Music, dance, and identity

To talk about music is to talk about culture, history, communication, evolution, revolution, thought, progress, and discovery. Innocenza Giannuzzi shares her view on the role of music in the context where it is generated

By Innocenza Giannuzzi, President of Casa Calabria International.

In every age, music brings people together: in the cotton fields, in the rice fields, in the marches of the Alpini, at Woodstock, at Beatles concerts, music is the glue of a collective identity. “Music is never alone,” said composer Luciano Berio. It arises and is articulated in multiple forms and with different functions wherever there is human life and communication. Because music, even when it does not convey a specific message that can be translated into words, is a form of communication, reflecting and interacting with the social context in which it is generated. The polysemy of the term music corresponds to a similar plurality of functions that vary from one culture to another. 

One of the most original contributions to the study of music as a universal language is that of Irish ethnomusicologist John Blacking, who set out his ideas in his 1973 book How Musical is Man? Blacking defined music as humanly organized sound (emphasis on “humanly”) and, according to him, its profound function is to increase the quality of individual experience and human relations within the community: the structures of music reflect modes and motions of human experience, and the value of a piece of music as music is inseparable from its value as an expression of that experience. Blacking based his analysis of human musicality on the social nature of the functions, structures, and value of music. 

The revolutionary aspect of this idea (at the time of its much debated proclamation) was the consideration that all types of music are human and social forms of expression, and therefore equally “folk” and equally communicative. According to Blacking, the terms folk (or “popular”) and art should be, if not outright abolished, used to describe not the musical product but the processes and ways of articulating the experience that produced it. Cultures of “popular” oral tradition may be “art” music even if, technically speaking, it is simpler than music produced in a culture based on writing and scientific and material progress. In postulating a relationship between music and society, Blacking turned his attention not so much to the degree of development of a given society as to its ethos and the sociocultural processes that generated it. He believed that many of the processes active in human relations in a society are the same ones that are used to “organize the musical sounds available” to that society. Music, in all its manifestations, in his view, reflects the interaction between universal factors related to the musical nature of man, and social and cultural factors. The artistic and musical products of a society are not abstract or “ritual” expressions of cultural phenomena: they are conscious commentaries on the human condition, expressing the dynamic relationships between nature and humanity, and between people in their existence in different cultures at different times. The collective creativity of a community nourishes the inner life of the individual who is part of it; individual creativity feeds on the expressive heritage of the community and revives it. In “popular” music, the reference to the social context is more explicit and essential; in “art” music, the reference becomes more allusive and abstract, and the commentary lies in the music itself, which through more or less complex processes acquires varying degrees of aesthetic emancipation from its social context. 

Music, therefore, is the identity of a people, and even more so is popular music that encapsulates the history of it, which is handed down from generation to generation through music. 

The tarantella calabrese is a dance and musical tradition that goes back to when Calabria was the heart of Magna Graecia. A few centuries before the birth of Christ, some populations settled in southern Italy, enriching the land of Calabria with culture, flavors, and traditions that can be felt and seen even today. But perhaps not everyone knows that our tarantella is also a child of that ancient culture. Although it is difficult to frame this dance and musical practice because of all the changes, transpositions, and geographical and historical variations that have developed over the centuries, we can certainly say that, unlike its better-known cousin from Puglia, our tarantella has nothing to do with the bites of poisonous spiders, it does not aim to exorcize an evil through dance and rhythm. 

Instead, it has a symbolism more related to community and territory. It was originally danced on festive occasions or special occasions, whether public or private. The context was always the rota, a circle that was composed by the dancers and that drew the area where the music and dancing took place and metaphorically identified the territory. The “dance master” directed the course of the ritual and invited the couples to the center of the rota, which became a symbolic theater of community relations: it could be a dance of pure joy, when dancing together with a relative or friend, a dance of power, if there were important figures in the community at the center, a dance of competition if people of the same sex were performing together. 

The lyrics reflect this variety, and the same language changes greatly among all the vast areas of Calabria.

From left to right: Nicola Carè, Member of the Italian Parliament;Giovanni Butera, Publisher of Segmento; Fabio Motta, Festival MC;Lina Messina, Major of Darebin City; Rosa Voto, Festival Art Director.

Sing those who leave, sing those who stay, sing those who are nostalgic for what they left behind, sing those who would like to reach another place in the world. Music has always been the traveling companion of those who have left their villages to embark on a long journey, in search of a new future. It has accompanied our travelers through the tears of a land left behind and through the joys of a land found, an invisible thread with their roots that has never been broken, that has marked the days, months, and years of their lives. The tarantella – its notes have always kept their regional identity alive, accompanying them in moments of joy and cheering their nostalgia. 

Cover photo: Alfio Antico, special guest
Photography by Vincenzo Cascone, Renato Colangelo, & Sebastiano Motta