Cultural Exchange Through The Music of Southern Italy: A Conversation with Newpoli

As a band, Newpoli stirs up a mesmerizing sound that melds traditional Italian folk music with Greek, Turkish and Spanish influences, all underpinned by pulsing of the tamburello and the wild, frenetic dancing of the two female lead singers.

The group was formed in 2003 at The Berklee School of Music by four musicians who had left their homes in Italy and Sweden to study in the US: Carmen Marsico (vocals, dance, artistic director), Angela Rossi (vocals, dance, artistic director), Björn Wennås (guitar and music director) and Fabio Pirozzolo (vocals, tamburello, percussion). Within the last few years they have been joined by musicians Jussi Reijonen (oud, mandola, guitar), Daniel Meyers (zampogna, ciaramella, recorders), Karen Burciaga (violin), and Jeff McAuliffe (bass).  

Newpoli performing with a variety of instruments

MJ Gilmore, The Cedar’s Box Office and Office Manager, interviewed Newpoli members Carmen Marsico, Angela Rossi and Björn Wennås through Skype as they talked from their sunny kitchen in Boston. They shared their joy of performing traditional Southern Italian music, reflected on the political message of their latest album, and gave their perspectives on perseverance, the power of dance, and the continued need for cultural exchange.

Newpoli performing “Na Voce Sola,” courtesy of Newpoli’s YouTube channel.

MJ: Hi, Carmen, Angela and Björn!  It is a joy to interview you this morning in advance of your show at The Cedar.  How did Newpoli start?

Carmen: We formed our band around 2003. Some of us were students at The Berklee College of Music. We knew the college was hosting an international folk festival and we decided to represent Italy, because as we looked at the history of the festival, we noticed they’d only had one music group representing Italy. This group was made up of Italian-Americans and they didn’t really represent the traditional Italian folk music we knew.  So we knew we wanted to perform at this festival. We recorded and submitted a demo and were picked to perform! We were very excited to play at the festival and loved the reaction of the audience. From this moment on we couldn’t stop!

Live recording by Alan Lomax, courtesy of Salvatore Libertino’s YouTube channel.

The other four members of the band have changed throughout the years, but within the last few years we haven’t changed and we have grown as a band.  In the beginning we were playing strictly traditional music from the South of Italy, to include music from our childhood, but then later we started researching more.  We listened to field recordings of Italian musicians from the 1950s. These recordings were collected by American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and other ethnomusicologists in Italy. We listened to those recordings and they were really inspiring.  We also started composing our own music at that time. We tried to keep some traditional grooves from the South of Italy, but we also were influenced by all of the Mediterranean cultures.

We very intentionally looked at where Italian musical influences came from, to include migration patterns.
— Björn Wennås

Björn: We very intentionally looked at where Italian musical influences came from, to include migration patterns.  For example if we found a tune from Foggia, we could a hear a particular inflection with the way the women were singing in a field recording.  So we looked up Foggia to see what historically happened there to see where those musical influences came from. We wanted to shine a spotlight on that by using the rhythms and scales from that country.  When we wrote original music, not just using traditional Southern Italian songs, we went kind of wild!

I listen to a lot of different music of a culture and their surrounding cultures and see how I can link them. For example, how can I incorporate a traditional Turkish groove and different instruments into our music.  Another example is that one day our woodwind player, Dan Meyers, came into rehearsal with a huge bass flute and started to play it. I immediately thought to write a song using it, because it sounded so cool.

Ciaramella

Ciaramella

Angela: Dan is a really talented musician. He plays many traditional wind instruments, such as the ciaramella, which is an instrument from Naples. Dan comes from a training in early music, like our violinist, Karen Burciaga. Dan has a very wide range of instruments and those instruments inspire our new compositions and arrangements.

MJ: Your music is rooted in traditional Southern Italian music.  How have you been influenced by other cultural musical styles?

Björn: Starting with the previous album Nun te Vutà and now our new album Mediterraneo, we really wanted to develop our own sound, rather than trying to stay true to the cannon of Southern Italian folk traditions.  We wanted to broaden our sound and make a more modern sound. For instance, Jussi Reijonen grew up in Finland, Middle East and East Africa, he plays the oud, mandola, and guitar in our band, and we just wanted to embrace all of his background.

