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A Modern Crusader--Pino Minafra and the Talos Festival

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By Gerry Koster

The Appian Way, the ancient super highway built in the 4th century B.C. linking Rome to the port city Brindisi in Puglia in Italy’s south-east, was vital to Rome’s colonization of the country and in the establishment the Roman Empire. The Roman legions have long since marched into legend as have the many other travellers through the millennia who traversed the length of “the Queen of Roads”, including The Crusaders on their quests to The Holy Lands.

However, there exists today a modern day crusader in the Puglia region—the peninsular stiletto heel of Italy’s boot—near the Appian Way in the town of Ruvo di Puglia. His name is Pino Minafra—trumpeter, composer, band leader, festival director and activist—who 23 years ago founded the Italian Instabile Orchestra with a quest to bring a global visibility to Italian jazz.

The much-lauded all-star orchestra is as unique as its birthplace. Puglia is extraordinarily rich and diverse in its culture and music, a concentrated synergy of Mediterranean and Adriatic influences that date back well beyond the time of ancient Rome. As a celebration and an affirmation of the region’s cultural identity—particularly its music—Minafra initiated the annual Talos Festival in 1993.

Its focus is the Banda—the Italian wind ensemble or orchestra—which came to prominence in the 19th century after the French Revolution and the country’s occupation by Napoleon. Its role was both cultural and political.

Banda became the platform to express the revolutionary idea of equality in music, eschewing the aristocracy. Nearly every Italian community had its own Banda, with typically fifty to sixty musicians playing nearly all the important reed and brass instruments of the time. Minafra recounts...

“One of its biggest merits consists of having widely spread the musical culture of symphonies and opera all over the country, particularly among the poorest and most isolated people...

In fact, owing to the scarcity of theatres in the middle and south of Italy, and to the social and economic discrimination which kept thousands of people away from the great opera houses, the Banda literally took the place of the world of the ‘bel canto’ (that is to say, the opera), carrying out a thorough musical revolution and creating a unique and original sound.

The violins of the orchestra were in replaced in the Banda by the clarinets, and the voices of soprano, contralto, tenor and baritone were substituted by the small sopranino flugelhorn, the soprano, tenor and baritone horn respectively. Such a change proved to be audacious... yet effective...”

The instrumentation usually included four to six tubas, five or more French horns, a swarm of trumpets, trombones and clarinets, plus bassoons, oboes and flutes. And the Banda kept pace with the evolution and technical innovations of their instruments allowing them to become even more refined and able to tackle the most sophisticated of scores. It’s been said that when Italian opera became a mass phenomenon and Verdi a national hero, it was mainly because of the Banda.

Composer Nino Rota brought the Banda to an even bigger audience. Director of the Conservatory of baritone in Puglia’s capital for over thirty years, he often included the Banda sounds of the region in his famous soundtracks for the films of Federico Fellini.

For more than 200 years the Banda has been “a formidable musical gymnasium—a big workshop and a training place for dozens of music conductors and composers and hundreds of notable wind instrument players in the most important national orchestras.” And this tradition continues.

There are 8000 musicians and 200 bands in the Puglia region alone, yet despite this, the music establishment, ministries and intelligentsia continue to ignore it, often dismissing the Banda as a museum piece.

The Banda Città Ruvo di Puglia (the City Band) was created in 1993 on an idea from Minafra to preserve the living tradition of the Banda with performances and recordings—and to take it into the new millennium by expanding its repertoire to include jazz and contemporary music.

La Banda

And that same year the annual Talos Festival was launched with Artisitic Director Minafra at the helm to celebrate this heritage and to change the views of the establishment.

“The festival theme is The Banda,” says Minafra, “a Cinderella forgotten by the institutions of our regions. The festival was born to raise awareness and provoke the political administrators of Ruvo about culture. In fact, we don’t have a ministry fully dedicated to culture while having a history of universal value.

It is an enormous resource for tourism, the economy and culture. Ours is a young country which has not yet fully understood the huge potential tied to its history, her beauty and the wealth of its regions with their profoundly diverse characteristics which make Italy so unique.

So the idea was to create at Ruvo a foundation and laboratory dedicated to music and other cultural aspects whose roots lay in the local region.”

Talos was the giant in Greek mythology who was the protector of the island of Crete, whose death was famously depicted in a painting on a large Greek vase from the 4th century BC, an archaeological treasure among the many other regional antiquities collected by the Jatta National Archaeological Museum in Ruvo.

