The Music Of Sicily
Like any other place, Sicily has its own musical history, from folk and classical to pop and jazz, all shaped by influences from abroad and life circumstances over time.
Its traditional music is hauntingly beautiful, romantic, sometimes raw, and evocative. Evolving from the laments of the peasants and workers, religious themes, love and nature, it is often played on traditional instruments including zampogna (bagpipes) marranzanu (jaw harp), friscalettu (end blown flute), cupa cupa (hand drum), tamborines, shepherd bells and organetto (folk accordion).
This list of artists is not intended to be a scholarly one. A list of Sicilian artists and Sicilian music could go on and on. On this list, I have included names that will give a good overview, are important, or that are among my favorites. Not all are available online but often there are You Tube clips and a musical trip there awaits you.
The Music Of Sicily
World-class percussionist, hand made drums, influenced by growing up as a shepherd.
Ethnic and electronic. Sung in Sicilian, they are popular in Europe.
Caesare and Slavatore Lo Leggio
Contemporary Traditional. The song “Come Fiore Caduto”
Folk singer, rock and pop guitarist, reclaiming the musical and oral traditions of Sicily
Alternative/Pop singer songwriter with power and soul in her voice. She is from Catania.
Passionate and political singer songwriter rooted in traditional Sicilian music.
Batiato fuses traditional with rock and roll
His song “Catania”
Traditional folk group
The word means traditional musicians
This group performs new music written in the style of the traditional and played on traditional instruments. Wonderful melodies make this a particular favorite.
Sings from the heart; raw, piercing and passionate strains
Folk singer, songwriter, guitarist, popular in Europe.
Versatile singer from Catania, mixes jazz, traditional and ethnic music.
This opera singer’s CD, The Sicilian celebrates his heritage.
Roots music, ethnic and traditional. From Licata.
Renowned Sicilian trumpeter plays jazz/reggae and rock
A contemporary singing and performance group trying to preserve Sicilian musical tradition.
Popular ethnic music, folk guitar, quiet with sometimes haunting melodies
Ethnic with traditional instruments
Prolific, contemporary singer, guitarist. A favorite.
La Musica di Sicilia
By Michela Musolino
This article was written by a singer from the New York area who has dedicated herself to the performance and promotion of traditional Sicilian music.
The taste and smell of the wines and food we are enjoying this evening evoke strong images and even memories of the beautiful island that is Sicily. Chosen specifically for that reason, each course and each accompanying wine are typical of the island and originate in no other place. Tonight, some of you will recall fondly time spent there, some will be spurred to visit again or for the first time. Such is the power of food and the power of the senses. This evening dedicated to Sicily is not just about a physical experience. This beloved island is more than just particular crops, breathtaking ruins and pristine naturescapes. As anyone who loves Sicily will tell you, Sicily reaches beyond the physical to touch ones heart and very soul.
Sicily is best described, best experienced through her people and their history. One could spend endless hours poring over their ethnology, ethnography and anthropology to understand them or one could experience their music. It has been noted that music is a faithful and eloquent revealer of the human heart. It has the power to explain not only the ‘whys’ of history, but also share the most guarded secrets of one’s soul. It also connects us in our humanity - quite an achievement for eight little notes!
La Musica Popolare di Sicilia is the story of the people of Sicily - the story of Sicily itself. It is an interesting juxtaposition of a nation’s history and the personal histories of a civilization. One could begin with the lullabies - among the first songs anyone hears in any culture. Endemic to the Sicilian lullaby is the sound of ‘ah-oh’ or lah-oh, sometimes even ‘oh-oh’ or lah-voh.’ Is this a reference to the dawn? - (Aurora in Latin and Eos in Greek) Is this a remnant of the time when Sicily was part of the Magna Grecia? Was this the sound that mothers came to use to soothe their babies to sleep until dawn?
