In the “Parts Unknown” episode set in Puglia, Bourdain and traveling companion Asia Argento witness a dramatic reenactment of tarantism, which seems to consist mostly of tambourines and women dressed in white rolling around on a blanket. Also some dancing and scarf waving. But, as with most things that Bourdain chooses to highlight, there’s more to the story than that. (Well, that wouldn’t really be much of a story, would it?)
It may be ancient, it may have found a modern rebirth, there may be a ton of interest after this episode airs, but there’s still a definite “What the hell?” element to the pizzica, or taranta, music and dance. Wading into research is nebulous at best: Some claim the dance and music date from the 15th century; some simply say “thousands of years.”
Thankfully, expert Lee Blackstone was kind enough to weigh in. Blackstone is a professor and chair of the Sociology department at State University of New York Old Westbury. He spoke with me over the phone about the ancient art form. The pizzica, it seems, dates back thousands of years to when Puglia was known as “Magna Graecia,” on account of the Greeks who lived there. There was a cult of Dionysus that existed in the area.
“I wasn’t prepared to go back that far to understand the music, but you have to,” says Blackstone.
Apparently, whenever the god Dionysus “appeared,” he was always accompanied by drums. Women who worshipped him would drop whatever they were doing and runoff, act out in ecstatic frenzies, and let their hair down in the process, which Blackstone reminds me is a sign of freedom. He adds, “The drumming aspect is important, because for as long as people have been on the planet, rhythm has had the ability to put people into a trance.” The ritual of tarantism is rooted in those Dionysian rites, but historians typically place the advent of the ritual between the 15th and the 17th centuries.
The south of Italy historically was an agricultural and poverty-stricken place. The afflicted were primarily women. They would be working in the fields, and then “at one point they might start to act differently, and the condition was ascribed to being bitten by a spider,” continues Blackstone. “Taranta in Italian is ‘spider,’ so if it had been determined that she had been bitten by a spider, she became a tarantata.” (A male, if so afflicted, would be known as a tarantato.) A woman who was bitten would have a number of symptoms—most notably, she might appear tired or melancholic. The cause of this attitude change? “At the point of biting, the spider was supposed to transmit a song to you,” Blackstone explains.
“So then it became the job of the family to hire some musicians to fiddle around and try to get a rise out of the woman and find a tune that she would respond to, and sometimes she would be in a listless state and she would have interaction with these musicians. It could last for days or weeks.”
So this genre of music came about because women supposedly got bitten by spiders, and they use music to try to draw the poison out of the tarantata.
Blackstone continues, “They would use different types of instrumentation. If you look at classic acoustic pizzica groups, they might be using a violin, an accordion, and absolutely the tambourines—the tamborello, those are essential to the sound—but sometimes it could have been bagpipes. It could have been zithers. There would be lots of symbols, pictures. There might be pools of water because it was thought that the tarantata seemed to be drawn to the water or the ocean. Ropes would be around so that the woman would be able to swing, which would … be an allusion to the Greek myth of Arachne. Becoming the spider, the woman might kind of writhe around, and she would also kind of talk to her spider and come to kind of an agreement to stop her affliction.”
To make the rest of a long story short, the Council of Trent did not like these pagan rituals. Women dancing with their hair down! What could be worse?! And so, as in so many other cases, the council transposed a Christian meaning onto a pagan one. St. Paul enters the picture here, having been dubbed the patron saint of those bitten by things like snakes, scorpions, and spiders. The tarantism ritual shifted to include a Catholic figure. As Blackstone says, “When the event had run its course, the woman would go and give thanks to St. Paul in Galatina—that’s also in Puglia.” The ritual of coming to terms with the spider drifted through the years. It wasn’t, says Blackstone, something people were necessarily proud of. It became both a stigmatized condition and a kind of sociocultural therapy.
It’s thanks to the work of Italian multicultural anthropologist Ernesto de Martino that we know so much about tarantism today in its modern context. De Martino, according to Blackstone, wrote a book in 1961 that translates as either “The Land of Remorse” or “The Land of the Rebite.” De Martino heard about the phenomenon of tarantism in Salento and traveled there in the late ’50s with a team of researchers. It was in Nardo where de Martino got off the train with his team and happened to ask a passing child if he knew anything about it. The child led them to a nearby home where a woman known as Maria of Nardo was in the middle of a tarantism ritual. De Martino’s team filmed the event.
