Folk music has been at the root of August March’s studies, formal and informal, for nigh on 40 years now.
Due to the influence of his father and mother, the dude grew up listening to Peter, Paul and Mary, The Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and a host of other hippies and hipsters who went back to their roots—and the roots of their nation—in search of musical truth.
After absorbing as much of the American folk pantheon as possible—Burqueños Hoyle Osborne and Jane Voss were counted in, you can rest assured—March turned his ear outward and began listening to folk music from the Caribbean, Latin America and West Texas, too.
Lately, after spending what seemed like an eternity listening to the work of the Americas, your local music critic began to delve into the folk traditions of Europe. You can blame his trip down that storied path on his old and odd acquaintance with folks like Robyn Hitchcock and Neil Innes—not to mention a lifelong fascination with an album by Brit psych-folk group The Incredible String Band titled The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.
Long story short, March finally came across the folk music of Italy. As a child he had been intrigued by stories of tarantism and the music that went with the supposed mystery dance, and had recently spent hours listening to folk sounds from the Italian boot heel, from whence such sounds originated.
It was while there, in such a rarefied virtual realm, that March encountered the music of Newpoli, a postmodern Italian octet with its roots at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass.
Newpoli, deeply informed by the folk music and working music of Southern Italy, imbues their sound with contemporary phrasing, modalities and lyrics that reflect themes prominent in 21st century life, from the European migration crisis to womens’ and worker’s rights.
When March found out Newpoli was playing two big gigs in Burque this coming week, he was ecstatic and immediately began reaching out to a group of musicians that he was sure Burqueños would totally dig.
On Saturday afternoon, lead singer and artistic director Carmen Marsico and guitarist/musical director Björn Wennås called him at home to talk about the music that has been called the Mediterranean pulse, the rhythm of the earth.
Weekly Alibi: Who and what is Newpoli?
Carmen Marsico: I am from Italy, specifically from the region of Basilicata.
Did Newpoli get its start in Southern Italy?
We started the band with Angela Rossi, the other lead singer and Fabio Pirozzolo, the tambourela player, in 2003, more or less, when we were all students at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. We were students who met in college and decided to form this band because the college had organized an international folk festival. We wanted to represent Italy. Italy had never been represented at the festival. So we decided to put together a project after we realized that, collectively, we had a lot of knowledge about traditional music from the south of Italy. So we recorded a demo at a little studio at Berklee.
What happened next?
We got picked! From that moment on, we couldn’t stop.
Okay, I get it. You were music students at a top-notch music school. Did the modern musical techniques you learned in college influence your ideas about traditional or folk music or how Newpoli made music?
Björn Wennås: Oh yeah. It definitely did. And we picked up on a lot of traditional music via field recordings. We found an archive of recordings that contained the work of a very famous Italian anthropologist, Ernesto de Martino.
Carmen: We found field recordings that were done in the 1950s. We listened to hours of recordings and read the analysis and records he left behind. We started thinking that this was amazing material that no one recently had brought to life. We started with what we knew and then by digging deeper, discovered so much music.
So this music is historically important, right?
Björn: Absolutely. To get to my point, these recordings were where our music education really kicked in, with these field recordings. Most of the recordings were made with housewives, farmers, workers. They didn’t really have education, they were simple people, like musical skeletons. Sometimes they weren’t even in tune. But we sat down with these recordings and were like, “What can we do with this? How can we build on it?” And we started arranging things, looking at rhythms and patterns and scales. And we wondered what influenced these folk musicians; was it immigration patterns? Sometimes we ended up putting a Greek rhythm on a song from Southern Italy. We were building our own material like that.
What’s the music like now, as a result of all that study and creative processing?
This whole process continued on our previous album; we also started writing our own music in the style of what we’d been studying. It all comes full circle on our new album, Mediterraneo, which came out last year.
Besides all of the influences from the traditional music of Southern Italy, what else is important to the band?
I would definitely say migration has been big topic. The whole issue of migration from Northern Africa into Europe is important.
I’ve recently noticed that several bands that I would call “folk” have taken up social justice topics. Discuss.
I think that the things we talk about are integral to our music. For example, Carmen wrote a song that is about trying to humanize the immigration crisis because it’s becoming so much about numbers. We want people to focus on the fact that there are people behind the numbers.
How does music, especially your music, play a role in humanizing these tragic events—both for your listeners and for the wider world?
That’s a big question!
Carmen: I can say this: In the United States, and in some parts of Italy, people don’t know that music in Southern Italy was so influenced by people from surrounding areas—North Africa, the Balkans, Greece—that migrated to places like Basilicata. The fact that we are talking about the kind of music that we do, for me that’s a message that says you build walls to separate people. You have to embrace different cultures. In our music, you hear that, the rhythm from Africa, the melodies of the Middle East, the traditions of Spain and even the United States. Maybe that will help people reflect and say “If, in music, these differences can live together harmoniously, can we not, too?
What an amazing conclusion! Accordingly, your music is not sad nor mournful about the world. In fact it’s celebratory in many ways; it’s highly danceable. Let’s talk about that. In a crazy sad world, you all are still making a joyful noise.
Björn: I’m going to have to bring a distortion pedal to the next gig.
There are a ton of heavy metal guitarists in Burque. Maybe you can enlist one while you’re here.
Seriously, all the music from that area of the world has always been made to dance to. Quite often, it has a healing power. The dance complements, reflects such music. The whole La Taranta tradition comes from that idea.
Carmen: In Apulia, the boot heel of Italy in the very south part of that region, there is a legend, rooted in tradition, that talks about women who were afflicted with a disease called tarantism, that was caused by spider bite.
Oh, I remember. Those bitten compulsively danced a dance called the Tarantella, named after similar courtship dances of that era as well as a big spider from that area.
The women were in a catatonic state and there was nothing to do to bring them back to normal except for a specific form of music.
So the joy of music is grounding, humanizing and ultimately, healing.
In modern times, this has been studied. It probably wasn’t caused by a spider bite, but it was more of a social reaction by working women who were very much overwhelmed by work in the fields, factories and home. Certainly they were depressed.
Is the music also empowering?
Very much so. Besides the dance music, we also engage in an epic chant that has a lot of passion, perhaps more than dance music. It’s a chant that was originally sung by workers in the fields to keep time with certain tasks.
Is folk music the music of the working class?
Absolutely. We’ve been trying to make people aware of all these nuances that we have in the music of Southern Italy.
Why should Burqueños come out for your concerts this week?
Björn: Because it’s something you’ve probably never heard before. We play instruments that you have never even seen before. It’s fun music, but also part of very vital tradition of music-making that goes back centuries.