Angela: Jussi studied with the master oud player Simon Shaheen.  So he definitely brings this Middle Eastern sound to our music.

Carmen: One of the first times we performed live, people didn’t really understand we were playing music from the South of Italy.  Angela and I had to explain that we sing traditional music from the South of Italy and that our culture has a lot of influences from the Middle East and North Africa.  

Angela: Fabio is our percussionist in the band and the tamburello is a key instrument in our music. Each region in the South of Italy has a different rhythm and different tambourines.  He brings with him tons of knowledge of different tambourines and styles.

Album artwork for Newpoli’s  Mediterraneo

MJ: In your new album, Mediterraneo, you sing that “the sea unites us.”  How do you see the Mediterranean Sea as a metaphor for what has happened to our global society, both historically and presently, during our challenging economic and political times?

Carmen: We used two dialects in our song Mediterraneo. We purposely wanted two languages in this song in order to help get our message across to accept every culture. We use the Neapolitan dialect, because Angela’s family is from Naples.  My family’s from a little region called Basilicata. In the village where my parents are from, this particular dialect is called Pignolese. The verse in this song is in the Basilicata dialect and the chorus is in the Neapolitan dialect.

We are trying to send this message out about not building walls, but to try instead to understand what’s on the other side.
— Angela Rossi

We have lived in Boston, MA for over 10 years and we are very aware of what’s happening politically here in the United States.  We are also very connected to Europe, specifically Italy. We hear a lot of negative reactions from people about new immigrants.  We wanted to find some positive stories of immigrants from Italy and show that people can integrate and become a part of another country. This is the history of the Mediterranean.  We started reading different articles and we found stories that inspired us to write lyrics. We are saying, let’s look at the Mediterranean as a unifying element, not a wall. This is a very important message for us here in the United States. We wanted people to understand that you can accept and learn from other cultures.

Angela: This is the theme of our original music.  This theme that ‘the sea unites us’ has been going on for thousands of years.  Our music is testimony of this theme. Here we are, we are all different, and our music represents all of these styles--this is a beautiful and enriching theme for people.  This is true of many of the elements of the arts and culture. We are trying to send this message out about not building walls, but to try instead to understand what’s on the other side.

Carmen: It’s a strong position, but we stand by it. We do think that our music can help people better understand problems of our society.

Newpoli performing “So’ emigrant’,” courtesy of Newpoli’s YouTube channel.

MJ: Dance is a very expressive Italian tradition.  What is the significance of the dances that you perform?

Newpoli performing

Carmen: The Tarantella is really a family of southern Italian dances that vary from region to region. One dance that we started learning years ago is from Salento which is in the southern part of Apulia.  This specific dance is called Pizzica. Many of our songs are Pizzicas, or influenced by this rhythm.

The dance has a very important backstory. People think the Pizzica had a cultural connection to a healing ritual. In the Middle Ages, women were affected by a strange disease called Tarantism that would put them in a catatonic state and the only way to revive the person was by playing this specific pattern of music which is the Pizzica with specific instruments that include the tamburello and the violin and maybe a flute.  The music was played with high pitched instruments with a 12/8 time signature that is really fast. This pattern will make the person start moving and eventually dance and ultimately revive the person.

The legend says women were bitten by a spider called a tarantula and this would cause a problem, and through dance, they would sweat out the poison.  This probably was not the real reason, but really it was about being overworked. The women were really tired working in the fields picking tobacco and working hard at home. They say this dance was a way to react to their social position in society. That’s why probably more women than men were affected with this problem.

The Pizzica is one type of dance and the steps are very specific and are similar to the courtship version of the dance. We also do the courtship dance in our show.  We perform another dance that is similar in style to Flamenco dance, called Tammurriata. We use this particular pattern in a song that Angela and I wrote. It’s a very pretty couples dance. The Tammurriata has a rural connection, in particular, how farmers use their hands: picking apples, holding a basket, harvesting… it’s a very pretty dance.

We want to be relevant to our folk music of our time and to create music. We want to draw from other styles.
— Angela Rossi

Björn: When we are playing the Pizzica or Tammurriata, the type of guitar I’m playing is called chitarra battente. When I play together with the tambourine, I’m more or less harmonizing.  I have started to play the guitar in a more modern way by broadening what I can do with it.

