Picture yourself working day in and day out beneath a blazing sun in the red fields of Southern Italy with no end in sight. Now hold onto this feeling and add a feminine flavor to it. Got it? Now envision yourself returning home every night from this labor to be a mother and wife. Feel your spirit full of unfulfilled dreams and feelings with no outlet. Take this weight and add a spider's bite. That's right, I said a spider's bite. But not just any spider's bite, a tarantula's bite, the pizzica or sting. Imagine the bite's poison coursing through your bloodstream and bringing all of this fire and longing to the surface. If you can imagine all of this, then you are well on your way to experiencing the soul of Salento's traditional folk music, the Pizzica.
Pizzica traditionally stories the journey and longing of the tarantula's real and symbolic bite and provides the soundtrack for healing trance dances. Throughout untold years, thousands of bitten women have turned outside the cathedral doors in the small village of Galatina to expiate their woes. Today it is the culmination and in some ways integration of the tamborri, which has been beating the collective rhythms of a people's passion and desire for thousands of years. Pizzica has evolved into a medium for community celebration and like the spider that inspires it goes a bit underground in the winter months but surfaces again in the summer's heat culminating in the Notte della Taranta festival in August. This year the "grand finale" concert will be on August 25th with around 60,000 people expected to attend.
Donatello Pisanello and his band Officina Zoe have in large and small ways nurtured Pizzica's popular rebirth in the last decade and will be playing the festival this year. Since their formation in 1993 Officina Zoe has become one of the most widely known Pizzica groups in the world. They wrote the musical score for Sangue Vivo, the only Italian film selected for the Sundance Film Festival in 2001. Their evocative soundtrack for this movie also garnered them an invitation to play at the American Academy Awards that same year. Their musical score was so intricately woven into Sangue Vivo's success that Winspeare, the movie's director asked them to compose the music for his next movie El Miracolo. Every year they participate in prestigious music festivals and travel to places as far as Los Angeles and Tokyo to spread the Pizzica's infectious rhythms.
This past spring, as the group was resting and beginning to prepare for their upcoming tour, Donatello invited me to one of the band's casual rehearsal's at lead vocalist, Cinzia Marzo and percussion player, Lamberto Probos' beautiful home high on a cliff overlooking the Ionian Sea.
Musical instruments ranging from violins to wooden washboards littered the room and there were forms of drums and tambourines I had never seen before. One in particular caught my eye, a hand drum or tamborra with a stick mounted to the head of the drum at a right angle. I asked Lamberto about it and he had great fun telling me that it's an instrument best practiced by a younger man. He called Giorgio Doveri, the band's classically trained violinist in to demonstrate. The instrument is appropriately named the percussione frizione and it is usually held about waist level by the person playing it with its sound coming from the friction created by jerking the mounted stick through a loosely formed fist. I shall leave this description here because I suppose you get the idea.
It was all good fun and Officina Zoe not only know how to cast the Pizzica's spell they know how to host a party. It was like a dream to watch the sun set over the rocky shores outside which so echo the music's deeply felt energy. Then we stained our teeth black drinking of some of Lamberto's home made Negromauro wine as the band polished new material and dusted off time worn classics like America. The song America, I learned is about the end of World War II when many of Salento's men left for America never to be heard from again. Pizzica may have begun to heal a spider's bite but its story extends out to encompass the region's story. It's a study of light and shadow holding the range of human emotion.
If you would like to learn more about Officina Zoe, they have an official website complete with a touring schedule and music downloads. Those who may wish a more personal glimpse might visit the myspace page Donatello recently set up. If you've an existential fever and want try the tamborri's beat to slake your thirst and pound your poison out, head down to Lecce in Salento in August. Visitors will find more than a few friend's to help celebrate the Pizzica's fever during the Notte della Taranta, the following link will show you how.
Written by Kimberli Waack