Abruzzo’s bagpipers, the Zampognari established themselves as an integral part of modern-day Christmas. You’ll find a model of one in many an Italian nativity set, but despite this their music is often unknown to those outside of Italy. Here we discuss the region’s bagpipe, the breath of the mountains known as a Zampogna and its renaissance, popularity and influence throughout history with Michele Avolio of DisCanto, who has done so much personally to foster its revival over the last 20 years. Antonello di Matteo is DisCanto’s zampognaro who many regard as the best in the world and who everyone should see play at least once in their lifetime!
1. What 3 requisites does a good piper need, i.e. puff, dexterity…?
As with all instruments, love and desire to play are the most important factors. With those, in a short time you will learn to blow into the bag and co-ordinate the movements of the fingers and the pressure of the arm on the bag.
2. How long does it take to learn and at what age do most pipers start playing, unlike the ddu bote/accordions you see plenty of young children/teenagers playing but rarely those playing pipes?
You can start to play it at any age; in recent years in Abruzzo (but also in the rest of central and southern Italian) many young people have approached the instrument as well as other traditional instruments such as tambourines and accordions.
The organetto (accordion) is much younger than the bagpipes and began to replace the zampogna in the early twentieth century. The bagpipe remained in use in Abruzzo until the 50s/60. Then a combination of massive emigration, the abandonment of the mountain peasant economies and vocations, together with industrialisation in the1960s in Abruzzo further limited the spread and practice of its playing. It’s more popular in Molise which did not have the same scale of industrial development as that of Abruzzo.
Fortunately over the last 20 years in Abruzzo there has been an “enlightenment” with people looking thoughtfully (I include myself in this group, as one of the first …) to the the rediscovery and revival that has in recent years increased the study of the instruments throughout “Abruzzi” (so Abruzzo and Molise, combined). Across all ages many people have adopted the instrument and there are now more than 100 who play it. Many in the younger generation have discovered the bagpipe, the “ancestral sound” or “historically popular” and now learn to play it and practice it.
Along with bagpipes, the baroque guitar and colascione (or calascione) have also seen a comeback. Sometimes all these instruments are combined with electrification to play the popular music that is “contaminated” and influenced by the dancing music from other regions (here I refer to the “pizzica” Pugliese or the “Tarantella” Campana).
3.What does a piffero do? Is it this that is the main difference between them and Scottish/Gaelic bagpipes?
The gaelic pipes have two or three rods to produce continuous notes (drones) and one “chanter” (like a melodic flute). The Zampogna has one drone (sometimes two), and two melodic reeds which, when combined, produced melody and harmony. The ciaramella (piffero) serves to create a more complex, ample melody.
4. Historically on the world music front where were its major influences from?
To answer this question, one needs to study a bit of pastoral world music (which includes the European bagpipes) from the beginning, which is kind of impossible and there is little consensus. Just look at the ongoing study and quarrels among anthropologists.
A diplomatic answer regarding Abruzzo’s (or Molise’s) zampogna is to think of its development from Greek and Roman culture which is known from the drawings and paintings that still exist today; they played double flutes. The development is difficult to identify and trace because this culture was not always treated with care by generations of historians and not aided by the fact that pastoral culture was not written down. Each ethnic group has developed musical styles and forms of the instrument, each different from each other, from place to place. In Spain, the gaita, in the UK various forms of bagpipes, but throughout Europe almost every nation has, at least, a similar instrument.
In Sardinia the Launeddas is still played, an instrument that we think was in use 3 or 4,000 years ago. The Launeddas is an instrument of simple reeds, not like the double-reed of bagpipes and is played with a circular breathing technique. The shepherds (Abruzzo, Molise or southern Italy) have always had access to the materials required to fashion bagpipes, wood and the stomachs of goats, and as such it is probably the first instrument you can trace back to medieval times.
5. When are the best times to see them in Abruzzo – for example the Grotta del Cavallone, which other principal festa across all 4 provinces?
It is not difficult to hear the zampognari across the region.There are many traditional rituals involving the use of bagpipes, for example, The Ox San Zopito in Loreto Aprutino in June, and the arrival of the pilgrims from the province of Frosinone, the festa of St. Dominic in Cocullo, in May celebrated with snakes. Another important opportunity is in Moscufo (PE) at the end of November.
6. What is their modern role at Christmas now in Abruzzo, Rome and the rest of Italy?
Until the mid-twentieth century the farmers and shepherds from Abruzzo and Molise who played the bagpipes departed to the larger cities to “beg” by playing. This practice was developed especially at Christmas time because a lot of the musical repertoire for bagpipes consists of Christmas Novenas. Today the sound of bagpipes is related to Christmas but in past centuries it accompanied every aspect of country and pastoral life including its dances. Today’s perspective on the instrument as an aspect of Christmas is modern, not traditional.
7. Why weren’t the pipes re-created by the disapora (I understand they were too large to carry when emigrating) but from a superficial view they seem largely forgotten in new lands?
My belief is that those who started to emigrate from the mountains of Abruzzo and beyond, tried to leave behind everything that would remind them of the hard life, hunger and that included the loud sound of the bagpipe. Being recognised as a shepherd, a man of the land and bagpiper at some point, produced shame in many. The guitar, accordion and trumpet are played around the world, the bagpipe mostly in the mountains.
8. What is Gabriele D’Annunzio’s lasting influence outside Abruzzo in Italy of the zampognari?
D’Annunzio was Abruzzese and like almost all Abruzzese felt and appreciated the sound of bagpipes. In his work as as a writer and poet he remembers his own land, its sounds and rituals. However, he disliked and had little respect for the poor and the unschooled and for that reason they remained mere characters to him. D’Annunzio blamed the shepherds and zampognari for ruining his September (the time of year of the transumanza, when the flocks would have been passing D’Annunzio’s coastal lodging). Sorry for my choice of words but I personally think D’Annunzio was an arsehole who remembered the sound of bagpipes, but had no influence on the history of the instrument.
9. They are said to have influenced Debussy, Puccini. Can examples of their works be given showing this?
The “Cenaclo” of Michetti in Francavilla (a converted convent that was turned into an artisan salon in the late 1800s for writers, thinkers, artists and musicians) was attended not only by D’Annunzio but leading musicians like Puccini and Debussy as well as Mascagni, Casella, Zandonai, Franchetti, Pizzetti … There are certain examples where the direct influence of the bagpipe is clear in all their music, but it must be stressed that the musicians of every age were interested, if not influenced by the ancestral sounds they heard.
Antonio Bini recently made reference to the Zampogna exhibition in Pescara last year. Bini, I believe, is a good and talented person but he did some damage I think in saying that Debussy and Puccini frequented the salon of D’Annunzio because they were interested solely in the zampogna is unrealistic, although they do seem to have been fascinated and influenced by the pastoral music and its history… you can read more about Debussy on this subject via this link and Bini’s exhibition presentation.
10. Great examples of Abruzzo’s zampogna?
Look out for the compositions by Molise’s Piero Ricci.
Visit DisCanto’s official website
Our special thanks to ABC member Francis Cratil for making this article possible through his original translation work. A big fan of DisCanto, he works hard arranging concerts for them to be heard in Philadelphia. Here are a few of his favourite pieces by the band available to see online. Here’s a link to their forthcoming concerts. His personal music tip is to also make a visit to Scapoli’s Zampogna Museum in Molise
The Ncanata way of singing is a peasant style to make sure insults, propositions, etc, were heard across the fields during work!
This last song has Antonello playing the ciaramella