The regions around Naples in Southern Italy beat with a primal heart that’s at odds with the more genteel areas around Rome and Florence to the north. Naples, a Grecian founded city in the shadow of the still active volcano, Vesuvius, hosts a number of neo-traditional folk musicians who’ve taken the bucolic sounds of the region, blended them with world beats and modern arrangements and created some enthralling new music based on traditional themes.
Three of the most accomplished and experienced of these musicians have taken the ancient name of the famous volcano and joined together to form Vesevo, and their eponymously titled album is released next week. Francesco Manna is a frame drum maestro whose approach to the instruments has been both scholarly and experimental. Blending his mastery of traditional southern European frame drums and the Persian Daf with similar instruments and vocal styles from around the world. Violin player Antonio Fraioli has been at the heart of the Naples folk music scene since the 1990’s and, among many achievements, has run the “experimental course in popular music” at the Conservatory of Lecce. The approach taken by Vesevo echoes, and builds on Antonio’s work with bands such as Spaccanapoli. The impassioned vocal performances of Antonio Di Ponte stem from a deep love and understanding of blues guitar and vocal. Among a number of his successful projects are Waning Moon (which he co-founded) and Red Castanets. Antonio is also currently recording a solo album.
Vesevo have taken the oral, musical and dance traditions of southern Italy, such as famous Tarantella and Tammorra, and guided them, majestically, down a new path that leads to the thriving heart of Naples. In the opening ‘O Rre Rre that heartbeat is immediately apparent with early chants backed by violin. As the song develops there’s a strong sense of passion from Antonio’s gritty vocal that’s countered by tense and intricate violin. It’s the kind of opening that would have a live audience on their feet right away – and the rest of the album is going to keep them there. Initially the most striking aspect of Vesevo’s music is that passionate vocal delivery from Di Ponte that seems to owe as much to North African as to Delta blues. In Muntagna pe’ Muntagna he sings exaltingly over a guitar rhythm, breath-taking percussion and intricate violin harmonies that expand to fill the sky. That North African blues influence comes across even more arrestingly in Scioscia Viento, with electric guitar straight from the Niger amid snatches of declaimed vocal.
There’s more than a hint of the Balkans in the mix too, especially in cascading violin and frantic energy of Tarantamara. Although the tarantella rhythm on the tambourine is predominant, the violin stirs the soul all the way through, building a more and more frantic energy toward an almost primeval wail. The title of Tarantella alia Calabrese isn’t needed to verify its roots, but with the traditional tones of the mandolin in this dance replaced by violin it’s a sound that can reach out to listeners from a more northern latitude. Fraioli’s violin doesn’t claim all the glory, though. Tammurriata presents Di Ponte’s vocal and Manna’s percussion in and astounding, evocative performance of a less well known dance from southern Italy.
The sound is sparse in terms of its individual components but the overall feeling is big and wide; full of power, passion and excitement, dense with ancient metres and even more primitive rhythms. This is, without a doubt, dance music; but it still finds time for more reflective moments.
Catarina, with its intricate bells and handclaps beside a vocal that has all the passion of a besotted lover, reinforces the Moorish tones that permeate the music. And the seemingly relentless pace is relaxed even more for Figliole, with its plaintive vocal and harmonizing violin. The dances may be the high point of the album for many, but there’s no denying that the closing Riturnella, with its sombre violin and pleading vocal, is laden with intense emotions that could rival any Verdi opera.
Di Ponte, Manna and Fraioli have, for many years, been involved in the performance and teaching of the musical traditions of southern Italy. The nine songs presented as Vesevo were recorded live in the studio but represent three years of research, writing and performance. It must have been a fascinating journey for these three talented and dedicated musicians, because the result of their efforts is utterly enthralling.
Review by: Neil McFadyen