By Paolo Chirumbolo (Louisiana State University)
Eugenio Bennato (Naples, 1948) began his music career in 1967 when, together with Carlo D’Angiò, Roberto De Simone, and Giovanni Mauriello, founded the Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare. The aim of this musical project was to explore, repropose, and spread the ancient traditional music from Campania and Southern Italy. The band was recognized and praised for the precise vocal and instrumental rendition of folk songs and dance tunes from the sixteenth-century and after. Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare was so successful that in 1972 the legendary Neapolitan playwright Eduardo De Filippo invited all the musicians to join him at the Festival Dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy’s most prestigious theatre and music festival. Between 1971 and 1975, Bennato recorded with the Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare four albums: Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare, 1971; NCCP, 1973; Li sarracini adorano lu sole, 1974; Tarantella ca nun va ‘bbona, 1975.
In 1976, he founded with Carlo D’Angiò the folk band Musicanova. Unlike Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare, Bennato’s new group was open to new interpretations and renditions of traditional folk music. The first album, Garofano d’ammore, is a collection of forgotten songs and dance themes from Puglia, Campania, Basilicata, and Calabria. Musicanova (1978) included the band’s first original compositions such as “Canto allo scugnizzo,” “Pizzica minore,” and “A la muntagna.” In 1979, Musicanova released their third record, Quando turnammo a crescere, followed in 1980 by Brigante se more. Brigante se more granted Bennato and his band national recognition. The album was the soundtrack of L’eredità della priora, an Italian television show directed by Anton Giulio Majano and based on the homonymous novel by Carlo Alianello. Set in Basilicata in the nineteenth century, L’eredità della priora tells the story of Southern bandits, the so-called “briganti,” who after the unification of Italy fought against the Italian government to defend the interests of the poor and marginalized populations of Southern Italy. This album includes some of Bennato’s finest compositions. Both the title-track and “Vulesse addeventare nu brigante” are anthems in which the courage and heroism of the briganti, ready to die for their ideals, is praised. “Canzone per Juzzella” (music by Carlo D’Angiò) is a beautiful and intense ballad that talks about the power of love in a time of war. Brigante se more was followed by another exceptional record, Festa festa (1981), Musicanova’s last work.
After a few solo studio records (Eugenio Bennato, 1983; Eughenes, 1986; Le città di mare, 1989; Mille e una notte fa, 1997), and a couple of commercial successes (among whom stands out “Le città di mare” featuring his brother Edoardo), Bennato returned to folk and popular music, and in 1998 founded the movement Taranta Power. As the singer-songwriter himself explains: “I named this movement Taranta Power, using a bold juxtaposition of terms, because it provides a vivid contrast with the unfortunately inferior image that the ‘Tarantella’ has assumed in the collective imagination worldwide, perpetuated by bland folk groups and shallow musical expression, a very long way away from the heady reality of the Taranta ritual” (www.tarantapower.it). In 1999, Bennato released the album Taranta Power, his first attempt to capture on record the energy and exuberance of this new musical style. Since the foundation of the Taranta Power movement, and the creation of the Scuola di Tarantella e Danze Popolari del Mediterraneo (Bologna, 2001), Eugenio Bennato has been touring the world (Europe, Africa, Latin America, Canada) with great success. He also added a few more albums to his name where he continues to explore Southern Italy ethnic/folk music, and talks about the tragedy of immigration, the history of brigandage, and the brotherhood of Mediterranean populations. In 2001 he released Che il Mediterraneo sia, followed in 2004 by Da lontano. In 2007, he recorded Sponda Sud which includes the song “Lucia e la luna,” a mesmerizing ballad describing the magic encounter between the moon and a beautiful young girl. Grande sud (2008) features five new songs, in addition to seven classics of Bennato’s collection. Questione meridionale (2011) revisits the history of Southern bandits and their resistance to the new-born Italian kingdom. It is in particular in “Ninco Nanco” that Bennato reexamines the life and death of one of Lucania’s most feared brigands. In 2015 he released an anthology called Canzoni di contrabbando. His latest record is Da che Sud è Sud (2017).
A relentless researcher, innovator, and music explorer, Eugenio Bennato has had a profound impact on Italian folk music. Combining tradition and modernity, Bennato has influenced countless numbers of musicians and bands, eager to explore and revisit the history of Southern Italy’s folk music. His records, concerts, and books (he is the author of Brigante se more, 2010, and Ninco Nanco deve morire, 2013) testify to his passionate quest for authenticity and honesty and make him the standard bearer of the Taranta folk movement.