The Talos Festival is “also means for me to connect to our Greek ancestors, of whom so many have given to art, politics and philosophy. In fact, Ruvo is full of Greek heritage. Talos is a vessel...where, for the first time in the history of art, time appears in a three dimensional perspective. For me it was easy to take inspiration from the thought and the spirit which represents that vessel. An idea of eternal beauty.”

This notion of eternal beauty has also extended itself to Holy Week (the last week of Lent and the week before Easter) in Puglia where Banda accompany the long annual processions representing the passion and death of Christ with their profound and powerful sacred music and funeral marches. Acclaimed composers and orchestrators such as the brothers Antonio and Alessandro Amenduni from Ruvo, and Luigi Cirenei from Perugia contributed much to this sphere in the last century as well as lift the standard of Banda even higher.

The idea to introduce Banda with jazz and improvisation was born during the third edition of the Talos Festival in 1995...

“For years I had thought about taking inspiration from the music of Nino Rota, with some of his film music inspiring the sound of our band. The music of Nino Rota has always stimulated me, like it has and still does many musicians around the world. It is fresh, ironic, sweet, dreamy, surreal...

Therefore, the idea was to elaborate and integrate jazz musicians like arranger and conductor Bruno Tommaso, Gianluigi Trovesi, Michel Godard, Jean Louis Matinier, Willem Breuker...as improvising soloists to demonstrate the flexibility and freshness of a sound that is not dead, but alive with much to explore.”

Under Minafra’s direction, the Banda Città Ruvo di Puglia—now best known as La Banda— continues to espouse this philosophy and approach, creating a bridge between tradition and innovation, and is regularly invited to perform at some of Europe’s most prestigious festivals and venues.

Talos has since continued to celebrate the Banda’s heritage, collaborate with its European neighbours and invite musicians from all over the world to create new music.

The annual ten day festival takes place in September with nearly all the concerts outdoors under starry skies on balmy autumn evenings in the picturesque old town of Ruvo di Puglia. And it’s a festival for the people with most concerts free and those ticketed a mere €5!

Talos is presented initially with an ‘Anteprima’...or a preview before the international program. “The idea is to create a path to introduce the numerous public and private institutions who have at their heart, this amazing social-cultural laboratory dedicated to the Banda.”

These concerts take place in the sunken plaza in front of the 13th century Romanesque Ruvo di Puglia Cathedral in the heart of the old town. With its white stone facade atmospherically spot lit at night, it plays host to a variety of Banda from the region, and the townsfolk and festival goers gather in the street that surrounds the plaza and in the balconies of the houses that overlook the scene.

Ruvo Cathedral

The Anteprima showcases the eclecticism and versatility of the Banda, rousingly delivered with the professionalism of any symphony orchestra, though not without cheek—a playlist might see Bizet, Verdi and Puccini alongside traditional folk music, Radiohead, the Beatles or Ellington. And it typically features local and regional municipal Banda, military and experimental Banda and Banda from high schools and universities.

Minafra says that Banda also play another important role in the region, particularly “...in tough and poor neighbourhoods where the music tends to assist troubled teens... it places them in a social context like, for example, La Rustica X Band from Rome and ‘Musica In Gioco’ which is inspired by the Venezuelan José Antonio Abreu.”

Abreu—pianist, economist, educator, activist, and a former Minister of Culture—was the founder of El Sistema, formally known as the Foundation for the National Network of Youth and Children Orchestras of Venezuela.

The 2012 Talos Festival featured one such group—a Banda of youth 130-strong filling the plaza to absolute capacity. Nearly all had been playing their instruments for but a year or two, and with some of their teachers scattered amongst them gave a performance that was beyond expectation—a firm validation of the social function it performs, and of the Banda and its future.

Another highlight was the Improbabilband from baritone—a Banda founded by university students and researchers in 2000—which takes something from Minafra’s approach by creating new original music inspired the traditional music of Puglia and combining it with the rhythms of the Mediterranean.

Local tuba player Michele Rubini says, “Anywhere you dig the earth in Ruvo, you will find a piece of Talos. Every home in Ruvo has an instrument—never will there be NO Banda! And always there will be Talos!”

The energy of the Anteprima program then expands into the open square of the Piazzetta Le Monache with a huge raised stage for the crescendo of the Talos main program.

