Italy is a country where, musically at least, the regional identities are much stronger than any national feeling. There are huge regional differences, from the passionate sound of tarantella to the measured male polyphonic singing that characterizes Sardinia or the almost Celtic melodies of the north.
Perhaps the place to start is in the center of the country, which combines the major modes of northern Italian music with the minor, Arabic-influenced sounds of the South. It's an area that's populous and more urban, and so it carries less of a musical history. You can still find a pair of ancient traditions, the vocal ottava rima, a kind of chanted peasant poetry, and the saltarello dance. But for the most part, roots music in central Italy is a product of the folk revival that began at the end of the 1960s, in the wake of 1950s field recordings by a number of musicologists, including American Alan Lomax. A number of early revival musicians, such as Gastone Pietrucci and Sara Modigliani, are still active on the folk scene. Central Italy is also the home of organetto music, the light melodeon sound that often seems the essence of Italy to foreigners, especially when played by people like the great Riccardo Tesi.
To the south, the tarantolati, a healing ritual whose roots probably predate Christianity, is an ancient ceremony of rhythm and ecstatic dancing (in a curious 12/8 time), meant to cure the female dancers of possession resulting from the bite of the tarantula spider. With its own songs and rhythms (and sexual symbolism), it's something unique to the region, but which has been exported around the world in recent years. The city of Naples harbors not only strong politics, which mixed with music in the 1970s in the hands of E'Zize (and continues to do so with offshoot Spaccanapoli), but also Neopolitan song, a hybrid of folk and classical music that's grown from rural roots, dancing to frame drums (an echo of tarantella), and a farming percussion that uses scythes and staves on barrels, which has been very well modernized by musician Enzo Avitabile. You can hear the zampogna bagpipes, and in Puglia, the brass bands have proved very popular, with a large number across the regioneven spreading to Sicily with the adventurous Banda Ionica. But in the sharp dryness of Southern Italian music you can hear the way those minor Middle Eastern modes have become a part of the landscape.
Travel North and it's a different story altogether. The music's often played in major keys, and the melodies are eerily reminiscent of Celtic music, as can be heard in the field recordings of the rice workers in Emilia and Lombardy. There's a very strong dance tradition here, with bagpipes and fiddle the most important instruments, in bands like the acoustic Piva dal Carner or Fiamma Fumana, which combine acoustic instruments and traditional tunes and songs with electronics and beats. Those two are not the only bands from the area to push the boundaries. Mau Mau, from Piedmont, mixed its tradition with global beats to good effect in the early 1990s. Within the North, Genoa stands as an anomaly, with its own tavern singing called trallalero, a distant cousin of the polyphony found in Sardinia and Corsica. Although not widely known, and more historical than contemporary, it's proved an influence on some younger bands like La Rionda.
The relative isolation of Sardinia has allowed its own styles to develop without much outside influence. While the ancient luannedda piping remains important, the one known to most people is the polyphonic singing, most particularly that of the tenores, male quartets that sing a capella (the style is also found in nearby Corsica) in the old village style. It's haunting and majestic, with its roots in shepherd songs and the Church. Probably the best known of the tenores are Tenores di Bitti, whose career has lasted more than three decades and brought the band international acclaim, followed by Tenore de Orosei, which offers a more religious take. There are female polyphonic singing groups, but it's the males who've captured the spotlight to date. Chris Nickson .