Arachnophenia

A 2,000-year-old dance traditionally used to cure a tarantula's bite is taking Italy by storm. Philip Sweeney sinks his teeth into the phenomenon of tarantella
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The Independent Culture

Where would you go to find recordings of an ancient therapeutic folk music once used to cure a spider's bite? An Armani store in in Naples' Piazza dei Martiri is not the first place you'd think to look, but here they are, on a chillout CD entitled Emporio Armani Caffé 2. "It's a bit New Age for me," says one of the staff. "I prefer R&B." Nonetheless, it is selling like hot pizza, not only in the Armani stores, but nationally, and has provoked a run on the latest CD of Taranta Power, one of its major compilees. Taranta Power, the stars of the revival of the tarantella, a genre until recently confined to arcane musicology or tourist kitsch, have latterly provoked rave reviews in the Italian press.

"It all started because of an American record," says the singer and band leader, Eugenio Bennato,who dropped out of university 30 years ago to become a leading member of a group of young musicians from southern Italy who started to explore and radically modernise the region's traditional music, with the help of key figures of the "Neapolitan school", such as Roberto di Simone, and the support of the eminent film director Eduardo de Filippo. Bennato set up the seminal groups Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare and Musicanova, and toured the countryside, performing prolifically before he made a revelatory discovery. "In 1985," he says, "I came across one of the legendary field recordings made by Alan Lomax and Diego Carpitella in the 1950s. It was a tarantella from the village of Carpino in the region of Gargano - very short, just a wailing voice and the chitarra battente ("beating guitar", a small 10-string oval-bodied guitar), but with incredible force, representing all the mystery of the south, and totally different from the formal tarantella of Naples."

The tarantella is 2,000 years old, and has its roots in the Greek and Roman cults of Dionysus, Bacchus and Apollo, but in the Christian era, it receded into its role as a therapy for those bitten by tarantulas. Small, brown and innocuous, the Italian tarantula lives in the fields around the Southern port of Taranto, where it indulges a penchant for biting the bare feet of harvest workers, preferably women. Tarantism, the nervous disorder that can be induced by the spider's bite, is apparently a phenomenon of the distant past, even though vestiges of the exorcism dance still remain in feasts such as that of St Paul in Galatina.

Found in the Oxford Dictionary of Music between tap-dancing and "Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay", the entry on tarantism states that the only cure for the condition was believed to be "a very lively dance in six-eight time, hence called the tarantella". It was so common in the 17th century that Samuel Pepys described the Italian countryside at harvest time as full of "fiddlers in expectation of being hired by those who are stung".

"There has been a lot of research about tarantism," says Bennato. "There are different opinions about the extent to which it was psychological." But there was no doubt that the therapeutic aspect of the music gave it power. According to Bennato, it still does. "To induce the state of trance, it's necessary to keep up a very strong, very even rhythm for hours, and to find the right hypnotic melodies is not easy. So the therapeutic musicians were really artists."

By the time of the European grand tour, a new, sanitised tarantella had been created. "All the fashionable society of Europe - Gide, Stendhal, and so on - were coming to the Kingdom of Naples," says Bennato. "And the Court wanted a new, sophisticated musical image." So the light tarantella was born, taken up by Rossini, Liszt, Chopin, and, less happily, tarantella tourist shows. "The Naples tarantella show is our enemy," says Bennato.

And so to visit the enemy. In the exceptionally suave Café Fauno, along the coast in Sorrento can be found the Fabulous Neapolitan Show Ricorda Della Tarantella. A couple of hundred elderly vaca- tioners watch as a troupe of young dancers romp through tableaux of Napoli life, complete with invading Saracen hordes, street parties, funiculi and funicula, and cheery waltz-like tarantella. Not bad in a Lloyd Webberish, cruise-ship sort of way, but a few tarantulas loose among the audience would certainly improve proceedings.

Taranta Power's Italian gigs are a very different matter. "The audience dances anywhere and anyway it can, shaking their heads, stamping their feet, swept away by Taranta Power," says Il Roma, "cathartic, liberating", says Il Messaggero, while the Quotidiano refers to the phenomenon of the "Taranta-rave". It was the dance potential, in fact, which impelled Bennato to create Taranta Power four years ago. Bennato recalls: "Suddenly, two beautiful young girls jumped up and joined me on stage, dancing a tarantella, and I realised the missing element was the dance."

Since then, Bennato's band has gone from strength to strength. So how did the king of couture come across Taranta Power? "He'd heard a track of mine on a free CD in the journal fRoots, and he liked it," is the simple explanation. The album from which Armani took the the tracks for Emporio Armani Caffé 2, entitled Che Il Mediterraneo Sia (Let The Mediterranean Be), is now selling well, further volumes from a taranta masters series are on the way, and the tarantella has been hailed by Il Messaggero as a vital cultural form, Italy's very own flamenco.

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