A two sided album...
Canzoni della Cupa is a record in two parts, or rather, two sides.
The side exposed to the sun, drying in the wind. The dusty side. The side of the parched remains after the wheat has been gathered. The side of the hard work demanded by that harvest, the side of sweat and exploitation.
And a shadow-side, a moon-side, the side of shrubs and ghosts. The side of howls and brambles, it brings creatures to life by the moonlight, which slyly show up one by one and defy zoological classification. The side of the creatures of the Cupa, the Pumminale, the werewolf, the Bestia nel Grano, the beast in the wheat field. The side of the mule drivers, who steal wood at night, the side of eloping lovers, of apparitions.
This is a record in two parts, conceived a decade apart to let the brambles thicken and their roots penetrate the soil. To let the Dust generate Shadow.
The first recordings took place during the dry season, in the summer of 2003. A session hit by drought: two violins, a cymbalon, a contrabass and a voice accompanied by the guitar...
Eleven years on, the Shadow Session ensued in the Fall of 2014, which expanded well into 2015.
Those songs generated new songs gathered in a spare session, that was recorded in the alleys of the Land of Echo, by the fire of the stove, in the homeland.
From the eastern maternal frontier, the frontier of the Turkish rooster hidden in Liveinvolvo’s trunk, they crossed the ocean and reached that faraway frontier that the paternal banks of the river Ofanto have always evoked in me... The West, which everyone wants to possess, given their experience with saddles, mules, railways and showdown landscapes.
From the frontier of the wolf, the valleys of Irpinia and Basilicata, to the land of the coyote, the music has been imbued with a taste of Flaco Jimenez’s Texas-Mexico border in San Antonio, Texas, with Calexico’s Tucson desert, and with Los Lobos, the wolves that roam at night from Mexico to California.
Many have come with their masterly voices and instruments to the homeland alleys: Giovanna Marini, Enza Pagliara, Antonio Infantino, la Banda della Posta, Francesco Loccisano, Giovannangelo De Gennaro, the even farther Howe Gelb, Victor Herrero, Los Mariachi Mezcal, Labis Xilouris, Albert Mihai and many more, where they were welcomed by La Cupa’s production triad: Taketo Gohara, Asso Stefana and the author himself.
Every inland village across Italy – lands touched by neither sea nor city, where hamlets are surrounded by oceans of clay, earth and pitch-black nights, perching atop cliffs as if to defend themselves from the world – knows this geography of the soul.
Each of these hamlets is split in two, a sunny side and a dark side, a dualism creating a motionless entity that spins in time and repeats itself eternally, like the rotation of the planet, of the changing seasons.
Each of these hamlets have a quarter called La Cupa, where the sun rarely shines, where the unconscious has placed the Legends, and a parched side on the crest of the earth, a side marked by hard work. The side of dust and sweat.
These two sides make up a circle in which time seems motionless.
These songs are inspired by this world. A folkloric, rural and mythological world I have tried to depict partly relying on the pre-existing work by folk singers and composers like Matteo Salvatore, as well as on the rich heritage of rural and traditional songs, and, above all, on the community’s epic sagas, sonnets, and rhyming verses that were sung en masse, bundling voices as one, but never written down. Others I have found inside me, searching in the steps, the alleys, the brambles and the land. All together, bundled up over the years like firewood, they have become Canzoni della Cupa. Songs that have lent me warmth and roots, fear and consolation.
There is nothing reassuring in folk music, Dylan once said. And this is true. In these songs, man is exposed to the forces of the earth, to its enveloping and strangling roots, to its sharp, piercing brambles, to the forces of the night, the cliffs of a cruel and arcane nature, to the exploitation and oppression exercised on men by men. Songs leaving you exposed to human malice and to the cruelty of little communities. This music doesn’t leave out grief, mourning and separation, it does not set limits to the Feast, to the abundance and excesses bordering on death. But these are also songs that restore a relationship between sky and earth, a condition in which we often linger unaware, like sleepwalkers. Songs allowing us to feel cold, emotion, desire, fear, adventure, euphoria, joy, mourning and death, thus reminding us we belong in a world that is older than us, whose face and surface have been altered by History. Yet it is still there to reminds us that we are just men on a naked land.