Piazzetta Le Monache

In recent years international guests have included John Surman, Rabih Abou-Khalil, David Liebman, Vassilis Tsabropoulos, Louis Sclavis, Louis Moholo’s Viva la Black, Savina Yannatou, Renaud Garcia-Fons, the Phil Minton-Veryan Weston Duo and Michel Godard among others.

Drawing on the rich and diverse palette of the region’s cultural influences, past highlights have included the Romanian troupe Taraf De Haidouks (introduced to the world in the Tony Gatlif film Latcho Drom), the funky Macedonian Romani brass band Kocani Orkestar fuelled by Balkan gypsy music and Turkish and Latin rhythms, and the renowned Serbian brass band, the Boban and Marko Markovic Orchestra.

Prominent Italians featured on recent programs include the extraordinary Faraualla—a female vocal quartet from baritone which explores vocal polyphony from ancient times to contemporary—percussionist Carlo Rizzo, saxophonists Carlo Actis Dato, Gianluigi Trovesi and Roberto Ottaviano, composer and arranger Bruno Tommaso, Minafra’s pianist son Livio, and avant-garde jazz trombonists Sebi Tramontana and Giancarlo Schiaffini from the Italian Instabile Orchestra.

Building on last year’s festival which drew over 20,000 visitors, this year from September 4th to the 14th the festival will continue with its Talos-exclusive productions, master classes and exhibitions—and with a conference on Banda.

Among the highlights of the 2014 Talos Festival is The Netherlands’ renowned Instant Composers Pool Orchestra—the ICP—listed as one of the ‘80 Coolest Things in Jazz Today’ in the 80th Anniversary Collector’s Edition of Downbeat magazine in July—a title that the ICP’s idiosyncratic and irrepressible 72 year-old drummer Han Bennink was also honoured with.

With Bennink the ICP features a variety of other prominent band-leaders in their own right with reed specialists Michael Moore, Ab Baars and Tobias Delius, trombonist Wolter Wierbos, trumpeter Thomas Heberer, violinist Mary Oliver, cellist Tristan Honsinger and bassist Ernst Glerum. Bennink is also billed for a solo concert.

Joining Italy’s MinAfric Orchestra, co-led by Pino Minfra and his son Livio with a concert ‘For Mandela’ is legendary South African drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo and the English pianist Keith Tippett—who or over forty years has been at the forefront of contemporary European jazz and new music—and his partner, vocal artist Julie Tippetts.

The drummer was one of the founder members of the celebrated Blue Notes from his home country and both he and Tippett were key players in Chris McGregor’s big band, the Brotherhood of Breath—‘For Mandela’ will reflect the legacy of these groups with new music especially created by Tippett for this exclusive Talos event.

Exhibitions will celebrate the 40th anniversary of Ogun Recordings, an independent recording label established to document the impact of the Blue Notes and the Brotherhood had on British jazz and their European collaborations—and focus on the ICP and its co- founder, pianist Misha Mengelberg.

Keith Tippett will also present a solo concert and Moholo-Moholo will also feature in a duo setting with the award winning pianist Livio Minafra.

The Italian Tankio Band, an orchestra led keyboardist by Riccardo Fassi wil present a show dedicated to Frank Zappa with Sardinian accordionist Antonello Salis sitting in with the band.

Talos will feature another accordion master with the Austrian Klaus Paier in duet with Croatian cellist Asia Valcic of Vienna’s ‘non-classical’ contemporary Radio String Quartet fame.

Two leading Italian saxophonists are also slated to appear—the Gianluigi Trovesi New Quartet and the Roberto Ottaviano Trio, which will pay tribute to Steve Lacy.

And to wrap up the 2014 program in a typically celebratory fashion will be trumpeter Salento Dell'Anna Caesar and his eclectic Girodibanda from Salento, which mixes Banda tradition, folk music and the pulsating rhythms of the neighbouring Balkans. And, as the last notes are sounded, the traditional Talos balloon will be launched into the night sky to the roar of the audience in the Piazzetta Le Monache to mark the close of another Talos Festival celebrating Banda and its unique southern heritage—and the indomitable spirit of the South.

Pino Minafra—the passionate crusader still undeterred in his quest—and La Banda were recently invited to perform in Germany at the Berlin Philharmonic, an internationally renowned venue with one of the world’s most discerning audiences. It responded to their program of music with a fifteen minute standing ovation.


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