie Burns, they’ll like that.”
“But I can’t remember anything more than a couple of lines of Tam O’Shanter.”
“Just put on a Scottish accent and say ‘Wee Drunken Timorous Willie’ a lot, they’ll never know the difference.”
“Sounds more like an Ode to Brewers Droop! It’s not even Burns.”
“Exactly, but it sounds as if it is.”
In the end we settled for a duet of Flower of Scotland which sounded sadly more like a football chant than a stirring ballad about rediscovering past glories. We were clapped politely as we sat down, humbled by the sheer variety and talent of our hosts. They sang on, operas and regional folk songs, comic duets in dialect and tales of broken hearts while we hid our shame in the wine and eventually persuaded our driver to take us home before our ‘turn’ came round again.
Cultural identity in music remains thankfully strong in Italy thanks to the willingness of the youth to learn from parent, whether it be the mandolin or the tambourine, the accordion or just to know the dance. We look forward to August when little Pellaro will play host to an annual folk festival, where Poles and Slovaks join Cubans and Greeks to challenge the techno onslaught of P.Diddy and Beyoncé. Meanwhile, I try to download and learn the Mingulay Boat Song and the Brae’s Of Killiecrankie…..just in case.
When you come to Calabria, don’t stand too close to the music and never accept lifts from strangers….unless you can sing and dance.