An afternoon with the legendary Trallaleri singers of Genoa

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European polyphonic singing, an ancient vocal style featuring interweaving melody lines, can still be heard from the Mediterranean to the Caucuses. Interestingly, the wildest form of European polyphony is not found in an isolated Corsican village or deep in the mountains of Georgia but in the quiet alleys, piazzas and docks of Genoa, Italy’s busiest port.

This unique style is known as Trallalero, after the rhythmic nonsense syllables used by its mostly male singers. Alive and well in Genoa and the region of Liguria, Trallalero features up to twenty singers that preform in squadre (teams). Each squadre features an aural orchestra of weird and wonderful voices, from soaring falsettos to a chorus of booming basses.

I first heard Trallalero over 15 years ago through Alan Lomax’s legendary 1950s recordings in Italy. Lomax was dumfounded by the Trallaleri singers he discovered, claiming it was some of the most remarkable music he recorded in Europe. He described it as “music of the Genoese longshoremen.” One recording in particular, La Partenza, completely blew me away.  It had a distinctly medieval feel, with the melodic complexity of a Bach fugue, the rhythmic drive of Balkan music, the ornamentation of a Renaissance opera and felt distinctly, well, Martian.  I vowed to make it one day to Christopher Columbus’ hometown to hear the style live.

Finally, after ten years in France my wife and I decided to do a weekend away from the kids in Genoa. I got to work on some serious google ethnomusicological research before the trip. After many days, I found a few leads then set off to Tanzania for work.

Who would have thought that my first invite to a Trallalero session would land in my inbox one night in a hotel in remote Mbeya, Tanzania. I had finally made contact with Lucica, one of the few woman Trallalero singers, via a facebook page. After a long back and forth, she announced that her squadre would be having its last practice of the summer during our visit!

Fast-forward a couple of weeks to Genoa, the rendez-vous was in a completely unremarkable cafe off a small piazza in the old city. We showed up early, tired from a day wandering around the city’s labyrinthine alleys. The tiny cafe was packed with a somewhat rowdy group of septu- and octogenarians downing coffees and engaging in oh-so-Italian lively banter. Seemed like a normal scene.

After a few minutes, the men paid up at the bar and one by one filed up a minuscule staircase at the back of the café, continuing to banter and slap each other on the back as they ascended. Upstairs, tables were pushed to the sides and a tiny table was left in the middle with a bottle of red wine and plastic cups. The singers arranged themselves in a full circle around the table and quieted down.

The squadre began to sing (try headphones for full sound):

And so began my hour or so with the Trallaleri. It felt like a real, honest practice: The group sang about 12 tunes and had ample time to yell at each other (“it’s a Ligurian thing, Lucica assued me”), discuss arrangements and drink. The squadre, called “I Raccögieti,” is one of about five active teams in Genoa proper. A brief explanation on how it all works:

Each squadre has very specific voices that play specialized roles. First, there is a triumvirate of melody voices. In the above video, the gentleman in the yellowish polo shirt, Mario Olivieri, is the tenor or the primo voice. Next to him, the baritone, which sings counterpoint to the tenor. Then there is the contralto, above in a striped shirt – an amazing singer named Stefano Ardigò Contraetu. The contralto sings in a highly-stylized falsetto voice. Everything is done in the distinct Genoese dialect.

On the other side, a full choir of basses, directed by a lead bass. Then, the really odd addition: the chitarra, or “guitar” – the man in the video, towards the back, with a hand over his mouth.

Women are a rarity in this music, so we were especially lucky to catch one of the few female singers of this style, Lucica, taking over the role of tenor:

There seems to be a good deal of debate about the origin of the music. Some whom I spoke with disagreed about Lomax’s theory of longshoremen origins. According to Stefano, the music started in bars in the 19th century, mixing religious music with popular Opera and Ligurian folk traditions. Clearly the port did bring in outside influences and it seems they show up in the music – the droning bass recalls Greek Orthodox chants (or other Eastern vocal styles). Just check it out (another recording without video but with better audio):

Genoa was recently the subject of an urban makeover. The city’s infamous port was scrubbed clean(er) and great effort was taken to attract tourists to this once-seedy town. These days Genoa is stunning. Stately avenues lined with 19th century buildings dot the hills over the city, offering vertiginous views over the Ligurian Sea. The old port is cleaned up and the piazzas burst with life.  A massive, modern aquarium on the harbor recalls Boston or Baltimore, rather than a salty longshoremen’s den.

