An afternoon with the legendary Trallaleri singers of Genoa

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.