A culture that struggles to survive
“It has been a long time that it was always in my mind the same dream: We were a group that was very fond of singing and dancing songs and “tarantellas” from ‘another Greece.’ Using wooden instruments, guitars and tambourines we brought to people an amazing and magical world, revealing each one of our experiences and the secrets we had learned while traveling in east and west.”
The dream of Kostas Konstantatos had materialized. He and few friends from Athens founded the “Encardia” group; the “another Greece” is the Griko people, a community of Greek-origin people in southern Italy.
The Griko people are basically to be found in two regions -Calabria, in the “front edge” of the “Italian boot” and in the Salento peninsula which is the “heel”. They are the remnants of the Greeks who had came to South Italy in many waves of migration which begun as long ago as the ancient 8th BC century colonization, and up untill the 15th century.
They were once great, in the ancient world. “Magana Graecia” was the name of the south edge of Italy. They had built rich and powerful cities, with rich culture. Pythagoras was from there.
But from the Middle Ages until our modern time the people of this area, which became poor and hard place, struggled and succeeded to keep their identity, culture, language and heritage in the Italian environment. Modern times, mass media, migration to the big cities, “Italianization” and intermingling of people have been gradually eroding their uniqueness, mostly preserved today by aging people in some far and isolated villages.
The language is called Griko and it is a mixture of an old Greek and Italian. It is almost not in daily use anymore, but it is struggling to exist in songs and poems. “As long as someone is singing a song in Griko the language stays alive” says the singer Roberto Licci.
“Andra mou paei “- My man Leaves, Lyrics and music by Franko Corliano; a touching song about the men who are leaving behind their homes and lands, their sad wives and children, and go north to work for some money. The song was inspired by a real heartbreaking farewell scene in the railway station of Lecce that Corliano had experienced many years ago. Marinella sings (English subtitles):
One magical and mysterious way the Griko people had kept their identity throughout the generations is the “Tarantella” dance. This is a fast and frenzied dance ritual performed with much ecstasy.
The “tarantella pitsika”(pitsika-sting) is connected to the ancient Greek colony, a city today, Taranto, in the Salento peninsula which in turn gives its name to a local kind of a wolf spider “Lycosa Tarantula”. From the middle ages people believed that the bite of this spider caused a crisis mania-Tarantism. To heal the bitten person musicians gathered at his home with different colourful clothing, and begun to play a wild music hitting on the tambourine.“The patient began to hit and began a wild mimetic dance imitating the movements of the spider. This could hold three whole days without stopping. He would collapse to the floor, exhausted but healed.”(1).
But was it really like it? The bites of this spider may cause pain and swelling but it has been considered harmless to humans. It was something else. The movements of the dance and the tambourine are reminiscent of a dance of drunken women in Greek pagan cult to Dionysus-the god of the grape harvest.
These Greco people had been living in a very hard area, with little protection and security, and they have personal difficulties like everyone- a lost love, adolescence age, unfulfilled wishes,poverty and personal conflicts; but these people resisted the way of the Catholic Church to handle all these difficulties. They had their own way from ancient time to exorcise evil and they wanted to keep it and combine it with Christianity. They had it in the tarantella. “Laborers on the plantations of rice of Novara* or some mothers in the plains of Salento, who in order to escape the harsh working in the fields and violence from their husbands, fell as if they were poisoned by the bite of mysterious spider and then the musicians came for treatment”(1).
The Tarantism gradually disappeared around the middle of the 20th centaury, but not the dance which prevails in this area in ceremonies and summer festival which brings mass of pilgrimages every year. “It is as the earth is pushing you from below. It tickles your feet, you can’t stand still, it’s impossible not to dance…” (2)
Here is “Pizicarella”- a tarantella by the “Encardia” group:
The tale of Tarantula (3)
“Once upon a time outside the ancient city of Taranto lived a sweet girl, called Arhani (spider) or Tarantula, who wove beautifully like a goddess. All admired her. She thought very highly of herself that she said to all she was the best weaver in the world. One day she proclaimed that, indeed, not even the goddess Athena can compete with her in the weft. A young man who loved her was very sad because he knew well that when a beautiful girl is inflated with pride and selfishness she loses her beauty and intelligence. So he asked the goddess Athena to advise him what to do to help Arahni on this difficult position that put herself in.Without even thinking Athena told him to sing a song to the girl about the love that he feels for her, because love is the best remedy for all illnesses but most of all for the pride and selfishness…
Once the song of the young man ended, Arahni clothed her eyes and fell into a deep sleep. Nobody ever knew how many days, how many years or even centuries she slept there, beside her beloved , but it appears that the goddess Athena revealed to the boy a secret path that led into her dreams… And so he would go there often and sing to her, and she danced, danced continuously without ever getting tired, because in dreams the girls are dancing without ever get tired…
It seems that so many years passed, perhaps centuries, but Arhani did not wake up and the lad was always there, close to her, without aging and without getting tired, such as the way of young lads once they find their way into the dreams of the girls they love….
….Salento , at the beginning of the century; A small insect with black hairy legs wanders in the fertile plains and stings girls who casually enjoy the spring with venomous poison.
This insect is called Tarantula and an old story says that there was once a beautiful girl who had fallen asleep for many centuries. She woke up when the young man, whom she loved, stopped visiting in her dreams and went to a distant country carrying a secret. A daughter who is bitten by the insect falls down and they say that she will die unless there is someone who loves her.
Then come the boys with wooden instruments and tambourines and spur the girl to dance, and thus she saves herself from the poison. Only then she is getting married to the man she loves and they live happily together to old age…
Some people say that the “tarantula” spider holds the secret of love and the poison is the herb that helps the girls to be married to their mates. Others say that this herb is a remedy for all illnesses but most of all for the pride and selfishness. Others think that the spider did not appear again in the Salento plains and a beautiful girl from Taranto was married at that time a lad who had returned from America…and they lived happily ever after…”
Two more beautiful songs in Griko, the first “To my beautiful girl” sung by Encardia and Roberto Licci
The sisters Eleni and Suzana Vougioukli sing “Kalinifta”-Good night; it is about a young man who is standing at night below his beloved girl’s window, revealing his love and pain to her. Where I go, where I am, I will carry you in my heart….Good night; go to bed as I leave…
Notes: (1) These quotations are of Kostas Konstantatos (2) These quotation is from a trailer to film on Encardia in http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=vylPFgvqOxE (3)Sources are from the booklet of Encardia album ” Το παραμύθι της ταραντούλας- The tale of tarantoula, wikipedia, and the Encardia official site at http://www.encardia.gr/ (4) Another version of ‘Andra mou paei” with video of people from the region is at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y5FoAzUKD-E *Novara is in North Italy where women from the south came to work. Thanks very much to Nata Ostria, Shahaf Ifhar and Dany Matz.