According to Stefano, this gentrification has started to push Trallalero outside of the city, deeper into the mountains behind Genoa. He says that Trallalero is now alive and well in small villages, but interest in dying out in the city. The chance that you’ll run into some Trallalero harmonizing in piazza on a typical tourist jaunt are low. A funny irony: a folk music that is quintessentially urban in nature is now moving to a more rural setting. An almost opposite effect than what we’ve seen with countless other folk traditions that start rural but ended up widely practiced in cities.

I’ll end this post with a particularly poignant number, “E Americhe.” It’s the story of an immigrant to America – fitting for Genoa’s history and fitting for my upcoming return to the shores of E Americhe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2014 Paris Street Food Festival

When I first moved to Paris 10 years ago, street food basically consisted of (i) rancid kebabs – I remember a local newspaper tested 100 randomly-chosen kebabs in a lab and 50 of them had traces of fecal matter (ii) ghastly crepes filled with rotten cheese that leaked engine-fluid like grease that literally burnt through clothes (iii) Incinerated “chestnuts.” Parisians definitely didn’t take kindly to having a bite on the street: They found it uncouth and seemed especially unhappy to burn through their fashionable outfits with nuclear crepe grease.

Like so many parts of the Parisian culinary scene, things have changed… big time. The first food trucks appeared in 2009, spearheaded by the now famous hamburger van Le Camion qui Fume. It was a rough start, with all sorts of permit issues and tussles with the authorities. A few years later, food trucks were popping up all around the city serving burgers, tacos etc. to the Hipsteratii of Paris. Now they are an institution. “Street food festivals” are being held around the city and an insane amount of new trucks – some distinctly Francophile and other completely Brooklynified – are showing up on street corners around the city.

I checked out the “Festival de la Street Food” [actual name] this weekend. A few snaps:

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The festival was held at the temple to Paris Hipsterdom – the newly-renovated Carreau de Temple. Food trucks were parked in front (and inside) of the massive 19th-century cast iron structure. The lines of hipsters were 100+ deep only a few hours into the festival.

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Tacos and other “consumables” (cupcakes, burgers, bagels, beer) have been a mainstay of the new Paris “Broukligne” culinary scene. So it only makes sense that taco trucks would materialize. This one – El Tacot - was our favorite truck at the festival. No-nonsense tacos, fresh, good value, quick service.

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Australians!

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Inside the Carreau de Temple – overpriced but nice dumplings.

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Yup, a “New York Deli” style food truck with mutant bagels. Must be the water here….

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Bretons checking out a bride. I didn’t try their crepes but they looked distinctly non-nuclear.

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The rare “Gallic” participant.

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Honey and waffle cones! Cultivated on the roof of the Carreau!!

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Fish and chips! It’s a strange world..

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Keep in mind that only a few years ago, there were very few vegetarian options in Paris. It was a struggle to entertain visiting Americans. Now you can get veggie hot dogs on the street. Times are a-changing.

Bastille Day 2014: Seven things that you should know about France, en petite taille

I took my sons to the excellent Model Railroad Museum in Rambouillet forest outside of Paris this weekend and realized that the gargantuan railroad and miniature exhibition offered some telling lessons about France. I snapped a few photos that illustrate perfectly what I learned about France.. after 10 years living here!

Here’s my listicle:

IMG_3689Welcome to France! It’s reeeaal purty here.

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We like the countryside, livestock and the hydropneumatic suspension that allows us to drive across fields without breaking a single egg in a basket (according to legend, this was a direct order to Citroën’s engineers from President de Gaulle).

IMG_3683We also like cycling,

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wine

IMG_3684and peeing in public.

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We like fresh fish.

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And we invented quality of life!

Happy Bastille Day! More posts coming soon…

Chechamba – Portrait of a Malawian Old Timey Musician

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I was in Malawi recently for work and I had the great pleasure to meet Wenham Chechamba in Blantyre, the country’s second-biggest city. Still going strong at 80 years old, Chechamba is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, sought-after music teacher and somewhat of a beloved national treasure.

I used scrollkit to create a little multimedia website on Chechamba, with videos, photos and interviews of the man himself. Click here or the photo and scroll away!

Syrian Refugees

downloadHave a look at a new project I was involved in (on top of my full-time job and twin baby boys, hence the lack of posts). Along with the European University Institute and French newspaper Liberation, we’ve created a single-issue news website on the situation of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries.

Interactive timelines, data visualization,  multimedia, on-the-ground reporting: lots of fun stuff! Have a look and stay tuned for my blogging on the gangs of Paris:

http://syrianrefugees.eu/

New Media for a Forgotten Massacre

The killing of up to 200 Algerian protestors in Paris by police on October 17th, 1951 has been called France’s “forgotten massacre.” Exactly fifty years later, it seems light is finally being cast on the events of that cold autumn night –with a distinctly new media flair.