The bleak earth that fled the sky.
Song by song: Dust
Polvere – Dust
Dust is the froth of the earth parched by sun, wind and time. However dust is also humus, human, the dust that originated us and to which we will return. Dust is the ephemeral roots binding us to the planet. These songs are exposed to the scorching heat, the intense activity of the dust, but they are also the ground into which these songs sink their roots.
Femmine – Women
Labour chant of female tobacco workers interpreted by the voice of Mrs Addolorata Lia neé Patù in memory of the time when she herself was a tobacco reaper. The tune has been rearranged in the style of the Prison & Blues Songs from Alan Lomax’s recordings. The world of the tobacco reapers recalls the black slaves’ hard labour and exploitation in North America’s cotton plantations, with a dash of licentious malice.
Il lamento dei mendicanti – The tramps’ cry
Barren blues, reminiscent of drought, hunger and thirst. The first piece in this record by Matteo Salvatore, the great bard of injustice and exploitation in the Southern latifundia of the ‘50s. A ballad carrying with it the rags and rattle of the beggars to which Camporesi devoted his Book of Vagabonds.
La padrona mia – My mistress
The mistress of my heart, but also the mistress of the manor, a multifaceted character appearing in several sonnet ballads, where she invariably reigns with her inaccessible and bursting femininity. This version’s first stanza has retained its original folkloric style, to then venture into Canio Vallario’s (master B’llino) and the author’s arrangement.
Dagarola del Carpato
Sung story as recollected by Mrs Di Guglielmo. Teodora is a heroine, a faithful woman, whose name the local dialect has changed to Dagarola. This is a poignant portrayal of a woman in love, who, mad with sorrow, wanders alone in her village alleys when there is no one around to see her. Like a bell-less cow, like an animal with no herd, her only consolation is a plea to the Crowned Virgin. The rattling sound, the distinctive timbre of Calitri’s Western, is by Banda della Posta in a choral execution with Giovanna Marini’s guiding voice.
L’acqua chiara alla fontana – The fountain’s clear water
This ballad is partly inspired by the troubadour tradition and by the popular Calitri sonnet “Il Nobile Cavaliere” (the noble knight). It features a spring of clear virginal water, a fountain. A love-bargaining story, lacking neither graciousness nor rural carnality, unfolds to the luring sound of golden marenghi, old-day coins. Provencal and chivalrous tones imbue the ancient ballad’s arrangement by the two French violinists, who promptly interpreted it.
Zompa la rondinella - Swallow’s leaps
Spontaneous and wandering ballad in which each can add a new stanza. There is a so-called Pescatamonte, a priest with no calling and a quarrelsome character, who has well-deserved his nickname owing to the “peccata mundi” he preached about from the altar, and for which he had a penchant. To the sound of a fountains’ tricking water, a so-called Filomena gets into troubles and leaves others to deal with them, nonetheless “let’s cuddle once more and set the train on fire” she goes.
Franceschina la calitrana – Franceschina the girl from Calitri
Verses echoing from the time of the construction of the first railway, following the unification of Italy, and still conveying the allure of this popular “friend” of engineers and foremen. The workers, who meanwhile “are always there”, though excluded from the profit as well the pleasure, endow the song with an epic union touch.
Sonetti - Sonnets
The sonnet is a spontaneous song in fixed form, both in terms of meter and melody. It is a cultural heritage as rich as an oil field, to which everyone has contributed with a verse. Its melodic form and selection of stanzas make up a love story about a coveted love to which a dejected lover - owing pride, fear or adventure - cannot return.
Faccia di corno – Horn face
Two are the types of serenades sung under the balcony of the desired (or formerly desired) mate at night: the flattering serenade and the serenade of smears, the latter basically being a tirade of slurs. The verses can either praise the loved one or defame and abuse her once love has gone sour. This sort of Stornello* draws on some of the stanzas of an extraordinary heritage of serenades of smears.
