La Notte della Taranta: Tradition vs contemporary beats brings conflict to Italian folk festival showcasing pizzica pizzica music

The annual climax of the pizzica pizzica season, la Notte della Taranta, is now the biggest traditional music festival in Europe

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In the main piazza of Botrugno, eight miles south-west from Otranto, families sit around tables at kiosks in anticipation of the evening’s music show.

But before the main act appears, the families are treated to an unlikely session of thumping baselines. The beats elicit a few grumbles. When the traditional pizzica pizzica band takes the stage, such misgivings are soon forgotten as the audience begins dancing to the frenzied music with its mandolin, accordion, tambourine and wailing vocals. Pizzica pizzica music and the dance it inspires, la Taranta, is enjoying a resurgence in the southern tip of Puglia in south-east Italy – the towns and villages of Grecìa Salentina, south of Lecce and west of Otranto, with strong cultural ties to Greece.

The annual climax of the pizzica pizzica season, la Notte della Taranta, is now the biggest traditional music festival in Europe. Nearly 200,000 people attended the finale in Melpignano in August. And many went to great lengths to get there, including Roberto Tomat, 63, the ex-mayor of Aquileia near Udine in the north-east of Italy, who left home the week before to cycle the 680 miles down to the southern tip of Puglia, on the heel of the Italian boot.

Some wonder, though, if the event is getting too popular. To the horror of traditionalists, pop and disco is being played during the warm-up sessions, promotional videos for the main festival are eschewing the traditional social messages, and now Eugenio Imbriani, an anthropologist and leading light in the Tarantism Foundation, quit his post in protest at what he saw as the commercialism at this year’s events.

After years studying “tarantism” – the trance-like state on which the dancing is based and its origins – Mr Imbriani said the social message was being lost. “I don’t think we want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but we want to ensure the baby doesn’t drown in vulgarity … even if it receives the applause of 200,000 people,” he said.

The Lecce Sette online newspaper feared that the Notte della Taranta was becoming “ever more commercial and ever less about the historic and culture aspects” of the event. Corriere del Mezzogiorno sniffed that “La notte della Taranta is not Sanremo (the annual Sanremo Music Festival).” The line-up of the latest Notte della Taranta would seem to underline the concerns. The musical director was Phil Manzanera, a former Roxy Music guitarist and Pink Floyd producer. The Italian actress and pizzica-pizzica fan Serena Dandini expressed the fears of many when she said: “We need to keep alert so that we don’t lose sight of the roots of this music, otherwise it’s finished.” On quitting the Foundation, Mr Imbriani took particular issue with the latest promotional video for la Notte della Taranta, which sought to explain origins of the distinctive music and dancing. In the offending film, Antonio Durante of Salento’s National History Museum, explained the origins of tarantism simply in terms of a frenetic dance designed to cure the victim of a spider bite.

According to Italian folklore, when someone was bitten by a tarantula – or possibly the more dangerous Mediterranean black widow spider – musicians would rush to the home of the afflicted person and begin playing violins, mandolins, flutes, accordion and tambourines at breakneck speed. The sick person, feverish, sweating and delirious, would dance faster and faster until the venom, or some believed, an evil spirit, was expelled, and the victim collapsed, exhausted but cured.

Tarantism may have its origins in orgiastic cults in ancient Greece. It is this aspect of the video and the recent festival that Mr Imbriani took issue with – the exclusion of the social message. One fan who attended this year, Francesco Tronci, 30, had a word of warning. “There are people who are dancing and who have no idea what it’s about,” he said.

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