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Armos: Traditional Sicilian Folk Music

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About This Project
This first step of the project was incredibly long, tiring and expensive to achieve. No one believed to this project at the beginning, because Sicilian folk music is nearly dead and it is not very appreciated in Sicily.  Almost everybody here knows just few (and relatively modern) songs that are commonly played by the "gruppi folcloristici", groups of musicians and dancers, dressed in a traditional way, that perform mainly for tourists.

The most difficult thing was probably to identify and rebuild the instruments, but also to find (and motivate) the musicians, and to find and arrange the songs was very hard. Also the recording and the mixing was longer than usual.  Each instrument has got his own story. Besides the "friscalettu", which is still nowadays played, the others was rebuilt or found in different ways.

The harp, by instance. We know that the "orbi" used to play also an harp, but what kind of harp?

There are two different, but not necessarily alternative, conjectures:

1) the harp used in Sicily was similar to that one played in the past in Calabria, of which there are several traces in a very small Calabrian town, "Viggiano".

2) the harp was brought by the spanish, during their colonisation of Sicily. In this case the instrument could be similar to the XVII century spanish harps.

We followed this second way, but it was not very easy. During a masterclass in Urbino, I asked to the best italian player of historical harps, Mara Galassi, where to find an old spanish harp. She gave me the address of the only instrument-maker capable to rebuild this instrument. He lives in

Tenerife, Islas Canarias, and he took the plan of construction of this charming instrument from a book stored in the royal library of Madrid. So I contacted him and, a couple of months later, I went to Tenerife to fetch my harp. Its name is "Flavia", and it is near me in the meanwhile I am writing to you.

The "bifera" is another good example. It is an ancester of the oboe, played in the past by our shepherds. Four years ago I visited a very old shepherd, Sebastiano Liuzzo, living (I hope) in Maniace, in the northern side of the Etna. He also was a "ciaramedda" maker, and a player as well. He played for me for few minutes using an incredibly old model. Despite the age, he was great. I remember he said that is not possible to become a good "ciaramedda" player if you do not start to practise at the age of 5-6.  I asked him to make a "bifera" for me.  He replied that he made his last "bifera" forty or fifty years earlier, and he was no sure about the result, overall because I did not not remember the holes positions. I asked him to try anyway. His "bifera" was completely out of tune. But the materials, the shape and the proportions were the right ones.

In the same period I knew about another old men living in a very small town near Isernia, in Molise.  He is capable to make several wind instruments. Among them, the "cialamella". The "cialamella" played in Molise is not similar to the Sicilian "ciaramedda", which is a bagpipe. It is, more or less, a "bifera". So I sent him the Sicilian shepherd's "bifera", asking him to make a copy with the holes in the right positions.

I got similar stories for the "colascione", that was rebuilt twice; for the "lute-guitar", dated around 1830, founded in Lucca and restored in Randazzo; for the "chitarrino", taken by iconographical sources, etc.

The musicians selection took me more than one year. The most difficult was to persuade them to play those strange instruments, and playing with them a kind of music that everyone in Sicily links to that one played by the "gruppi folcloristici". The rehersals started two years ago, and we worked at the same time for the recordings and for the show. I wrote "show", and not "concert", because all the musical pieces are linked each other by the intervention of a narrator.

Also the tales and the poetries acted by the narrator belong to the oldest Sicilian tradition. Ada Russo, our narrator, found them during a very long quest in the Sicilian libraries. We selected few pearls between more than one hundred books written by etnologists like Pitré, Amabile Guastella, Vigo, and others, during the first half of the XX century. It was not very easy to get the books. In some of the biggest public sicilians libraries you have to be a student to get a book, and you have also to demonstrate that you need the book for your degree thesis.

The songs and the dances was taken from different sources The oldest one is a group of manuscripts written by a German musician, Giacomo Mayerbeer, during his Sicilian journey in 1806. He transcribed part of the repertoire played by the "orbi", the blind Sicilian minstrels.

The oldest dance of this precious collection is probably "La Capona". In a note Mayerbeer wrote: "very old, it was composed more than one hundred years ago". It means that it belongs to the XVII century! It was a pleasure to arrange and record it. Now "La Capona" is the last track of our CD.

For the recordings we created a little, fully digital, studio for having the chance to work without haste. Some friends of mine lend us some very good microphones, and I worked with another friend, Graziano Lacagnina, for the recordings and the mixing. It took us more than 18 months. We have not received any help from the Government.

Despite the written that you will find in the back of our CD, "con l'Alto Patrocinio dell'Assemblea Regionale Siciliana e della Fondazione Federico II", we have never got any financial aid from them... Until last week. Just few days ago, infact, I received a letter in which the Regional departement for the cultural affairs allow us a funds of 4.700.000 italian lire (about 3.100 U.S. dollars) for... "attività folcloristiche".

From 1995 up to now, I personally spent for the "Armós" project more than ten times this amount. By chance, in the last years I was not alone.

The musicians made lots of rehersals without asking any remboursement (someone came from distant towns); the director we choose for setting up the show, Salvo Piro, did it for nothing; and the same did the narrator, despite she spent lots of days closed in libraries pretending to be a student. Also the web site was realised with the unwarranted collaboration of a friend, Cristiano Marletta.

Anyway, now the CD is finished and the show is ready. And we did it without compromises of any kind. I don't know if we will have success or not (we are still looking for distribution), but I know we have already saved (and ferried across the future) sounds, words and melodies otherwise buried and dead.

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