At 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 24, Lawrence University welcomed the internationally renowned music group Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino to the stage as the first performers in this year’s series of World Music concerts, which showcase performers from around the globe.
Stansbury Theater was surprisingly full, especially for a school night, and audience members were whispering reverently about this group, which visited several musicology classes earlier that day and had already left quite an impression.
Originally formed in 1975, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino (CGS) is regarded as Italy’s foremost traditional music ensemble. The members hail from Salento—the heel of the Italian boot—and speak and sing in Salentino, a distinctive Italian dialect that is spoken by few. Some of CGS’s current members’ parents were in the group before they were. For all of them, the performance is more than a job: it is music that flows in their veins.
The stage was covered with microphones and monitors. One by one, the six musicians and the classical dancer of this group came to the stage. The first to appear was Massimiliano Morabito, who played diatonic accordion and established a rock-solid foundation for the rest of the group. His expression was consistently calm, with a peaceful smile on his lips, and after him came Giancarlo Paglialunga.
Paglialunga has a formidable stage presence. He put all of his energy into impeccable rhythm on the tamburello—a large handheld drum that resembles a tambourine—and engaged his whole body in the process. His furrowed brow underscored his focus and intensity. His expressions were somehow both intimidatingly passionate and tender.
Next to come to the stage was Mauro Durante, CGS’s front man, equipped with a violin and an energy that merged seamlessly with Morabito’s tranquility and Paglialunga’s razor-sharp focus. The only member of the group who speaks English fluently, he introduced the group and the pieces they performed.
After him came Emanuele Licci, who played bouzuki—a Mediterranean instrument that resembles a mandolin—and classical guitar.
Licci would look into the audience and take in the crowd with what looked like great cheer. He looked incredibly comfortable, but his fingers rarely stopped moving and he often gazed back at his fellow band members, constantly in sync with their seemingly infinite drive.
Next came Giulio Bianco, who played harmonica, zampogna—Italian bagpipes—and recorder. He had a mischievous look about him and gave off the impression of a kind of Italian confidence, which translated into very high energy, assertive playing. The final musician to take the stage was Maria Mazzotta, their lead singer.
Mazzotta’s emotional engagement with the pieces was awe-inspiring. One song in particular, a ballad about serenading at a lover’s window without response, moved me immensely. At times, it even looked like she was about to cry. Her dynamic flourishes and wide vocal range added a lot of expressive texture to the music.
The final member of the CGS to take the stage was Silvia Perrone, their dancer. She joined them after the first piece in a white costume with a flowing skirt that twirled as she expertly spun around the stage. Her steps showcased a traditional style of Italian dance and a smile never left her bright face. She was effortlessly poised, even after several dances.
For the end of the set, she changed into a red version of her previous costume—this change in ensemble mirrored a change in performance style. The pieces soon picked up in speed and CGS’s vibe reached even higher levels of vigor and joy.
When I told senior Greyson Stuzcko that I would cover this concert for The Lawrentian, he expressed his appreciation for the performance and all of the magnificent little details that made up its whole. In fact, he told me that I should “just write about the tambourine solo.”
Indeed, even Durante’s one-man performance on tambourine provided enough (perhaps more than enough) material to make up an entire article. I, for one, did not know the tambourine could provide such a wealth of sounds.
If you closed your eyes, it sounded like multiple instruments at once, and they all blended beautifully: the jingling of the bells joined forces with the percussive pats against the drumhead. Each touch on the tamburello surprised listeners with its rich reverberation.
CGS’s vivacity brought the audience members to their feet—true, they requested that we all stand up, clap and dance a little bit, but we were already grooving in our seats without their explicit encouragement. The voices in the band seemed to come from another time; it was like listening to an ancient sound through modern microphones.
Between songs, Durante described the group’s intentions behind providing a living, breathing and modern experience of Italian tradition. “This tradition of music and dance should not be stuck in a museum,” he said. “This music is timeless, universal, but we write our own lyrics.”
This group has managed to revitalize the traditional folk music of pizzica tarantata, a ritualized, frenzied dance that is said to reverse the effects of a tarantula bite, and use it to bring audiences into the past. By combining unmatched musicianship and a capacity to transcend generations and geography, CGS has educated listeners worldwide by blending modern performances with their traditional Italian roots.
CGS received hearty standing ovations and even got the audience to sing along—in Salentino no less!—to the chorus of one of their songs. They were invested in reaching every single audience member on a personal level and they did so with true joy. Dressed very simply, mostly in black, this acclaimed group was not interested in flashy props or listing their accolades. Their music spoke for itself.
Canzoniere Grecanico Salentinto’s virtuosity and desire to cultivate longstanding musical traditions are inspiring, to say the least. Lawrence is fortunate to have hosted such a unique and talented ensemble. Smiles were abundant as audience members left the performance.
The next concert in the World Music Series is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015 at 8 p.m. in the Stansbury Theater and will feature Dobet Gnahoré, a singer from the Ivory Coast.