At the height of the Algeria’s war of independence, thousands of Algerians gathered in Paris to protest a curfew imposed by the city’s police chief Maurice Papon (yeah, that Maurice Papon). The Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) had called for a demonstration against what they considered a racist curfew imposed solely on the capital’s Algerian residents. Up to 30,000 peaceful protestors filled the streets. But most historians believe that Papon had planned in advance for a violent crackdown against the demonstrators. Throughout the night, over 10,000 protestors were beaten, arrested and then sent to detention centers in series of attacks throughout Paris. Anywhere from 50 to 200 protestors were beaten to death or shot dead by police.

Most horrifyingly, dozens of dead or unconscious protestors were thrown into the Seine. Bodies were found downstream, some as far as Le Havre, 100 miles away on the English Channel.

Until recently, the events have been little covered by the mainstream press and still are not included in school textbooks. In fact, many French historians and commentators claim that the government has covered up the killings. The government has yet to officially apologize and authorities still question the death toll.

This year marked a real turning point, with plenty of coverage of commemoration events in the print media and a deluge of new books. Moreover, the French talent for multimedia web production was on full display, with an impressive amount of content available online. After all, the French love the web documentaries, which they lovingly call webdocs (every self-respecting bobo is “finishing up their webdoc”). Webdocs are a perfect meeting ground for the French love of photo, video and quirky storytelling.

Here’s a quick round-up of what I’ve found online this week:

La nuit oubliée (The Forgotten Night)

A fantastic webdoc combining comics, video interviews and much more. There’s also a great interactive map of Paris. Click below for the webdoc (french only):

17.10.61

Another webdoc, with interactive map and plenty of interviews. The trailer is below and you can find the webdoc here: (also only in French)

Intro 17.10.61 from Cosmografik on Vimeo.

Owni

The youngins over at Owni are Paris’s own data visualization gods, widely worshiped in new media circles. They featured a great visualization (below) and an article with scans of official documents showing that French authorities planned out the illegal incarceration of thousands of “FMA,” or  French Muslim Algerians:


Ici on noie les Algériens (We drown Algerians here)

The French talent for documentaries has also been poorly applied to the events of October 17, 2011 – up until now, very few films have been produced about the massacre in the center of Paris. Seems this is changing as well. Here’s a trailer for one that opened in select Paris theaters yesterday:

The Godfather Comes to Montreuil?

A violent attack on a squat in the eastern suburbs of Paris last weekend has received a considerable amount of media attention for what has become an almost banal Parisian summer event: squatter evictions.

Over the weekend around twenty masked strongmen wielding iron bars and tear gas lay siege to a group of “activist” squatters in an abandoned house in the municipality of Montreuil. What the press has called an “armed raiding party” smashed the building’s entrance gate on Saturday, roughed up some inhabitants and returned two times over the weekend to wreck more havoc. According to witnesses, police showed up 30 minutes after the attack started but did nothing to stop the casseurs (hooligans). One usually reads about staged battles between casseurs and the police – this was a weird turn of events.

In a series of short statements released to indymedia, the squatter “collective” said they had occupied the house since 2007 with no outside ownership claims. Despite calling the squat La Maison qui Pue, (the House that Stinks), the collective insists that they lived in harmony with their neighbors. According to the collective, this weekend’s attackers were hired by a local real estate group called IAD that professes to have bought the house and wants to avoid a lengthy legal battle.

There was a surprising amount of mainstream buzz this week. Even the mayor of Montreuil chimed in, condemning the raid to the AFP. Local politician and teacher Bruno Saunier wrote an editorial piece on the website of news channel France 24 describing the owner’s “mafia-like methods.” The attack has received a large amount of coverage, including center-right Le Figaro, thanks to a video taken by a resident of the neighborhood:

But evictions at the numerous squats in the Eastern Paris suburb of Montreuil are an old story – squats have been sprouting up in this famously far-left neighborhood for decades, bringing in artists and anarchists alike. French law forbids evicting tenants during the winter, so the warmer months see a number of evictions, especially in Montreuil. It’s somewhat of a spring fertility rite in the area. Whole streets are blocked off for massive police operations, as screaming anarchists are dragged out of the large and often charming turn-of-the-century houses typical of Montreuil. The squatters have an impressive support network and always manage to attract local attention to their cause, while shunning the mainstream media.

This weekend’s event was different. It almost seemed that French press sniffed a whiff of the Godfather in the air. The media buzz has had an effect: According to Bruno Saunier’s personal blog, the two employees of the real estate company that ordered the attack have already been fired.

Squatters versus casseurs versus the police versus squatters. The gangs of paris never cease to amaze me.