April 15, 2014
After Alan Lomax returned from his famed 1954-1955 recording sojourn through Italy, he saved some of the highest praise for a particular type of singing from the coastal region of Liguria and the port city of Genoa: trallalero. Anyone who has heard Lomax’s recordings will understand why, as they are a standout in his entire vast catalog. In the notes to the essential, expanded edition of Lomax’s trallalero recordings on CD, Italian Treasury: The Trallaleri of Genoa on Rounder (sadly out of print), Lomax is quoted as saying: I was literally blown away. […] I have discovered that this Ligurian style is probably one phase of music that is literally as old as human time. Yet, it was certainly recorded, decades earlier, on gramophone records.
Without running down the already excellent notes by Edward Neill, Goffredo Plastino, and Lomax, I’ll humbly attempt a brief description of the music for the uninitiated. Trallalero is a type of polyphonic vocal music that dates back centuries, though according to Mauro Balma in his notes to the two-volume Trallalero Genovese CD set of contemporary trallalero recordings, there has been little scholarly work on its history (at least, it seems, in English). Some claim it is related to the barzelletta, a type of music related to the frottola, a predecessor of the madrigal. By the early 20th century, the music was sung by various “squadre” or “teams” named after their respective neighborhoods, the members of which were often unionized longshoremen. Lomax’s CD, for example, contains recordings made at a “longshoremen’s inn.”
Traditionally, trallalero is sung by nine men, with five vocal parts, though there can be anywhere from 7-15 members in some groups, and more recent trallalero groups employ women. In the nine-man version, five of the voices are bass, or the bassi, which give a drone-like quality to the chorus. A tenor leads the group, followed by the most startling aspect of the trallalero sound, the sharp, high falsetto, sometimes known as “la donna” (the woman), according to Lomax. After the falsetto, there is the “chitarra” singer, who imitates the sound of a guitar, often singing into the backs of his fingers, for lack of a better description. Finally, there is a baritone. The name of the music is based on the syllables “tra-la-la,” which is often used in trallalero songs during vocal improvisations. The nine men stand in a circle. This is certainly for the purpose of eye contact, but again according to Balma, may have its origins with drinking songs sung around tables. It adds a visual element that cannot be captured by recordings alone. In fact, early recordings cannot possibly capture the magic of live trallalero singing, unfortunately. Massive bass drones sung by longshoremen, a piercing falsetto, men singing into their hands, standing in a circle, all singing counterpoint-heavy music with each other…it practically sounds fictional.
According to Balma and Edward Neill, the first trallalero recordings were made as late as 1928. That year, the Gramophone Company (and perhaps Pathé) recorded discs by the Squadra di Bel Canto Genova Quarto. In 1930, GramCo also recorded 6 discs by the Squadra di Canto Popolare Isola del Cantone. Meanwhile, Italian’s Odeon branch recorded the Squadra di Canto Popolare Genova Molassana. Some of these groups recorded for other labels, such as Excelsius. Apparently there were around 100 trallalero recordings made during the 78 rpm era. They are almost all incredibly difficult to find – I’ve seen about 6 in my life. Complicating things a little, not all of these tracks by these “squadre” were traditional trallalero tunes. Some of the groups recorded comic songs and tangos, and some songs had modern lyrics, even nationalist ones. Some tracks contained modern stanzas arranged in the old, folkloric style (even Lomax’s recordings contained a version of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”).
This situation muddies the waters and likely makes ethnomusicologists shake their heads. At any rate, this track, while it is not in perfect condition, I hope retains the original trallalero sound. It was recorded ca. December 1930 in Milan by the Squadra Nuova Sturla, who apparently formed in 1926. This recording was made under the auspices, it seems, of a man named Costanzo Carbone (1884-1955). Carbone was a journalist, playwright, and a lover of Genoan tradition. Several books about him exist, including one co-written by the aforementioned ethnomusicologist and trallalero expert Mauro Balma.
