Innovation rooted in tradition

Segmento interviewed celebrated Italian singer-songwriter, musician, and theater actor Alfio Antico, widely regarded as one of the world’s leading interpreters of the tammorra and frame drum.

I was left speechless when I saw Alfio Antico play live in concert. It is impossible to describe the emotions he transmits through his incredible drumming technique. Alfio’s virtuoso playing style, innovative improvisations, and use of vocalizations have made him famous internationally.

When we met, he spoke of how he began playing the tammorra at a young age and how he became the world master of this instrument. The tammorra is a large frame drum that is commonly used in Southern Italian music. It is played with a combination of hands and fingers, and the player typically uses various techniques to produce different sounds and rhythms. 

Alfio Antico

My grandmother passed on her love for the drum; she used it to distract me from the pain when my father got ill. I was five years old when I saw the drum being played, and I knew where the skin for the drum had come from–I knew the lamb. That is how I learned about skins. Lamb, goat, and kid skin have very different sounds. I consider myself respectful of nature, animals, the land, and the grasses. These days, when I buy a skin, I know the animal, and I mount it on the drum very carefully. I know how to take care of it. The language I draw from its sound transports me to that nature, observation, understanding, and knowledge. So, to this day, the drum is still my most sincere friend. It lets me talk and even taught me how to read and write. I was lucky because I have always believed in myself and what I do as a musician.  

Alfio agreed that his music is impossible to describe in words, but I wondered, could his style be taught to others?

The technique could be taught, but the love has to grow. Playing the drum is a question of sensibility and love, not just technique. I can teach you how to play an instrument, like someone who has studied guitar for ten years at a conservatory. After ten years of study, you know how to play the instrument, but it is up to you to get the most out of it.

Alfio Antico ph. by Jùlia Martins

While we spoke, Alfio retraced his career, from growing up with the sounds of traditional Southern Italian folk music to when he was discovered by Eugenio Bennato, from his collaboration with Fabrizio De André who wanted his “thumb” for Crêuza de mä, to his psychedelic record with Mario Conte and Colapesce. A deep folk tradition and a rustic mysticism give his music power. Despite his fame and success, he must return to his roots to recharge.

I take pleasure in performing, be it tarantella or electronic music. I am happy because all sorts of people from all over the world invite me to play. However, when I am away from the life of sheep herding in the mountains, I realize I miss it. It has not always been easy–there was a moment when I wanted to get away from that world. I was ashamed of even talking about it. From when I met Eugenio Bennato–you could say he discovered me–I started being successful and traveling. I saw cities and fell in love instantly. When I achieved global success, I became disconnected from nature. The flights, fancy hotels, restaurants, and entourage that followed me while on tour frightened me as much as it excited me.  

Alfio’s music comes from a folk music tradition as old as time. However, for him, tradition is not about standing still or going backward. It is a starting point for experimentation with new approaches to composition within the organic parameters of his instrument and sensibility.

I’ve never understood what tradition is. Perhaps we create traditions, respecting what we love and–as my mother said–remembering where we come from, who created us, and the “tongue that taught us to eat.” These are words that have always stayed with me. My maternal family was full of musicians; I feel part of this lineage. I am one with the drum. I always say I create drums, and drums create me. 

Alfio’s music cannot be put into words, but for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, do not miss a live performance of this mostro del tamburo!

Photography by Jùlia Martins