Stornello: a folk song that often recounted the status of women in the past. TN.
The protagonist’s nickname is due to the generosity of her breast, rather than to the colour of the robin (robin is pettirosso in Italian T.N.). The raving song resounds with fragments of characters handed down through the sonnets and is imbued with the atmosphere of the serenades of slurs.
Faccia di corno - L’aggiunta - Horn face, the supplement
Like one who, after having vented all sorts of abuse, resumes his way home but feels he hasn't said it all: that’s the supplement. More slurring verses come the formerly coveted lover’s way. Some have a metaphysical character, like the “rod that’s 49 feet long, you can bend it and pull it 'til it looks like a bridge for her true lover to tread underneath”. A wealth of smears followed by a liberating finale: “My heart forever you left, forever you left”.
“Ranchera” version of “I Maccheroni” by Matteo Salvatore, an explosive, existentialist and rustic masterpiece with a somewhat mantric refrain: “some may die, some may live in a dish of Maccheroni with meat”.
Lu furastiero - The stranger
The harvested field, the corn sheaves, the wind. A seasonal reaper from afar who carries all his belongings with him. The repose of the stranger, sleeping with a bag for a pillow, is a lyrical masterpiece by Matteo Salvatore, rendered here in Italian.
Version of the “Proverbi Paesani” (rural proverbs) by Matteo Salvatore, vademecum of wisdom and popular cynicism. The word trapatatumpa recalls the drum’s roll of the town crier in the afternoon sloth. These stanzas, as black as a painting by Goya, accompanies the parading Death. Death in life in which time too needs to be killed. This version’s drunken sound of the drum is the work of Tricarico, the extraordinary crew playing with the master-prophet Antonio Infantino.
La lontananza – Distance
When you are away and alone, wandering with sheep herds at night, what troubles the most is not the wind or the thunder, not the storm or the paucity. It is distance. Distance is our lives’ worst evil, a tightrope between those we love and those who love us.
La notte è bella da soli – The night is beautiful in solitude
When all have left, or sleep forever, a solitary bard in a forlorn village…The patter of footsteps, a fountain’s trickling sound, a fight between dogs and cats, the echo of the werewolf’s howl that frightens the heart. A heartfelt wail by Salvatore, dedicated to all forsaken townships.
Song by song: Shadow
Ombra – Shadow
Shadow is the frond produced by the roots, by the interweaving branches generated by the Dust. It is also the side of the creatures that do not reveal themselves, the side of omens, of birds that fly at night, the side of stories ariusing wonder and unease. Shadow is also what we leave on the ground when we leave.
La bestia nel grano – The beast in the wheat field
The cry of the reaper is louder at noon, the hour that leaves no shadow on the ground, the hour when there is no separation between life and death. The hour of the afternoon demon. This is the time of day when imaginary beasts - hiding and running in the fields and swaying the wheat - must be chased and offered in sacrifice to the demon as a compensation for the mourning of the mown field.
Scorza di mulo – Mule’s rind
Mule drivers are guided by Hermes. They are liminal creatures between the static world of sedentary people and the boundless mobility of night. They are no knights though; they are mere mule drivers dealing with stubborn beasts. They trek in the dark to steal wood in the forest, to carry loads, subjects to perils like river floods, crags, guards and brigands. Bleak thoughts crowd the speechless mule’s head belonging to a mule driver at night to the hypnotic sound of hooves that never gallop, but merely trot under the weight of a burden they have to carry like a punishment.
The Pumminale is the werewolf, a man who was born on Christmas night and on full moon nights turns into a wolf and seeks refreshment in the mud. This Pumminale’s hair grows outside in, and at the call of the moon he does not turn into a wolf, but into a swine. The story of a nightly harlotry to find one’s own demon and come to terms with it.