If you’ve made it this far and have NOT heard the first track from Lomax’s trallalero collection, let me introduce you to a work of brilliance here. And for a terrific, fly-on-the-wall performance by a contemporary trallalero group that I like, click here. The only other early trallalero performance on an available CD that I know of is – of course – on the Secret Museum series, Volume 3, Track 4.
Issue Number: CQ 460
Matrix Number: WB 2840
Thanks to Mike Kieffer and Bill Dean-Myatt.
August 16, 2010
The early recorded folk music of Mediterranean islands is diverse and, with the possible exception of the islands of Greece, generally unexplored on reissue CDs. The European multinational record companies that readers of this website are by now very familiar with, were vigorous in their pursuit of any available market, and this included then far-flung and relatively isolated communities of the Balearic Islands, Malta, Corsica, Crete and the Greek islands, Cyprus, and Sardinia. Most of these markets – again, with the exception of the Greek islands – were miniscule when compared to, say, the classical music recordings of Russian tenors! The sales of Mallorcan 78s couldn’t even come close. It’s no surprise that comparatively few discs of these musical types were produced, and sales were, of course, smaller.
For instance, take the island of Malta, with its guitar-based ballads in the unique, Arabic-based Maltese language which dates from about the 9th century. Major recording labels of the early 20th century – Odeon, Polydor, HMV – only recorded Maltese music on 78s during a short period between the wars in the early 1930s. Those labels did not even record in Malta – Maltese musicians traveled either to Tunis or Milan to be recorded. On Malta, there were just one or two shops that sold those fine records. And that appears to have been beginning and the end of early commercial recording in Malta until the LP era.* In Spain, the Gramophone Company recorded music of Mallorca as early as September of 1924, and later in 1932 – just a handful of tracks as far as I can tell, although some appear to have been popular enough to have been reissued on their Spanish subsidiary imprints later in the 1930s. These examples can provoke two feelings that I’ve mentioned numerous times: fascination that such regional music was captured by these companies who were, of course, out for capital, yet at the same time, disappointment that they did not record more.
Sardinia has always remained independent from Italy in numerous ways, not the least of which is its local, non-Italian language, or its status as an autonomous community. There are no freeways. Cattle and sheep farming are a major source of the economy. Sardinia is also one of the least populated regions of Italy, therefore it’s not surprising that recording of Sardinian music was spotty. However, the musical traditions are rich, indeed. In Nuoro, the center of the island, there is the sonettu accordion dance music, and powerful, secular, vocal polyphony music called a tenore. In the south of the island, there is the folk dance music on the launeddas single-reed pipes, and the fisarmonica, a local accordion. The north of the island, particularly the regions of Logudoro and Gallura, is known for its mutos, or canto a chiterra songs – essentially voice and guitar music which developed in the early part of the 20th century, which allows the both singer and guitarist plenty of room for interplay. This is the type of music featured today.
At least in terms of the Gramophone Company, the 78rpm-era music of Sardinia, as with Malta, was primarily recorded in the early 1930s, with a spate of tremendous discs featuring singers such as Gavino de Lunas, Antioco Marras, and launeddas player Efisio Melis. However, other companies along with Gramophone, such as Odeon and Pathé, had been sporadically recording Sardinian music throughout the 20s, beginning at least as early as 1922.
The story goes that in 1928, an executive from the French Pathé company heard the voice of Maurizio Carta, and immediately signed him to a record for the label. This record was probably made not long after. Carta was born in 1904 to a middle-class family in Mogoro, a town in the Sardinian province of Oristano. He later gained fame with his recordings on Pathé. He is, in fact, not forgotten, as a choir named for him, the “Coro Maurizio Carta,” is active today. The term “disisperata” is used on both sides of this disc. Canto e chiterra songs have been divided into 12 different types, and the “disisperata” is usually the 12th and final song. “Tempiese” could be referring to a type of canto a chiterra singing known as La Tempiesina, which comes from the town of Tempio Pausania in the Gallura region. As always, I await your contributions and knowledge. For now, a Sardinian bagatelle…
Label: Pathé Actuelle
Issue Number: E. 15405
Matrix Number: N88696
For more early Sardinian music, please see the fine In Dialetto Sardo CD, on the Heritage label. And for a beautiful launeddas workout, see the Secret Museum Volume 1 (of course!). For more on Maltese music on 78rpm, keep checking this site.
