Sicily is best described, best experienced through her people and their history. One could spend endless hours poring over their ethnology, ethnography and anthropology to understand them or one could experience their music. It has been noted that music is a faithful and eloquent revealer of the human heart. It has the power to explain not only the ‘whys’ of history, but also share the most guarded secrets of one’s soul. It also connects us in our humanity – quite an achievement for eight little notes!
La Musica Popolare di Sicilia is the story of the people of Sicily – the story of Sicily itself. It is an interesting juxtaposition of a nation’s history and the personal histories of a civilization. One could begin with the lullabies – among the first songs anyone hears in any culture. Endemic to the Sicilian lullaby is the sound of ‘ah-oh’ or lah-oh, sometimes even ‘oh-oh’ or lah-voh.’ Is this a reference to the dawn? – (Aurora in Latin and Eos in Greek) Is this a remnant of the time when Sicily was part of the Magna Grecia? Was this the sound that mothers came to use to soothe their babies to sleep until dawn?
Song would accompany the children as they grew. There were songs for toddlers, sung to them as they learned to walk. One such song telling them that wherever they placed their tiny foot, a sprig of basil would grow. .’Unni posi lu to peduzzu nasci un pedi di basilico.’ Of course, the nursery rhymes that children chanted in sing-song would also find their way into the songbook of Musica Popolare. “Santa Luna is a filastrocca, nursery rhyme, that is found in different versions all over Sicily. Singers took that childrens’ rhyme to the blessed moon and sang variations of which many mention courtship and eventual marriage. A reference to San Giovanni is sometimes included as he is the saint to whom young ladies would turn when seeking a husband.
Sicily is rich in its repertoire of courtship songs and this emphasis on courtship exposes a crucial aspect of Sicily’s history. Courtship was an important ritual of life. Since the dawn of history Sicily was the prize sought by invading armies. In the last century it would be political unrest that created instability. Everything that seemed permanent could change almost instantly. The only constant throughout history was one’s family. Courtship was a way for the family to remain strong in the face of upheaval; thus, the ritual was maintained to preserve the very fabric of civilization. A good match meant that the family would survive for another generation.
In the tradition of courtship song, one sees a snapshot of a different time when men and women couldn’t freely speak to each other in public. Through song, they could tell each other their hearts desires and let each other know if they accepted or rejected another’s advances. “E quannu s’affaccia la vurria vasari.” “When she shows herself at the window, I want to kiss her.” An offshoot of this was the canto di sdegno or the song of scorn. Although not used for courtship, they were a way for a scorned lover to express anger and sometimes hatred for the one who wronged them. “Mi cuntintavu a moreri e nun amar a tia.” It would have been better for me to die than to love you!”
Sicilian music also demonstrates another aspect of history and humanity: once, people openly sung about their God, their saints and their miracles. They sang about them when they worked and they sang about them when they feasted. Mary, the Mother of God was central to many of these chants. Although there were particular songs for each religious feast-day, many songs had references to religion even though the song was secular in nature. Religion was a central part in the life of Sicilians. A chant sung to bear the backbreaking labor of harvest might be a recounting of the Passion. In a song about the horrors of pirate invasions, it is lamented that only Mother Mary could save the victims. A fable that bears a resemblance to the Cinderella story revolves around a healing from Saint Anthony.”C’annuncia cumpariu Sant Antuninu/ci disse chi mi du ca ti fazzu guariri? Compadre Saint Anthony announced, “Tell me what you would give me if I cured you.”
Love and religion weren’t the only topics sung. Any event in history, any conflict found its way to be expressed in song, especially the conflict between the overlords and the poor. When the Palermitani arose up to overthrow the oppressing Borboni, a song came about which used a donkey as a metaphor for the poor contadino – the peasant. When the donkey has suffered abuse, he throws himself down and refuses to work for his abuser. Lu sceccu s’importuna, si curca in terra a dici, “Lu saziu nun criri a lu diunu.” “The donkey threw himself down on the ground and said the man who has enough to eat doesn’t understand the man who is starving.”
Musically, people hear so many influences in Sicilian song. Some hear Spanish influence, some hear Arabic influence, some hear Greek. Each invader left their stamp not only on the culture, but on the musical patrimony as well. With so many dimensions to this music, what could possibly describe Sicilian music comprehensively? What words could possibly gather all these songs together to fit them into one category? Perhaps that one word is, “desire.” Each song is an expression of humanity’s desire – whether it be desire to receive love, the desire to give love, the desire to be free, the desire to express one’s faith, one’s frustrations, one’s anger, one’s pain. “La vita era sempre un desiderio” Life was always a desire (Michele Cali`)
It is the force of desire and the force of the accompanying emotions that make Sicilian music stand apart from other traditions. It is this desire and these emotions that touch one’s soul and connect one to others be they our present neighbors or be they a people who lived centuries ago. The rawness and the truth of such desires and emotions are understood by all. At the end of physical life, only memories remain. These memories captured in song reach across centuries to bind us together transcending our modernity, our cultural differences and our varied beliefs. Sicilian music reflected the cycle of life, not in real time, but in humanity’s time.
Courtesy of La RosaWorks
You remind me that one night we sat in the most lovely bar of a Venetian hotel. the crowd was melting away. them members of the mob–some venetian some napoli–walked in and had a long and unsuccessful conversation. the napoli boss grew tired of the venetian crowd. turning to me, he said which is better Venetian music or Napoli music. Not foolish, I immediately barked, “Napoli music, what else.” The piano player had disappeared into the kitchen. The boss went out and brought him back literally the ear. We had a long and laughing round of Napoli music. Wonderful. Needless to say, much of the local Venetian clientele–which had been melting away–stayed, utterly fascinated. And with more drinks and some singing and many smiles we got over our discomfort at having eaten too well that day, first at this hotel and then later at Harry’s.
Thank You for this enlightening article on the roots music of Sicily. I will look for the “Songs of Trinacria” on Amazon.
Very Good Michela,
I love Sicilian Music. I go around all day singing Sicilian songs in my head. This was nice to read. I would like to see a section that might translate some traditional Sicilian songs into English. Music is an excellent way to learn a language, and that is my current objective. Ciau a prestu.
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