Angela: I feel when we add an electric instrument, like the bass played by Jeff McAuliffe, into our acoustic group, it builds a bridge to contemporary music.  We want to be relevant to our folk music of our time and to create music. We want to draw from other styles.

MJ: I really enjoyed your interview with Stephen Winick at the Library of Congress.  How did this experience come about?

An oral history of the Newpoli Italian performing group, courtesy of LibraryofCongress’ YouTube channel.

Carmen: About a year ago we were showcasing at Folk Alliance International in Kansas City.  One of the showcases happened to be at 2 AM in a small hotel meeting space. Stephen Winick from the Library of Congress was there and after we performed, he invited us to come the Library of Congress to perform and to be interviewed by him. It was wonderful to talk with him and to present our work.

MJ: What is musically inspiring you now?

Angela: We are trying to reach as many people as we can with our music. The live element of this music is so important. It’s wonderful to have our latest album, Mediterraneo, completed. I think it is really important to bring this music to our audience, this is how the music gets its energy. It is an exchange of culture and discovery.

We still want to compose new songs and still want to talk about what is going on in our society and have a creative relation between our personal experience and what is politically happening today, and keep this message in the music.
— Carmen Marsico

Björn: With our last two albums, Mediterraneo and Nun te Vutà, we have received more attention. For example, we were just at a conference in New York, and a lot of people knew who we were. That is a big step forward for us. This is nice, because this is beautiful music and it should be heard. The next thing we want to do is bring our music back home to Europe. Hopefully this summer we will be performing some concerts there.  We are also thinking about doing some collaborations with other bands and recording a couple of singles this year.

Carmen: We’ve been doing a lot of researching. So far we have researched music in Napolia, Basilicata, Campania and Calabria. I personally would like to discover more from Calabria and also start researching music from Sicily.  We still want to compose new songs and still want to talk about what is going on in our society and have a creative relation between our personal experience and what is politically happening today, and keep this message in the music.

Some musicians bring so much to the music.  It’s not so much the instrument itself, but what the musician is saying through the instrument.  He was one of those people, and he still inspires us.
— Angela Rossi

MJ: Roberto Cassan was your very dear and inspiring friend and musician.  Can you tell us about him?

Roberto Cassan playing an accordion

Björn: Roberto was a part of our group from the very beginning and a very, very close friend.  Two years ago we were supposed to meet him at a festival, when we found out he had a heart attack and passed away.  It left a huge hole in our group and we wondered how we would ever move forward from this. Our band didn’t play together for half a year, as we were just thinking what we should do.  We decided that we were going to continue, but we were going to take time to bring our band in a different direction.

Carmen: We didn’t want to try to find a substitute for Roberto.

Björn: We didn’t want to find another accordionist, so we were trying to do something completely different.  That was a hard hit for us emotionally.

Angela: Some musicians bring so much to the music.  It’s not so much the instrument itself, but what the musician is saying through the instrument.  He was one of those people, and he still inspires us.

Björn: He was a very well known musician in our hometown and so many people came out for his memorial. It was amazing to see how many lives he had touched.

Carmen: We were lucky to have met him and perform with him. I don’t think he would have ever wanted us to stop, because he couldn’t be with us anymore.

Angela: His beautiful daughter, Lucia Cassan, dances with our band in our music video.  She is a very talented dancer and aerialist. She has music in her life and we are very happy to have her in our lives and to still be a part of hers.

Newpoli perofrming “Mediterraneo," courtesy of Newpoli’s YouTube channel.

MJ: Have you had many opportunities to educate students about your music?

Björn:  We have taught at elementary schools and several universities including Wellesley, Harvard and Stanford.

Carmen: Sometimes we lecture and sometimes we do workshops on dance and rhythm.

Angela: We like to explain where our tradition comes from.

MJ: Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share with us?

I would like to make people aware that no matter where you are from, you are a citizen of the world. Let’s live together in harmony.
— Carmen Marsico

Carmen: I want to be a citizen of the world.  We came from different situations, but many of us have to move many times in our lives and adjust to different situations.  I would like to make people aware that no matter where you are from, you are a citizen of the world. Let’s live together in harmony.


See Newpoli live with Mila Vocal Ensemble at The Cedar on Thursday March 28th.