This Sunday, I am doing a Curved Radio spot on the tarantella (podcast recording here). It follows on from the show in which I talked about the ‘Mexican baroque’ and other black and indigenous influences on early and classical music. Much of it is based on two albums (Los Impossibles and La Tarantella: Antidotum Tarantulae) by an experimental baroque ensemble called L’Arpeggiata, led by the Austrian theorbist/harpist Christina Pluhar. These albums, and the booklets that accompany them, provided a starting point for looking up other versions of the songs they performed, but also more on the hidden histories of music we usually perceive as ‘European’ and devoid of all associations we might have with music from other countries. For instance, we do not often connect European music with ritual, not even when we talk about folk music. We also tend to forget about European histories of trade, travel, war and colonialism, which all brought Europeans into contact with other musical traditions.
L’Arpeggiata’s Los Impossibles album, for instance, features a couple of villancicos, a musical form that was shared across Southern Europe (Portugal, Spain) and Latin America in the 15-18th centuries. This style was known for incorporating instruments, rhythms, speech rhythms and words (actual or made up) from other cultures, such as African or Native American. Although this appropriation was often done in a mocking fashion, satirising the primitiveness of the Other, it nevertheless constituted an influence that then proceeded to move to other musical and poetic forms. The negrillo (such as L’Arpeggiata’s version of ‘Sa qui turo‘ above, another example is ‘Bastiao‘) is an example of attempts to copy African speech and music. It has also been argued that some of this music was used for subversive ends, to express commonalities and even solidarities between poor people from both sides of the colonial divide and their political struggles. Robert Stevenson, in his survey of baroque villancicos, gives the example of a 1677 song by early feminist villancico poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, whose lyrics translate as “tumba, la-lá-la, tumba la-lé-le/wherever Peter enters, no one remains a slave”. The active influence on negrillos by black musicians (from the mid-15th century) has also been documented by Stevenson. Curiously, by the close of the 18th century, negrillos – and villancicos as a whole – were forbidden (by royal edict!) in both Portugal and Spain.
The tarantella, an Italian (and, through migration, Argentinian) folk dance, was popular during a similar time, although some sources date it back to the Middle Ages or earlier. In fact, the beginnings of the tarantella are so obscure that the myths that surround it sound as plausible as the many origin stories that have been suggested across the last 600-or-so years. The L’Arpeggiata booklet samples some of these legends, from medieval field workers’ spider bite treatments to dancing sirens that tried to overcome Ulysses’ resistance to their songs. At its most basic level, the tarantella is a song and dance combo, most often in 6/8 time. Its name appears to reference spiders (or the Italian city of Taranto), and it is commonly portrayed as a highly ritualised cure for spider bites. More recently, anthropologists such as Ernesto de Martino have been looking at 20th century practices of tarantism (you can sample some of their films and audio recordings at the Wellcome Collection archives and also on youtube), and ethnomusicologists such as Giovanna Marini and Diego Carpitella have been been instrumental in reviving research into this cultural phenomenon.
What I find interesting about the tarantella is that its history, whichever one is true, suggests a series of different oppressions, especially from the Church. For instance, it has been proposed that the tarantella is a remnant of Greek/Roman pagan rituals devoted to gods such as Diana or Dionysus that were driven underground by the Church and then became redefined as a medical cure and also a social dance for courtship, funerals et cetera. At a later point, the Church seemed to have intervened again, initially banning the dance and the music. When this containment did not work, they banned the music, forcing performers to solely rely on vocalisations and the use of colours. The Church additionally proceeded to ascribe the healing powers to Saint Paul, in an effort to create, as Jean-Paul Combet put it, “theologically satisfactory explanations” for this obstinate insanity. This suppression has strong parallels with other ‘civilising missions’, for instance, the ban on indigenous and slave music in many European colonies (there is a powerful talk by Tanya Tagaq on the attempt to erase throat singing as a First Nations cultural practice).