Special thanks to Rod Stradling, James Cheney and Tony Klein.
* Apart from what appear to be later re-pressings of the earlier material on the local Dischi Maltin label.
December 22, 2008
In previous posts I’ve raved about how the American green Columbia label released some of the very finest Irish, Ukrainian, and Polish folk music from the late 1920s through the early 1930s. Their “F” series (records where the catalog numbers ended in the letter F) stood for “foreign.” Despite the name, the vast majority of recordings on the F series were recorded in North America and marketed to North American immigrant populations. And in terms of output, no market was catered to more than the Italian-American market. Columbia released 1,292 “Italian” records in the F series. Only Polish and Greek records came remotely close, with 799 and 696 releases, respectively.
Giovanni Vicari (1905-1985) was an undisputed mandolin and banjo master, and recorded mazurkas, tangos, and folk melodies from Naples and Sicily, the earliest of which were for Columbia. According to possibly apocryphal legend, he rarely left New York’s Little Italy during his life, and still played for friends in local barber shops and the like. He had to have gotten out of the neighborhood a bit however, as he seems to be the same Giovanni Vicari who played mandolin on several Vivaldi pieces conducted by Leonard Bernstein for a 1958 session. Vicari apparently had many students as well, one of whom was filmmaker and 78 collector Terry Zwigoff (see comments). In the 1940s, Vicari had something of a parallel career, recording Latin music for the Harmonia label under the name “Juan Vicari y su Genial Orquesta”!
When I imagine New York City and its immigrant communities in the 1920s, I can really picture this recording being part of a traveling art form. The record company was located in New York, the artist was in New York, it was recorded in New York, and it was sold in Italian-American neighborhood shops in New York to Italian-Americans – with the New York metropolitan area still having the largest concentration of Italians in North America. The music went from neighborhood to neighborhood, from the shop to homes, and into the ears of families, friends and passers-by – all in a very short radius of one another. It reminds me of my favorite film about New York City and the traveling art form: Style Wars. The art of graffiti writers on subway trains went from borough to borough, day after day, communicating a certain message in a certain language to other graffiti writers. (That film had a major impact on me when I saw its premiere on PBS at age 11, and was partially responsible for me moving to NYC seven years later.) Perhaps the recording will only ever be a traveling artifact – the music itself is the art form.
This piece, “Doll’s Eyes,” was recorded in New York in June of 1928, when Vicari was just 23 years old. It’s got a beautiful sound to accompany the adroit banjo playing – nice and loud.
For more Vicari, check out Rounder’s CD Italian String Virtuosi.
Issue Number: 14407-F
Matrix Number: 109406 (2-A-1)
October 7, 2007
Columbia, in the late 1920s, released approximately 1300 records by Italian-American immigrants, for purchase usually at record stores within, or nearby, their communities across the United States. A wide variety of Italian regions were musically represented, and this one claims to be a song from the Abruzzo region, on the eastern coast of Italy.
As far as I can tell, little is known about Pasquale Sciascia and his musical troupe of violin, guitar, bass, flutes, and singers. Pity, because I really enjoy the singing on this track. Sciascia did record in New York City for the Brunswick label around the same time, and also with two other musicians as the “Trio Sciascia,” both for Columbia and Brunswick. This track was recorded in March of 1929.
Issue Number: 14455-F
Matrix Number: 110450 (2-A-3)