When the first Italian immigrants arrived in the United States, they didn’t come carrying heavy statues. What they did have, however, was music. Some brought simple instruments like the tamburello. Others sang and danced. In this way, the god of music may have been the first of our ancestors’ spiritual court to arrive in the new world.
Music has been an integral part of Italian spirituality since the days of Dionysus and Cybele, whose orgiastic rites live on in regional musical traditions such as the tammurriata. These styles of music rely on drumming techniques which are difficult to master. (After two years of study with master folk artist Alessandra Belloni, I am still humbled every time I pick up my tamburello to practice!) Thankfully, you don’t need to be a professional musician to incorporate music into your spiritual life. In this post, we’ll be looking at ways to live and breathe music--no talent required!
- Learn about the different styles of Italian folk music. If you are in the New York City area, make sure to like Alessandra Belloni on Facebook to see her class schedule, and come join us sometime! If you don’t live in the NYC area, check out the following free online videos, in which she covers the basics of the tammurriata and pizzica tarantata. Once you understand of what distinguishes these musical styles, you’ll hear a whole new world of sound.
- Listen to (and give thanks for) the musicians who paved the way for a modern renaissance of Italian folk music. Starting in the 70s, groups such as Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare and Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino inspired several new generations of folk musicians. And guess what? While their lineups may have evolved over the years, those groups are still going strong.
- Watch La Gatta Cenerentola. Based on the Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile, this musical sung in Neapolitan brings traditional folktales to life. You can watch it for free on YouTube.
- Explore your voice, even if you think you can’t sing. If you are in the NYC area, I strongly recommend attending Sing a Secret, a vocal workshop unlike anything you’ve ever experienced, with Jon Stancato. Jon inherited his Calabrian grandmother’s gift for healing through sound and song, and combined it with his Roy Hart vocal training to create something truly unique. (Psst—Sing a Secret is absolutely, 100% free!)
- Learn the refrain to “O Maria quanto bella sei”. (Full lyrics and video on our post about the Madonna of the Advocate in Maiori.) Here it goes: “Evviva Maria, Maria Evviva”. Think you can handle it? Good! Because if you go to any festa, you’ll have a chance to sing along to this popular Marian hymn. For personal use, it’s also a great way to open or close a session praying the rosary.
- Look for a call-and-response style song to your patron saint. These are specifically written so the responses are easy to sing, so you can sing along. For example, I’m a fan of this hymn to San Rocco, which is played every year at his feast day in NYC. The response is simple: “Evviva Santi Rocco! ca int'a Tolve stai”, although sometimes I will personalize it by substituting the name of whatever city I am in for “Tolve”: "Evviva Santi Rocco! ca int'a New York stai”, "Evviva Santi Rocco! ca int'a Boston stai”, etc.
- Watch Passione by John Turturro. This documentary about Neapolitan music introduced me to some of my favorite musicians. And it’s conveniently available to stream on Amazon.
- Paint a tamburello. If you’re more visually inclined than auditory, this is a great way to attract musical spirits into your home. I’ve had some success decorating cheap drums like this one with acrylic paint. Traditional designs include the Madonna, or a spider, snake, or scorpion.
- Watch Dancing on the Drum by Zoe D’Amaro. This documentary is a little bit more challenging to find (I may or may not have written the filmmaker begging her for a copy). But boy, is it worth it. It’s the best way to learn about tammurriata short of booking a trip to Campania!
- Shake, shake, shake (your tambourine), signora. So you don’t know how to drum a beat on the tambourine? No problem—those jingly bits are just as important when it comes to calling in spiritual guides.
- If you don’t speak Italian, memorize these words: “testo”, “inno a…” and “traduzione”. They mean “lyrics”, “hymn to…”, and “translation”, respectively. These will come in super handy when you’re searching through YouTube and Google for devotional music and lyrics.
- Keep a journal of song lyrics. It’s nicer than having to look them up on your phone when doing spiritual work. I like to write mine out so I have the original version and a translation side-by-side.
- Use as many musical platforms as you can. Since Italian folk music is something of a long-tail interest, different songs, artists, and albums are available on different platforms. You’ll want to dig through YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music in order to get the full picture of this genre.
- As you learn new folk songs, consider both their cultural context and their personal significance to you. In the past, I’ve written about how songs such as "Fimmene, Fimmene" and "Santa Lucia Luntana" took on new meanings for me which eventually led me to use them in unconventional ritual contexts. Music is emotional, personal, and intimate: as you listen to it, observe how it affects you. You’ll start to develop a personal playlist of songs for various uses: going into trance, making offerings, calling upon specific groups of ancestors, etc.