Le creature della Cupa – The Creatures of La Cupa
Many are the the creatures of La Cupa, all of them being the reason one should not peer into wells, roam the streets at night, or expose oneself to danger. The list of creatures reads like a lullaby on a cradle of thorns: the masciara, the pumminale, the maranchino and above all the creature of La Cupa, a new-born who inspires tenderness, but her weight will bend your legs if you try to lift her: gold that the demon has turned to lead.
La notte di San Giovanni – Saint John’s Night
This is a night of omens and visions. The night in which girls seek signs to divine who will be their spouse for life. In the basin’s water they see Salomé’s and Herodias’ shadows trailing each other, doomed for eternity.
L’angelo della luce – The Angel of Light
Michele, the Angel of Light, has come on a sword of light and prompted the farmers to leave their homes and set off like pilgrims for the cave on the day of the Archangel. The road of the pilgrims is swarming with orders of beggars, simonists, healers, preachers, trumps and faith peddlers. Like Adam, the angel of light had to come to earth and soil his feet.
After a religious deity, a pagan one. How to make man holy for one day, how to rid him of his bodily functions and his face and turn him into a bright mask leading a throng of magnificent knights hunting starts to make the soil fertile. This is what happens during the celebration of the Sartiglia. But this is a Carnival feast, a feast of subversion of order. The very King gets drunk and is found lying on the ground at dawn, among the last.
Il bene mio – My beloved
The culmination of a love can occur either with a veil on the wedding day, surrounded and digested by the whole community, or in solitude, in the bleakest clandestinity of a love elopement. There’s no banquet, only the haven of love and the dread of being abandoned soon afterwards. This is the subject of yet another extraordinary ballad by Matteo Salvatore.
Maddalena la castellana - Maddalena the girl from Borgo Castello
Terrible story on the consequences of a secret love affair, a rather frequent predicament in a world where men, more often than not, were away at war or as migrant workers. With the ferocity of a description as crude as reality, the poet Canio Vallario has composed this sonnet on the topic of an illegal abortion and on the pitch-black character of a midwife with whom, once you call her, “there’s no turning back”.
Lo sposalizio di Maloservizio – The wedding of Maloservizio
The feast melts life away until it touches death. The wild celebrations dissipate every accumulation, the feast of the Holy Martyrs of Ricreo. The recreation regenerates man, it creates him through mating and, at the same time, consumes him. That’s why someone jokingly, but also fatally and symbolically, tied the threshold of Maloservizio’s house to the gate of the graveyard, but the rope turned into a streamer and enveloped everyone in the celebration, even the neighbouring villages and villagers, respectively named by name and nicknames. Rucche Rucche and Barbaje, is a sort of magic formula. The rest is typical wedding day folklore, five minutes of frantic execution by a sputtering Rumanian band playing with Banda della Posta. The song owes a lot to Aniello Russo for the villagers’ nicknames and to Armando Testadiuccello for the substance.
Il lutto della sposa – The Bride’s mourning
Each golden age, earth's childhood, comes to an end on the day of the bride’s wedding. It is the beginning of a new life. Starting a new life inevitably entails abandoning the one she has lived until that moment. I want to give my special thank to Adrian Paci for the subject of this song.
Il treno – The train
Maybe a train came like a bird one day and took everyone away, leaving all dwellings empty and bereft. In times of war and in times of peace, a train came as black as death… Everyone got onto it, also a boy whose only possession was a big bread bun. Everyone left on that train. My father too.
