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Newpoli: Music Beyond The Tarantula’s Bite

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Sometimes you don’t understand what you have until you leave it behind. It can be people, places. It can even be the music.

That’s definitely the case with Newpoli. When the founding members left Italy to study jazz at Berklee College of Music, they never imagined that they’d end up performing the folk music of their homeland. But the pull of southern Italy was strong.

“Rediscovering folk music was a shock, no one expected it,” admits vocalist Carmen Marsico, one of those who started Newpoli in 2003. “Sometimes you have to go to another country to discover your culture.”

And Tempo Antico, Newpoli’s third release, is a passionate, intoxicating discovery of Italian folk culture. Over the last decade, the eight members of the band have dug deeper and deeper into the tarantella-pizzicas, tammuriatas, villanellas and canzones of the Campania, Calabria and Puglia regions of Italy, and the treasures they discovered are here.

“We focused on older songs for Tempo Antico,” music director Wennas explains. “Some of the material here is from the 1500s and it’s often done by early music groups. We wanted to give it more of a folk spin; that’s how we picture they’d have played it back then.” There’s a fiery, primal rawness in the voices of singers Carmen Marsico and Angela Rossi, and the crisp percussion of Fabio Pirozzolo powers the melodies forward. This is the sound of history come to life, a past that’s possibly as old as the land itself. “Some of the pizzicas, they don’t even know how old they are. Some could be traced back to when the Greeks were in that part of Italy,” Wennas says. Even the newest material on the album has a patina of age. Two of the ballads were written in the early 1900s, in the classic Neapolitan style made so popular by the great tenor, Enrico Caruso. “He actually made the Neapolitan Canzone famous in the United States, using many of them as encores after his performances at the Met,” Wennas adds.

The album was recorded live in a church, with only “a couple of percussion overdubs – we wanted a lot of percussion – and some backing vocals. Live there’s so much energy, not like in the studio, and we wanted to capture that. And what we’ve tried to do is show all of this as folk music. So often, the ways it’s been presented in the past, it’s like having gospel performed by an opera singer.”

Tarantella’s mythical reputation as a frenzied, hypnotic dance, the only thing that could cure those who’d been bitten by the wolf spider or tarantula, is deep-rooted. There are mentions of musical exorcism and the spider dating back to 1100 BC. Rather than concentrate solely on that, Newpoli ensure that much of the music here avoids that breakneck pace, allowing the subtleties and complexities of the rhythms and harmonies to come out.

“That particular part of the repertoire of the CD are mostly the Renaissance pieces,” Wennas says. “They’re not frantic like the pizzicas, but we added a lot of folk spirit and percussion to the them. We’ve been researching a lot and studied various instruments from the region, and in the Mediterranean so much music is mixed together. Not only from Southern Italy, but also Greek and Arabic. What they have in common is the passion.”

And on Tempo Antico that passion isn’t just incendiary, it’s completely natural. It’s actually in the blood.

“Carmen’s family is from Basilicata in the south of Italy. When the band started she was really surprised at how many of these pieces she knew. It was the same for Angela, her family is from Napoli, it all came flooding back. For Fabio and Roberto, the groups percussionist and accordionist respectively, it was less of a re-discovery, the tambourine was even Fabio’s first instrument.”

But Tempo Antico doesn’t aim to re-create the past. History is a huge strand of the music, but they make its heart beat and its voice sing loud in the here and now. It’s a disc that builds on everything they’ve created over the last decade, all the live performances and study. Five years have passed since their eponymous debut CD, and last year they issued Musica di Natale, an album of traditional Italian Christmas music. Tempo Antico goes to the heart of Italy, with superb musicianship and absolute, unalloyed pleasure.

It’s taken too long, but the world is becoming more aware of Italy’s long musical history. Newpoli are ready to lead the way even deeper, to take listeners below the slick surface of vacation delights to where Italy really lives and breathes.

Newpoli keep the flames of Southern Italian music burning bright. And now, with Tempo Antico, the blaze is catching.


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