Bella Ciao

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Ensemble 'Bella Ciao'

Riccardo Tesi, Lucilla Galeazzi, Elena Ledda,
Ginevra di Marco, Gigi Biolcati, Andrea Salvadori, Alessio Lega

Bella Ciao
Buda Musique

Work song (archive) / "Bella Ciao"

Fifty years ago, 'Bella Ciao' was a profoundly important show mounted by the Nuovo Canzoniere Italiano. The program highlighted the burgeoning research into folk song over the period 1954-1964, and as such, it was poised to help further the Italian folk revival. 'Bella Ciao' proved to be uneasy listening for some in the audience. The Nuovo Canzoniere Italiano (the workers' branch of the Istituto Ernesto de Martino) was not going to provide a commercial version of Italian culture. The collected songs drew extensively from the world of work, but these were further tied to other struggles and to pacifism. For example, the anti-war song “O Gorizia,” born from the First World War, was sung with an alternative verse damning the officers. Arguments burst out in the theater, and according to the liner notes in this CD: “A lady in furs responded to the verse, 'E nelle stalle più non vogliuam morir' – 'We don't want to continue to die in the stables,' by standing and announcing 'I own 330 peasants and one of them sleeps in the stables!' Giorgio Bocca retorted: 'Get out, you old bag!'” A tough crowd, indeed, and the musical company had to endure threats of bomb attacks by right-wing groups. No one ever said that folk song was easy.

The new album version of Bella Ciao, supervised by accordionist extraordinaire Riccardo Tesi, celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of that seminal show. Tesi gathered together major Italian folk and political artists for this event, and the musical component of the songs has been updated to include guitar, accordion, clarinet, bass, and percussion. The show has thus been fleshed out, but just enough to keep the songs in a fond caress.


"Porta Romana"

"La lega"

Bella Ciao both begins and ends with the sounds of workers laboring in a marble quarry, with workers hitching the marble slabs for transport. This is dangerous work – but again, so are the songs. The laboring songs honor the work of textile spinners, coal workers, rice field workers, and olive harvesters. “Porta Romana” is a prison song, and the reconstituted Bella Ciao musicians dedicate the song to the migrants caught in Italian prisons. Many of the other songs offer political statements: “La lega” was a popular song amongst the peasantry, and is here sung with the intent to stress the original meaning of lega (league) as aligned with liberty, as opposed to the xenophobia of the far-right Lega Nord. And, of course, there is “Bella Ciao,” the most famous of the Italian partisan songs, still powerful in its anti-fascist sentiment.

"Bella Ciao" (versione partigiana)

The singing on Bella Ciao is fantastic; the women are all masters of folksong and social singing. But overall, while the album is beautifully performed and a fine tribute to the original production, the professionalism overshadows the stakes of these songs. For songs that originated with the people, their ragged nature and outrage has been buffed to a polite sheen. The contrast with the cries of the marble workers is notable. In a time when the 99% are straining under the 1%, the words of the songs can still have tremendous impact; but, the songs should not have the impact of nostalgia when today, we need action and the shock of the avant-garde to wrest people from their torpor. - Lee Blackstone

Further adventures

Read a review of Mauro Palmas' A Volte Ritornano

Listen to The Modena City Ramblers' version of "Bella Ciao."

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