Stand alone notes
“Stand alone” songs
Notes from a folk music scholar
[and fellow musician]
Calitri – hometown of Vinicio Capossela’s father and where this record has substantially originated from – and Cairano – Il Paese dei Coppoloni (The Coppolonis), where the homonymous novel and movie by Capossela are set – are approximately sixty kilometres, as the crow flies, from the Tyrrhenian coast, close to Salerno, and ninety kilometres of meandering roads that can be covered by car in about one hour and a half. This is approximately the distance from the lower Po valley to the Ligurian Sea; so going from Milan to Genoa takes less. Calitri (530 meters above sea level) and Cairano (770) are hillside and middle mountain hamlets belonging to the Mountain Community of Alta Irpinia, in the province of Avellino, at the border with the province of Potenza. Rionero in Vulture and Venosa, lands of brigands, are just thirty kilometres to the East. On the opposite side lies Sant’Angelo dei Lombardi, destroyed like many other hamlets in the area – like Andretta, birthplace of Capossela’s mother – by the earthquake that hit Irpinia on 23rd November 1980. This is a land with a semi-continental climate, scorched by the sun in summer and sometimes freezing cold in winter, hence far from the stereotype equation South = Mediterranean, and also from the conventional image of the Mediterranean. It is as Mediterranean as the Spanish hinterland, like Herzegovina, like Epirus. This is a land of songs and dances, certainly permeable to the traditions of places distant and close to home.
[My memories, geographically approximate, date back to 24th September 1972, to a Festival de l’Unità (annual social-democratic celebration in Italy, originally organised by the Italian Communist Party to finance and spread its official newspaper l'Unità. T.N.) in Carife, on the border of the crater that was the epicentre of the ‘80s earthquake. The presence of a band from the North that played, with four guitars and a sort of drums, political songs modelled on American folk music and on country rock (among which “Tre fratelli contadini di Venosa”), had been debated in the section: generally the celebration starred personalities from the television, and, above all, a local dance orchestra, but that year the FGCI guys (Italian Communist Youth Federation, T.N.) had their way. Then they gave us a red flag with the blue inscription: “Long live Proletarian Music”. I still have it. When I told Vinicio about the episode, he wasn’t very surprised.]
Canzoni della Cupa was mainly conceived in Calitri. A few songs have been gathered or composed there, and one of the two CDs of the album, the one going under the name of Ombra (Shadow), has been recorded there. The whole work bears the signs of that continental South, but Polvere (the first CD) is harsher, rougher: resulting, one may say, from a still “raw” encounter with those themes and the musical material, but also from the abundance of traditional songs arranged by Capossela, or by Matteo Salvatore and other popular authors (fourteen out of sixteen), while in Ombra the songs not entirely by Capossela are just two. Interestingly (the thing is too clear-cut to be random chance) all the songs in Ombra – except the ghost track – are in minor mode, while in Polvere the great majority of songs is in major mode (twelve out of sixteen). Polvere largely consists of a work of arrangement and reinterpretation of traditional material (partly recorded by Capossela himself, who has met a number of local informers), whereas Ombra is the work of a singer and interpreter who has clearly drawn inspiration from the contents and style of the traditional material. To a certain extent, that is if we exclude the linguistic adaptation of part of the lyrics from the local dialect into Italian and a certain freedom in the instrumental accompaniment, Polvere appears to be a “classic” folk revival operation, where urban researchers and interpreters reproduce popular rural material, by following rather closely the original style; Ombra, that except the aforementioned differences is rather similar – in terms of style and sound – to Polvere, can also be interpreted in the light of the historical folk revival, as the result of the work of an author and of interpreters, who have tried to reproduce the so-called folk process by becoming so immersed in the traditional culture as to absorb its methods, its creative process: a long-cherished utopia by the protagonists of the historical folk revival in the USA, in the UK and in Italy as well.
[These years of “proletarian music” were the years that culminated in the “historical” folk revival in Italy; afterwards folk – in all its several and much disputed meanings – even made it to Canzonissima (popular television program broadcast by RAI from 1956 to 1975. T.N.). Among the protagonists of the period going from the end of the ‘50s and the start of the ‘70s were Michele Straniero (who sang “Gorizia” in Spoleto during Bella ciao, causing the notorious scandal) and Roberto Leydi (the curator of Bella ciao, promoter and theorist of a rigorous folk revival modelled on the teachings of Alan Lomax and Ewan MacColl, and one of the first academic ethnomusicologists in Italy). Both looked with debonair scepticism at our efforts to inoculate some rock elements and what was still known as “singer/songwriter music” into traditional music and Italian social songs, partly because they detested a priori “commercial music” and considered Bob Dylan a “traitor”, partly because our efforts were amateurish and restricted by the superficiality of the record scene in which we were forced to work. We wanted a country band that would come up again with the song’s theme at the end of the song, and they gave us a highly competent Dixieland section of wind instruments that had nothing to do with “Garibaldi”. One cannot help but feel envy for the freedom Vinicio enjoys, for his possibility to work with musicians of an altogether different generation, with sound engineers who have shed the sound models of the radio and the pop music production conceived for the latter!]