You guessed it. Here it is.
De Martino drew conclusions about the significance of tarantism to those afflicted. According to Blackstone, “his evaluation of the phenomenon is that this was a specific sociocultural phenomenon that was specific to the Salento, to Puglia. ’Crisis of presence’ is the famous term that he used, particularly when he was referring to these poor and afflicted women. And there may have been some men, but again far and away it was women. By ‘crisis of presence’ he meant that you had been left behind by society, that you didn’t know what the meaning of your life was anymore, or your place in history. So this was a way for people to sort of deal with it. He discovered a number of really interesting things. One was that there was no physical proof that any of these women had actually been bitten by spiders—some people would say that this is the mystery of it. But he also noticed that … if the woman was a taranta, it was more likely that her daughter was likely to be stricken as well—and her daughter’s [daughter]—and so tarantism seemed to run in families, and it would recur year after year. He came across women who had been tarantata for upwards of 40 or 60 years. It’s an interesting thing to ask, ‘Why is it they had to go through this every year? What function did this particular phenomena do for them?’”
Here, says Blackstone, is the crux of the matter: “What happened in the modern age is that when [the tarantati] would go to the church of Galatina after they had run through the music and come into their accommodation with [St. Paul], they would reenact their possession in the church but without the music. And they would crawl through the church, and there was a day when all of these people would show up and cry of suffering. They would often yell in the process of doing this. This is, I would argue, very important. As a tradition, people would never have let this go on if it didn’t have a result of mending some sort of social, psychological issue. It would have died out long before.”
Fast forward from de Martino’s research of the early ’60s. The music—and tradition—dies out, only to be revived in the ’70s by bands like Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, who still play today. Initially it was resoundingly rejected, as the people of Puglia felt that the condition and the music associated with it were painful and brought back difficult times. Then along came the ’80s and the world music craze and a fair amount of immigration to Italy. The immigrants, the Italians noted, were retaining the cultural identities of their native countries. And so “all of this was kind of inspiring to young people in Puglia, and they settled on the music as what was really distinctive” to them, says Blackstone. “Music that’s played with this specific chickitachickitachickita beat, you don’t find that anywhere else—it’s distinctive to their area. They latched onto this as something that they could work with as kind of a cultural reclamation project. Then all kinds of groups start popping up that start to incorporate traditional folk music into their own.”
Today, if you are so inclined, you can attend La Notte della Taranta to listen to the nuevi tarantati bands who take pride in this music of place. Blackstone is a fan of Nidi d’Arac. He mentions an interview that he did with singer Vera Di Lecce, who had some poignant words for him: “When I was interviewing her, she said, you know, the [original] idea was to dance the poison of the spider out, but the poison now is the speed of modern society and it’s the war, it’s the economy, it’s all of these things that are sort of bringing people down. And so what the music can be used for on sort of a mass level is to exorcise the ills of modern society.” Blackstone furthers the hypothesis with his own take: “What’s really significant is that when I was analyzing this, what really stands out is that this is a music that goes from being an individual therapy rooted in the place’s culture to something much broader. This is something that would very much have been part of a social psychological cultural complex, so once it hits the concert stage, it becomes something different. There’s an irony there, right?” The individual struggle has been replaced with the consumption of a new take on the original music of the rituals of the past.
With that, I’ll put the topic down with some lyrics that the good professor sent to me with the words, “I think anyone can relate to that song today!”
You’ve graduated but there’s no work
have a [master’s] but there’s no work
and you’re left with only your imagination
wanting to buy a house, it’s an agony
wanting a family, it’s crazy
but if you stop, there’s melancholy
get up find a way keep on going don’t stop
find a way take a chance your voice is strong make it heard
when you go abroad the symphony changes
when you go abroad it feels like magic
when they respect you for your art
don’t stop don’t stop
get up find a way keep on going don’t stop
find a way take a chance your voice is strong make it heard
I’d like to go away but I don’t want to
because you have my heart and I knew it
how bittersweet is my land
and now I sing for my life
and now I play for my life
to cure myself from this disease
And here’s the song, “Nu te fermare,” performed by Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino.