The centuries-old dervish beat of Puglia – allegedly created as a cure for women bitten by tarantulas – is now wooing hip young musicians and fashionistas alike. VIA magazine explores the magical, mystical world of pizzica…
When the carousel of international fashion shows juddered to a standstill in 2020, there was one outlier. On a balmy Wednesday evening last July, fashion powerhouse Dior hosted its cruise collection amid the baroque grandeur of Lecce. As models solemnly strode two meters apart through a neon-lit Lecce Cathedral (the fashion cognoscenti who’d normally jostle for front-row seats tuned into the live-stream from home), the soundtrack wasn’t the electronica or hip hop usually pumped out at fashion shows. Instead, it was the clattering cadences of pizzica: the centuries-old, tambourine-driven Apulian folk music that has its roots in mystical peasant culture.
Of course, with Apulian artisanal fare such as Marilena Sparasci’s tombolo lace, the Constantine Foundation’s weaving skills, and Branca di Tricase’s ceramics also on display at Dior Cruise 2021, the event was an affectionate ode to the region. But in recent years pizzica has undergone a revival, most notably with the annual Notte della Taranta festival, which sees nearly 200,000 revelers descend upon Melpignano for a hedonistic shindig that has prompted the Italian media to compare it to Ibiza.
There’s a bit of Puglia in everybody.
“This music has huge power,” says Federico Laganà, a musician in Kalàscima, which fuses traditional pizzica with newer sounds such as electronica. Speaking to VIA from his studios overlooking the Adriatic in Tricase, he adds, “There’s something magical about pizzica. I don’t know what it is, but I feel it, along with everybody at our concerts.”
“There’s a bit of Puglia in everybody,” adds Alfredo Giani, vocalist/guitarist in pizzica troupe Amaraterra. “We [as musicians] just need to make it emerge, to summon the demons…”
Conjuring evil spirits is apt. Whether Dior knew it or not, the idea of pizzica soundtracking a fashion show during a global pandemic comes loaded with macabre significance. According to local folklore, pizzica has its roots in ancient healing. As the legend goes, when somebody (usually a woman during harvest) was bitten by a tarantula, local musicians would hurry to the home of the sick person and begin playing instruments at a delirious speed. The ill woman, feverish and sweating, would then dance uncontrollably until the venom (or the ‘devil’) was expelled. As the Notte della Taranta orchestra pounded their instruments in Lecce Cathedral, it seemed as if they were attempting to drive away coronavirus itself.
“It was always the woman, and never an aristocratic woman, who’d get bitten,” says Cassandre Balbar, an ethnomusicologist, and Amaraterra musician.
“There are 100 reasons why women in patriarchal society may have been driven mad [reasons cited by experts include abuse, powerlessness, depression, sexual repression, or even the grief of losing a child], and unleashing it through pizzica was the way to release it,” adds Giani, who likens the genre to “psychotherapy for the poor”.
To watch the audience at a pizzica show today is to witness something similar to the trance-like state of Apulian peasant women: the music is a catharsis, prompting dervish-like dancing in even the most conservative concert-goer.
This is partly down to the hypnotic pizzica sound: propelled by the tambourine (and accompanied by violins, accordion, and wailing vocals), the tempo increases in triple-time until hitting a euphoric crescendo. Kalàscima has performed in over 40 countries with Laganà noting: “Wherever we play, whether it’s an elegant theatre in Japan or South by Southwest in Texas, the reaction’s always the same: everybody dancing and jumping.”
Or maybe the popularity of pizzica taps into something more primal and pagan. Although the word ‘pizzica’ supposedly first appeared in written form in 1797 (as part of an evening dance of Taranto aristocrats), the music is believed to have emerged in Grecìa Salentina. This remote region of southern Puglia has been home to Italy’s ethnic Greek minority since before Plato started making allegories about caves. To this day, an estimated 20,000 locals speak the dialect Griko, which also forms the vocal bedrock for contemporary pizzica.
Griko has a liturgical tinge, which along with the limbs-flailing dancing, it’s easy to see how people once believed women in the throes of tarantismo were possessed by the devil.
“In our pizzica, there’s something similar to the rituals of Bacchus, the Graeco-Roman god of wine,” says Laganà, who points out Kalàscima, is a Manichean portmanteau of the Griko words for ‘good’ and ‘evil’. “The fight between good and evil, or ‘kalà’ and ‘scima’, is in all of us; it happens every day in our hearts. [Pizzica] brings this out…”
With pizzica bands looking forward to returning to live music after 18 months without concerts, Laganà sums up the music’s appeal for new generations: “Pizzica symbolizes the freedom of the soul. We try to communicate the power of this music, where you can dance without limits, for days.”
PIZZICA IN PUGLIA
Where to listen, watch, or even learn how to dance pizzica in Puglia…
La Notte della Taranta
The big one. Europe’s biggest traditional music festival, now in its 24th year, returns in August with a series of warm-up concerts in the Lecce area and culminates with a huge dance-until-dawn finale on 28 August in Melpignano. Line-up TBC.
Many local festivals in Puglia will contain pizzica bands where if you bring along a tambourine, you can probably join in. Try Sagra di Ferragosto across Puglia (15 August) or Festa Madonna dell’Altomare in Otranto where a statue of the Virgin Mary is carried into the sea (5 September). Check listings site QuiSalento (quisalento.it) for more.
You can also learn how to dance pizzica-pizzica (the pizzica dance). A Locanda Tù Marchese in Matino offers a pizzica lesson and dance night (with dinner included) for €30.
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Christian Koch is an award-winning journalist/editor who has written for the Guardian, Sunday Times, Evening Standard, Telegraph, The Independent, Q, The Face and Metro. He has interviewed everybody from Mariah Carey to Michael Douglas, and Richard Branson to Beyoncé. Newspaper and magazine assignments have included reporting on the Japanese tsunami, gatecrashing the Cannes film festival, spending a weekend at a commune in Piedmont, and circumnavigating 360° around the world in 360 hours.