The question that always fascinates me is how much music (and often dance, too) is perceived as threatening, even more threatening than words. Not only was the music of the tarantella periodically banned, but also any publications on the topic. So, what does the tarantella look like in practice, and what does it allow performers and ‘victims’ to do? Christina Pluhar, the creative director of L’Arpeggiata, describes the ‘healing’ version of the tarantella as follows:
“In order to overcome the poison, he must overcome the broken equilibrium in himself. On his journey the sick person identifies himself with Nature, whose harmony he perceives through sounds and colours and whose vibrations he absorbs into his body. The sick person becomes the black sun (or black spider) in the centre, surrounded by the planets, which are symbolised by the people and the musicians who accompany him in his quest for healing. It has always been written that each sick person reacts to different melodies, rhythms, colours and instruments according to his own character and the nature of his illness. The appropriate music is found by empirical means: the musicians play different melodies until the sick person reacts and his body begins to move. The healing process can spread over several days of almost uninterrupted dancing.”
For her, the disorienting change and improvisation over recognisably stable repetitive sequences – basically a long quasi-psychedelic jam – serves to dislocate the afflicted person from their current state in order to “restore the cosmic order”. The tarantella serves supernatural ends and therefore constitutes a rival to other providers of supernatural services such as the Church.
While the tarantella may have had an actual function, at least at some point, to keep a person alive after a spider bite – the music would certainly keep a person awake, which is often crucial in the first stages of paralysis or convulsion inducing spider bites – this functionality seemed to spill into spiritual life (or is it the other way round?). What is interesting here is the role of the spider. As Combet describes, different spiders are assigned different moods (melancholia, anger etc) and colours (red, green, yellow or black). Given that the tarantella appears to enable a number of controversial boundary crossings such as gendered behaviour – for instance, the tarantella allows women to express themselves differently erotically and socially (e.g. their role as musicians) – the connection with the lowly but feared spider, an animal mainly encountered by peasants during harvest (Combet writes that some municipalities even paid for musicians to ‘treat’ farm workers, so they wouldn’t get into debt and miss out on work more than necessary), suggests a strategic affiliation with the nonhuman. The nonhuman element appears to permit not just boundary crossings, but extravagant enactments of these transgressions. Pluhar even wonders whether the role of women as not only as singers and dancer, but primarily as percussionists, adds another nonhuman dimension: “woman as the pulsating rhythm of the earth…?” This seems to affirm Athanasius Kircher’s mid-17th century view that “the cosmos was revealed in musical ratios and that musical harmony mirrored universal harmony” (reference source: J-P Combet).
For me, the music-spider-farming-gender-cosmos connections that appear to endure against the onslaught of time feel like a form of resistance to the imposition of a different worldview (monotheism, modernism etc) – a worldview that was perceived as limiting. Here, the role of sound and oral culture stands out as a more successful format than print, both in terms of its accessibility, communicability and destrucibility. So few print works have survived from ancient times, on the tarantella and overall, but we still, despite the inevitable mutation and evolution of the songs and dances, hear the same songs, the same lyrics, the same themes (the lyrics are often in old and/or local languages such as Griko). While the lyrics may not speak of political or spiritual struggle – the lyrics often seem quite bawdy and rude, speaking of voluptuous women, heartache, inebriation, food, poverty, madness, death – they feel like a Bakhtinian/Rabelaisian use of the grotesque as a celebration of that which is being excluded from official culture. Some of my favourite lyrics accompany the intensely percussive Pizzica Ucci: for me, they represent an undisguised mockery of the Church’s attempt to clean up the spiritual side of the tarantella via an association with St Paul:
St Paul of Galatina, pardon this young lady!
St Paul of tarantulas, pinch the girls’ bottoms.
St Paul of serpents, pinch the boys’ balls.
The imagery is brilliant in its takedown of the officially ‘highest’. It is also funny and highly understandable, qualities that assure its wider appeal and transmission. The music, too, despite its filtration through a variety of contexts, instrumentation and other ‘treatments’, powerfully transmits a concept. Whether it is the maddening speed and repetition of the pizzica or the frighteningly grating ‘harmonies’ of the funeral laments, a tarantella almost never fails to disturb and/or arouse, even in its most sanitised renditions. There is something raw and alien about the dance, the music, the lyrics – or all three of them at once – that makes you want to know more about it. While no one may ever be able to trace the tarantella’s exact history and purpose, it is perhaps sufficient that it has survived and continues to trouble and inspire, from women in rural Italy to people in unexpected locations, searching for a different connection to the world than one is supposed to be having.
Notes: This post follows on from Protest music: questions of travel (2013)
The Curved Radio show that features the tarantella spot broadcasts on Sunday 14 May 2017, 11pm – 2am Sydney time, 2-5pm UK time.