Master Series: Italian Music & Dance Workshops | Master Series June 14-16 in Fairfield

Gianluca Zamarelli, of Rome, is one of the master zampogna players who will perform at the Master Series event June 14-16.

SOFIA (Society of Fairfield Italian Americans), consisting of 50 Italian American families, has presented the “All Things Italian” Street Festival for the past seven years. Two years ago they added the Italian Culture Master Series to the weekend, which seeks to introduce Iowans to colorful and sometimes forgotten aspects of Italian culture by bringing master artists, performers, and scholars to Southeast Iowa. 

This year, the Italian Culture Master Series “Italian Folk Music and Dance” introduces the music and cultural context of the zampogna, a bagpipe unique to the goat and sheep herders of the mountains of Southern Italy, who entertained themselves and their charges on their lonely watches. It is considered to be one of the oldest bagpipes and is certainly one of the largest, the bag being made from an entire goatskin. It is also unusual for having two melody pipes, or chanters, that play in counterpoint, as well as two dedicated drones. Like any bagpipe, each pipe has its own reed, the making and adjustment of which is a rare and delicate art, generating its own arcane subculture of practitioners. The vibrant mesmerizing sound invokes that of an ensemble rather than a single player.

Quieter than the ubiquitous warlike Scottish bagpipes, the zampogna is associated by city dwellers with Christmas. That is when the pipers, known as zampognari, came down from the hills to bless the villagers by playing door to door "Tu scendi dalle stelle" ("You come down from the stars"). As the lifestyle of the zampognari declined, their music was preserved by their descendants, who, in traditional costume, became part of Italian Christmas celebrations.

Ironically, a pair of plastic figurines of zampognari was discovered 20 years ago in a local Fairfield flower shop, looking rather lost. The proprietor had not understood the connection between Christmas and the pipers, so they had become separated from the imported Italian Christmas crèche with which they had arrived. Recognizing them in amazement, the director of this master series rescued them to lead a more respected life on his bookshelf where they reside happily to this day.

In recent years the music of the zampogna has been revived throughout Italy, with festivals, workshops, recordings and museums, which promote the study of the lifestyle of these musicians, the tools and techniques for making the zampogna, and the charming tunes and associated dances.

The Italian Culture Master Series “Italian Folk Music and Dance” will feature the largest known confluence in North America of players, students, and makers of the zampogna. Players of other traditional Italian instruments such as the piffaro, organetto, chitarra, and tambourine, as well as singers, dancers and puppeteers, typically associated with the zampognari, will also demonstrate and discuss their history, cultural and musicological significance, and traditional and modern applications.

Bagpipe expert Sean Folsom will give a lecture/demonstration on Bagpipes of the World, and lead a panel discussion with some of the leading pipers, pipemakers and reed makers from other traditions on the place various bagpipes hold in world culture and how and why these traditions survived the industrial and media revolutions of the last few centuries. U of I faculty Shari Rhoads will give a lecture/presentation on the historic relationship of Italian folk music and opera and their respective social contexts.

The leading North American experts on Italian folk dance will demonstrate and teach the different regional dances, as well as discuss the localities and circumstance that gave rise to these communal expressions. Zampognaro, linguist, and native Italian speaker Lionel Bottari will give a lecture highlighting the many other geographic, cultural and linguistic distinctions between these divergent regions throughout Italy.

The keynote address will be presented by documentarian David Marker of Kansas City, who has conducted extensive field recordings throughout the Italian countryside. He will show his film Zampogna—the Soul of Southern Italy and lead a discussion afterwards about the culture and history surrounding the instrument, its survival and resurgence, and his experiences interacting with the current practitioners, many of whom have never been outside their locality, nor been recorded before.

"Having grown up in the United States I had been exposed to a lot of stereotypical portrayals of what Italy and Italians were like. I knew that I was Italian American, but I wanted to truly know the indigenous culture that my great grandparents emigrated from, unfiltered through the mainstream media… In the summer of 2007 I spent five weeks in Sicily with my cousins and purchased a zampogna, a traditional Italian bagpipe. The instrument was so unique, almost other worldly as if I had brought it into present day from a time machine. The music was so raw and genuine. To me it was the most pure expression of what was truly ‘Italian.’ There was a real beauty in it. I felt proud that it was a part of my cultural past. There are only a small handful of zampogna players here. It is a dying art in Italy. I knew that I had to tell the story of this music and this disappearing traditional culture, not just the culture of the music, but what the music represents, which is an agrarian pastoral culture, a handmade culture in tune with its natural surroundings that values the methodical rhythm of everyday life, good and bad. The zampogna was the physical manifestation of this culture, its human expression."  —David Marker

As modern culture becomes more and more based in the mind and virtual media, disembodied from direct connection with the land and the simpler lifestyles of agrarian societies, the attraction of modern people to ethnic legacies is more and more compelling and relevant. It is no accident that so called “world music” and other expressions of traditional folk culture have met with increasing worldwide interest and even commercial success.

As exemplified by David Marker’s quote above, the zampogna couldn’t be more evocative of this call of the past. Our event is geared precisely towards amplifying this call to our own innate integrity, Italian or otherwise. It is our primary intent to clarify the context for understanding why what might otherwise be written off as a curious museum piece under glass can enliven significant resonances in our own modern lives. We want to not only strike a temporary chord in the public, soon to be overwhelmed by the din of mass media, but to inspire them to reconnect with their traditions, and educate them as to why it needs to be prioritized. Our goal is to create a local core group of Italian music and dance enthusiasts, with regular events throughout the year. We at SOFIA think that a strong society is one that successfully integrates cultural traditions with the flexibility to adapt to multi-cultural and multi-media modern demands. We are honored and delighted to be able to present both an intimate physical experience of this truly ancient instrument constructed of olive and apricot wood, reed and goatskin, along with some of the hearts, minds and hands that continue to make and nurture it, and to expound on where it fits into the historic as well as modern communities that it and we have found ourselves in. It is our belief that it is only through such education that people can truly appreciate their own lives as well as diverse cultures.