Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino (CGS), the band from Puglia that has won an international following with its tradition-based yet up-to-date approach to pizzica and other traditional styles, returns to the US this month for the first time in two years. Their seven-stop tour begins in Vermont and ends in New Mexico, with two New York City shows, at the Bryant Park Accordion Festival (September 14) and Joe’s Pub (September 16).
New York last saw CGS in October 2016, when the band performed an electrifying show at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village. Since then, CGS has released an album, Canzoniere, and has toured throughout Italy and Europe to promote it. They will perform selections from the album, as well as older material, at their US shows.
Canzoniere, the fourth album the band has made under the leadership of violinist, percussionist, and vocalist Mauro Durante, is a marked departure from their previous work. (Founded in 1975, CGS was led until 2007 by Mauro’s father, Daniele Durante.) The album, whose title is Italian for “songbook,” comprises eleven new compositions and one traditional song. Canzoniere marries the band’s unique, folk-based style to international pop, with the catchy combinations of melody, lyrics, and rhythm that we experience as “earworms” — music you can’t get out of your head, and don’t want to.
The cover image, a photograph of a Coca Cola bottle filled with tomato sauce, is an apt visual representation of CGS’ new music. Mauro Durante says the bottle “is a container — the pop song — but we put our own homemade sauce into that container. That’s why the cover is a good metaphor for our process.”
Recorded in New York and Lecce, the band’s home base, Canzoniere remains faithful to the pizzica style of Salento, the southern peninsula of Puglia, that has made CGS an acclaimed recording and touring band. “We are still using our typical instruments, tamburelli [frame drums], violins, bouzouki, organetto [button accordion], and bagpipes,” says Durante. “We sing in Salentino dialect, we use our particular vocal, musical, and harmonic style, and our music is still driven by rhythm.”
Canzoniere is the fruit of collaborations between CGS and US and European songwriters and musicians. In late 2015, Durante began to work with New York-based songwriters Michael Leonhart (Bruno Mars, Steely Dan, James Brown), Rasmus Bille Bahncke (Sting, CeCe Winans, Backstreet Boys), Scott Jacoby (Coldplay, John Legend, Vampire Weekend), Steve Skinner (Diana Ross, Celine Dion), and Joe Mardin (Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Whitney Houston). Mardin, whose father was the legendary Atlantic Records producer Arif Mardin, produced the album.
Durante says that none of these songwriters was familiar with the music of CGS. But he says that once they heard it, “everyone loved it and wanted to try something with me.” “Meeting those people, and writing with them, has been one of the most challenging and exciting experiences of my life,” he says.
The songwriting process sometimes began with Durante’s ideas (the tracks “Ientu” and “Intra la Danza”); at other times it started from scratch (“La Ballata degli Specchi”). Durante wrote “Subbra Sutta” with Mardin and the Anglo-French singer and songwriter Piers Faccini, who collaborated with CGS on their 2013 album, Pizzica Indiavolata. Mardin joined Durante and CGS in Lecce, where they worked up the tracks “Tienime,” “Sempre Cu Mie,” “Pizzica De Sira,” (the album’s only traditional song) and “Aiora” (an original song written in traditional style by Durante and lead vocalist Alessia Tondo).
In Salento, pizzica originally was a ritual healing music associated with tarantismo, a state of physical and emotional distress that has been likened to spirit possession, purportedly caused by the poisonous bite of a tarantula spider. Those afflicted would dance to the powerful pizzica rhythms until they collapsed, purged of the spider’s “poison.” Although tarantismo has died out in Salento, pizzica retains an ecstatic and cathartic force, as well as serving as an emblem of Salentine cultural identity.
Healing psychic and emotional wounds through music and dance has been a recurring theme of CGS’ lyrics. But as the band’s slogan — “If you dance alone, you cannot heal” — implies, the “cure” depends on the individual being connected to community. Several tracks on Canzoniere explore this theme: “Intra la Danza” (Get in the Dance) is an exhortation to “together heal this illness”; “Lu Giustacofane” (The Mender) says “there is no wound that can’t be healed.”
Some longtime fans have been surprised by the anthemic choruses on tracks like “Moi” and “Lu Giustacofane.” But as Durante points out, in writing them he was inspired by the great tradition of Italian, and especially Neapolitan song, with its indelible melodies and choruses. “Wanna speak of anthemic choruses?” he says. “I’d say ‘Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu.’ Who doesn’t want to sing along with that chorus, “Volare, oh oh”?
Durante’s mention of Domenico Modugno’s 1950s smash pop hit “Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu (Volare)” and Neapolitan song is a reminder of the longstanding transatlantic connection between southern Italy and New York. When immigrants from Naples, Sicily, and Puglia poured into New York during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they brought their music with them. The encounter between CGS and New York that produced Canzoniere is a twenty-first century version of this fruitful mix of musical cultures.
Durante and his gifted bandmates — vocalist and percussionist Giancarlo Paglialunga; bouzouki player, guitarist, and vocalist Emanuele Licci; multi-instrumentalist Giulio Bianco; diatonic accordionist Massimo Morabito, and vocalist Alessia Tondo — bring the songs to vibrant life. Silvia Perrone, whose pizzica dancing is integral to CGS’ performances, contributes backing vocals. On Canzoniere, the band is joined by guest artists Piers Faccini, cellist Marco Decimo, and British guitarist Justin Adams, from Robert Plant’s Sensational Space Shifters.
Canzoniere employs current pop music production techniques; it has more of a “studio” quality than previous CGS albums. In their recent concerts, CGS has replicated the album’s sound while infusing the songs with the energy and excitement of live performance. This month, New Yorkers can hear this extraordinary band twice, in a club and outdoors. Neither opportunity should be missed.
Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino (CGS) performs Friday, September 14, 5 pm, at the Bryant Park Accordion Festival (free), and Sunday, September 16, 7 pm, at Joe’s Pub.