Song would accompany the children as they grew. There were songs for toddlers, sung to them as they learned to walk. One such song telling them that wherever they placed their tiny foot, a sprig of basil would grow. .’Unni posi lu to peduzzu nasci un pedi di basilico.’ Of course, the nursery rhymes that children chanted in sing-song would also find their way into the songbook of Musica Popolare. "Santa Luna is a filastrocca, nursery rhyme, that is found in different versions all over Sicily. Singers took that childrens’ rhyme to the blessed moon and sang variations of which many mention courtship and eventual marriage. A reference to San Giovanni is sometimes included as he is the saint to whom young ladies would turn when seeking a husband.
Sicily is rich in its repertoire of courtship songs and this emphasis on courtship exposes a crucial aspect of Sicily’s history. Courtship was an important ritual of life. Since the dawn of history Sicily was the prize sought by invading armies. In the last century it would be political unrest that created instability. Everything that seemed permanent could change almost instantly. The only constant throughout history was one’s family. Courtship was a way for the family to remain strong in the face of upheaval; thus, the ritual was maintained to preserve the very fabric of civilization. A good match meant that the family would survive for another generation.
In the tradition of courtship song, one sees a snapshot of a different time when men and women couldn’t freely speak to each other in public. Through song, they could tell each other their hearts desires and let each other know if they accepted or rejected another’s advances. "E quannu s’affaccia la vurria vasari." "When she shows herself at the window, I want to kiss her." An offshoot of this was the canto di sdegno or the song of scorn. Although not used for courtship, they were a way for a scorned lover to express anger and sometimes hatred for the one who wronged them. "Mi cuntintavu a moreri e nun amar a tia." It would have been better for me to die than to love you!"
Sicilian music also demonstrates another aspect of history and humanity: once, people openly sung about their God, their saints and their miracles. They sang about them when they worked and they sang about them when they feasted. Mary, the Mother of God was central to many of these chants. Although there were particular songs for each religious feast-day, many songs had references to religion even though the song was secular in nature. Religion was a central part in the life of Sicilians. A chant sung to bear the backbreaking labor of harvest might be a recounting of the Passion. In a song about the horrors of pirate invasions, it is lamented that only Mother Mary could save the victims. A fable that bears a resemblance to the Cinderella story revolves around a healing from Saint Anthony."C’annuncia cumpariu Sant Antuninu/ci disse chi mi du ca ti fazzu guariri? Compadre Saint Anthony announced, "Tell me what you would give me if I cured you."
Love and religion weren’t the only topics sung. Any event in history, any conflict found its way to be expressed in song, especially the conflict between the overlords and the poor. When the Palermitani arose up to overthrow the oppressing Borboni, a song came about which used a donkey as a metaphor for the poor contadino - the peasant. When the donkey has suffered abuse, he throws himself down and refuses to work for his abuser. Lu sceccu s’importuna, si curca in terra a dici, "Lu saziu nun criri a lu diunu." "The donkey threw himself down on the ground and said the man who has enough to eat doesn’t understand the man who is starving."
Musically, people hear so many influences in Sicilian song. Some hear Spanish influence, some hear Arabic influence, some hear Greek. Each invader left their stamp not only on the culture, but on the musical patrimony as well. With so many dimensions to this music, what could possibly describe Sicilian music comprehensively? What words could possibly gather all these songs together to fit them into one category? Perhaps that one word is, "desire." Each song is an expression of humanity’s desire - whether it be desire to receive love, the desire to give love, the desire to be free, the desire to express one’s faith, one’s frustrations, one’s anger, one’s pain. "La vita era sempre un desiderio" Life was always a desire (Michele Cali`)
It is the force of desire and the force of the accompanying emotions that make Sicilian music stand apart from other traditions. It is this desire and these emotions that touch one’s soul and connect one to others be they our present neighbors or be they a people who lived centuries ago. The rawness and the truth of such desires and emotions are understood by all. At the end of physical life, only memories remain. These memories captured in song reach across centuries to bind us together transcending our modernity, our cultural differences and our varied beliefs. Sicilian music reflected the cycle of life, not in real time, but in humanity’s time.
You can read more from Michela or check for performances on her website www.michelamusolino.com