In all this, recording techniques are paramount. The nostalgics of analog (who are right in many ways) forget that the largely superior dynamics and extremely reduced background noise of the digital recordings have allowed elevating the instruments of popular tradition from the ghetto of non-phonogenicity. The coincidence of the world music “fad” with the birth of the CD and digital recordings, and then the laptop recordings, is not a mere matter of random chance. As the album Canzoni della Cupa proves, it is not just a question of allowing the sounds of instruments - that in the time of the analogic would have been considered not suited to recordings intended for wide circulation (and consequently confined to the role of document for specialists) – to emerge from the fog, but also of capturing all the environmental nuances that collocate voices and instruments in a credible acoustic space. Not a static “recording studio” space, but a malleable environment, perhaps even to the needs of the folk process.
[To be honest, these things were already intuitable forty years ago. When the Inti Illimani were sent to a sixteen-track studio with a sound engineer who a few years later created the sound of Battiato’s most successful records, when we listened to the result it was clear to us all that “folk music” (perhaps today we should call it “acoustic music”) was no longer forced to sport that hazy, withdrawn sound, bereft of dynamics and space, which we had been used to by records of Italian folk revival. Thenceforth the cynical “deadly boredom” came too, but those Andean music records, and also the ones by the Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare, paved the way for all.]
In the stereophonic panorama of Canzoni della Cupa Vinicio Capossela’s voice is always in the middle, not really “hollow” but neither shrill: it is “within” that space, it does not rise above it, contrary to what the Italian radio canon requires (inherited from the RAI music examining board, a sort of ever-present authority in our record scene, even forty years from its repeal), a canon to which many songwriters have adapted. It is not (only) a careless, slovenly, non-embellished voice: this is a voice that is well suited to what it says, the voice of one who is part of the scene. Capossela is one of the most esteemed personalities in the singer/songwriter music scene, therefore we have to refer to that framework to assess the compliances and the detours that mark his individual value: Capossela’s voice is far from the typical tone of the better-educated older brother or professor, which has been the vocal paradigm of singer/songwriters for decades. Likewise, his writing (at least in this album) is not literary, it is not the typical style of the poet: there are sundry highly poetic images (ambiguous, metaphorical images based on the grammatical, syntactic, semantic, prosodic bag of tricks of the versifier) in Canzoni della Cupa, but Capossela has succeeded in making them all (also those that are evidently his) sound like popular poetry, and this, besides being a great merit, is a great relief.
This album was born under the influence of Matteo Salvatore and his (to cite Capossela) “stand alone” songs, meaning autonomous, separated from other genres and traditions. The concept of influence, nowadays largely used by critics and websites (that list artists according to the influences they have had), is generally interpreted passively, as if it were an action by the artist, the work or the genre exerting an influence on those who undergo it. On the contrary it is, as some esteemed critics claim, an active process by the influenced. As Harold Bloom said, the artist, the poet chooses his predecessors, not the other way round. Capossela, here, has chosen Matteo Salvatore. We could infer, perhaps, that Capossela’s “stand alone” definition of Salvatore’s songs is actually what he would like could be said of his songs, the songs in this album.
[And I think it can. Congratulations Vinicio.]
 Coppolone: a kind of newsy cap much in use among man in Southern Italy. T.N.
 For precision’s sake, we should talk of modes, in the plural: there are more minor modes, and more modes that have a major character, with a third major between the first and the third note, although they are not “the major mode” (ionian).