Ah, Granny's come to help us out...

Polyphonies des Quatres Provinces
01. Avóta vgni curé ant la mè vigna (Veux-tu venir, mon cœur, dans ma vigne) - 1:09
02. E la vien dal ciel (Elle vient du Ciel) - 3:17
03. Mamma mia dammi il biondo (Maman, donne-moi le blond) - 3:02
04. Dove vai o ti Armando ? (Où vas-tu, ô toi Armando ? ) - 3:29
05. Tri bèi giuvin (Il y avait trois beaux jeunes garçons) - 2:53
06. Lei mi voleva bene (Elle me veut du bien) - 4:50
07. Sotto il ponte (Sous le pont) - 4:50
08. Çappellino rotondo (Le petit chapeau rond) - 2:30
09. Marcinella (Marceline) - 3:25
10. Stornèlli in risaia (Stornèlli dans la rizière) - 2:25
11. Cristoforo Colombo (Christophe Colomb) - 3:20
12. La strada di Mede (La route de Mede) - 3:23
13. Cinque minuti (Cinq minutes) - 1:50
14. La sposina (La petite épouse) - 3:36
15. E darmi d'un ricciolo (Donne-moi une boucle de tes cheveux) - 4:10
16. La bèlla si marita (La belle se marie) - 4:06
17. La figura (La figure) - 1:34
18. Angiolina - 1:17
19. Serenatella proibita (Sérénade interdite) - 3:08
I cantori di Marsaglia - Colleri U Canta - Paolo Marchelli - La Squadra Trallalero - Le Voci Dei Confine - Le Voci Di Fego - Le Voci Di Ferriere - Le Voci Di Lesima...


 The traditional polyphonic singing of Northern Italy is locally known as canto fermo (“song without rhythm”). This is an all-male tradition; female groups were also once common, but for some reason have now disappeared, and the singing generally takes place when friends gather in someone’s cellar or in a bar. As its name suggests, this is music that unfolds without rhythmic pulse, but with rich and powerful harmony. This recording was made in the field by amateur singers, and the sound quality is very good; the singing is rough-edged but expert...


The ... CD presents the canto fermo (songs without rhythm) genre found, among other places, in the quattro province of northern Italy - a mountainous area situated where the four northern Italian provinces of Genova, Piacenza, Alessandria and Pavia join.  The local culture is very interesting in that it has incorporated disparate elements of Piemontese, Ligurian, Emilia Romagnan and Lombard tradition into a cohesive whole.  To the uninitiated, this canto fermo sounds a lot like the famous Genovese trallalero tradition - but only superficially; it tends to be less complex and 'arranged', and usually excludes the chitarra (vocal guitar) part.

Group harmony singing can, of course, be found all over the world and these mountain villages are no exception - but the normal form was for a 'first' and 'second' voice (often a tenor and a baritone) to carry the song over a bass accompaniment or drone.  In a few areas, a vocal 'guitar' part was added to the accompaniment.  A broad repertoire of such songs developed over a long period.  Liguria is a poor area for most sorts of agriculture and many villages operated at near subsistence levels whenever the circumstances were less than perfect.  Having a city like Genova (Zena in the local dialect), rich from trade and commerce from the 11th century through to fairly recent times, acted as a magnet, as all powerful cities do, to the more adventurous dwellers in the hinterland, and such people flocked there in search of fame and fortune ... bringing their songs with them.  For reasons which it would be impossible to fully explain, the polyphonic singing style of the mountain villages found a particular place among the gangs of longshoremen, stevedores and participants in the various metal-working trades which supported the industry of the port.  The male contralto part may well have been borrowed from the castrati who formerly sang in the church choirs of the city.

So it may be said that the canto fermo is a rural forerunner of the urban trallalero, and it has continued to develop alongside it right up to the present day.  This present disc seems to be the brainchild of Stefano Valla, who I first encountered as part of a group called Voci del Lèsima, whose excellent 1996 CD, Splende la luna in ciel, I reviewed in fROOTS at the time.  As well as singing, he played a bit of piffero on that CD, and subsequently became known as one of the foremost exponents of that fine instrument ... but more of that later.

The CD features the singing of several goups: Le voci di Lesima; Le voci dei Confine; Le voci di Ferriere; Le voci di Fego; Colleri u canta; I cantori di Marsaglia; and the trallalero group La Squadra.  In addition there are a few songs from Stefano Valla and Daniele Scurati (accordion).  It starts, however, with a solo - which seems a bit odd for a record featuring polyphonic singing - from Paolo Marchelli (Chacho's cousin, and primo in Le voci di Lesima), but it's a good example of the true strambotti style, now becoming popular in the area.

OK - let's hear some of the singing.  I'll start with what I think may be the most typical example of the canto fermo style, E la vien dal ciel (She comes from Heaven), sung by Le voci di Lesima.  Next, here are Le voci di Ferriere with Sotto il ponte (Under the bridge).  I think this borrows a characteritic from the mondine of the Po Valley rice fields, in that the 'chorus' starts towards the end of the first or third line of the verses.  For a closer example of this style, Le voci di Fego sing Stornèlli in risaia (verses in the rice field).  As you can hear, this group includes some women singers - the mondine were always women (the only men empoyed in rice field were called trapiantini; they transplanted rice plants one at a time, by hand).  To make a change, let's hear a bit of Stefano Valla and Daniele Scurati playing and singing La bella si marita (The beautiful bride).  This is a composite of a song and two dance tunes (canto da piffero), which recall the old masters of the quattro province, Giacomo and Ernesto Sala, with hints of the old sestrina tune.  While Stefano sings with both Le voci di Lesima and La Squadra, it is (rather obviously) Daniele who is singing here.  To complete a sample of the sounds to be heard here, I'll finish with a bit of trallalero from La Squadra, Angiolina.  Although most of the group come from Genova, it has always been common for trallalero singers to visit the mountains for feste, singing and good company.

One of the delights of a labour of love like this CD is the little insights that those 'within' the tradition let 'out'.  When reviewing CDs of the Sardinian coro (sacred) tradition, I've often mentioned the quintina - the fifth harmonic which can emerge from the four perfectly attuned voices.  When this happens, the singers believe that it is the voice of the Virgin Mary joining in with them.  Unsurprisingly, we are told that this phenomenon also sometimes occurs in the canto fermo, where it is said to be the voice of the grandmother - "Ah, Granny's come to help us out" say the singers!  Isn't that just beautiful?

Rod Stradling - 26.9.12 


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