Palo Alto Weekly 2010

Songs of the south

Newpoli brings the spirited tarantellas and villanellas of southern Italian folk music to Stanford

by Rebecca Wallace

Born in Italy, Angela Rossi and Carmen Marsico came to the States to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston. The two singers were both drawn to that very American sound, jazz.

Life sometimes spins us in circles, though. After meeting at Berklee, the women attended an international folk festival held by the college. They found one country wasn't represented: Italy.

Rossi and Marsico thought of the Neapolitan tarantellas and other vivacious songs and dances they grew up knowing. Their musical impulses turned back toward their homeland.

"We decided to present Italy," Rossi said.

Together with double bass player Bjorn Wennas, Rossi and Marsico founded the Newpoli ensemble in 2003 to focus on southern Italian folk music. While they still sing jazz with other bands, Rossi and Marisco have been performing, touring and recording with the Boston-based Newpoli ever since. On Feb. 17, Newpoli will present Italy to a Stanford University audience with a concert in Campbell Recital Hall.

The band's other members, all graduates of either Berklee or the New England Conservatory, are: percussionist/vocalist Fabio Pirozzolo; bass player Kendall Eddy; percussionist Michael Daillak; accordionist Roberto Cassan; violinist Megumi Sasaki; and flutist Geni Skendo. (Rossi and Marsico also play the castanets.) It's a mix of musicians representing not only Italy but also Albania, Japan, Sweden and the United States.

The blend is apropos, since southern Italian folk music is itself a fusion. "It's really passionate. It's like listening to a little bit of African music, a little bit of Middle Eastern music," Marsico said in a phone interview from Boston.

"And you hear the classical influences," Rossi added. "In the villanella (a Neapolitan part song), you hear something really close to the madrigal. There's the Middle Ages, Renaissance influence in the music. It's a really raw street sound, and then a beat later on you hear this classical, very nice melodic sound — sometimes both in the same song."

Overall, Newpoli's repertoire spans from the 1200s to the 1800s, with a range of musical styles, regions and dialects, and lots of tambourines. A Boston Herald writer once praised the group's sound as a "fresh spin on Italian folk tunes." Newpoli performs many types of tarantella, a term that refers both to the spirited, twirling dance and the music that accompanies it. Rossi and Marsico especially like the type of tarantella from the Puglia region, called the pizzica or "bite."

An old legend linked to the tarantella had people whirling frantically to cure the bite of a tarantula by sweating out the poisons. At Newpoli concerts, the singers do the dance on stage just for fun.

"It's very high-impact. Lots of jumping," Marsico said. "There are basically two or three basic steps around which evolves the whole dance. Once you learn, you can dance on your own, in groups or in couples."

Building Newpoli's repertoire has involved some research, as southern Italian folk music isn't always the best known nowadays, especially in America. The musicians have dug up old recordings, done library research and called relatives in Italy. Versions of folk songs that were put into classical-music settings were easier to find, but the musicians wanted to make sure they weren't missing the flair and feeling of songs sung in the streets.

"The music that we do was done by people who maybe didn't read music," Marsico said. "We wanted that tradition."

Newpoli has now performed in a variety of venues, including clubs and lounges; the Boston Public Library; and the Diacetum Festival in Diacceto-Firenze, Italy. The group released its first album, "Newpoli," in 2008. Songs include the high-spirited "Pizzica," the lullaby-lyrical "La Serpe a Carolina," and "Tarantella Del Gargano," which showcases the sweet sounds of the flute.

Throughout the music, the songs are fueled by Rossi's and Marsico's strong, bright voices, which carry both soulful emotion and powerful belting. It's a style of singing that must be expertly supported by the diaphragm, Rossi said. "If it's done properly, you can go for hours."

In 2006 and 2008, the Newpoli musicians also had a special honor: They got to be on Italian television.

Rossi had invited a journalist from Rai International to a concert in Cambridge, and the network ended up featuring the group twice. With their families watching back home, Rossi and Marsico performed with the band in Massachusetts, presenting Italy to Italy.