Interview: Mauro Durante, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino – Harvesting ‘Crops of Songs’ Between Salento and the World (November 2017)

Two years ago, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino (CGS) celebrated their ruby wedding anniversary with music, and their love for Pizzica and tarantella is stronger than ever. That’s why Canzoniere, their recently released 20th studio album, can be considered as another referential work for anybody interested in traditional Mediterranean sounds.

The band (formed by Rina Durante in 1975 – and still led by the Durante family) has become one of the most successful Italian music exports. CGS can indeed be proud of their large number of followers both in their native country and abroad, spreading the Salentinian vibe in Europe as much as in North America, Asia and Oceania.

A few weeks ago, just after the publication of Canzoniere, we met up with Mauro Durante at WOMEX in Katowice and had a brief but interesting chat about the present days of CGS, which are spent on the verge between an unadulterated devotion to the Apulian tradition and a more global and forward-looking music perspective.

Our interview started from the most recent addition to the band’s discography:

Canzoniere is our latest collection of songs. We called it that because we really consider it as a rural and agricultural metaphor. We sowed the seeds for the songs in the album between Lecce and New York – where I spent more than four months going back and forth. In New York, I did some co-writing sessions with some great musicians and producers and worked with different artists like Coldplay, Bruno Mars and Celine Dion. I had various meaningful experiences, and, from there, those seeds that we planted have started to grow. We let them sprout and ripen in Lecce, working with the other musicians involved in Canzoniere and, today, those songs have matured. We harvested them and collected a robust songbook, but instead of ‘songbook’ we prefer to call it a ‘crop of songs’”.

When it comes to explaining the subject of the album and its themes, Mauro’s answer is unexpected as much as it is romantic and inspired.

Canzoniere speaks about hands, our hands. About how much we need our hands to touch and get in touch with each other: create a relationship, hug, make love, to protect what we really care about, stand up to, and fight. Hands are what shape our lives. Broadly speaking, Canzoniere is a social album, different from Quaranta, which was predominantly a political work”.

As Mauro revealed, Canzoniere had enough time to take root and then spring its leaves and express the recent developments in the band’s music path.

The project started during the summer of 2015. Ludovico Einaudi, with whom I collaborate, was embarking on a new tour and asked every member of his group to not miss a show, and become involved with the project on a full-time basis. Unfortunately, as CGS plays such an important role in my life, I couldn’t join him, so I started to look for new experiences. That’s when I decided to go to New York, because, in New York, there is both our North American manager and publisher (Mark Gartenberg and Eric Beall).

They had the idea of organising some co-writing sessions for me with a few musicians based there. In that way, I could combine and compare my compositions and CGS’s style with a more canonical and structured songwriting method, including more established elements like the refrain; a more concise length for our songs (in that way, they could be easily played by commercial radios) and those characteristics that are not usually taken into consideration with traditional music, where you commonly repeat melodies, strophes and instrumental parts. I found that time very constructive, because everything simply started like an experience with no pretensions to release or even record anything new. I just planned to go to New York and have a different music adventure, but after the first month I spent there, when I went back to Lecce I asked my music partners in CGS to listen to those embryos of songs that I had recorded. When I noticed that their reaction was enthusiastic, from those rough sketches they were willing to create something new for the band, so I seized the moment and started to go back and forth until the summer of 2016.”

That was when we finally gathered enough new material among the things I had written during those sessions: some songs that I wrote all by myself and some more collective works which could produce a full-length album. All the material followed me back and forth between Salento and New York and, inevitably, modified itself by changing shape. Finally, in December 2016, one of the producers I met in New York, Joe Mardin (who’s the son of Arif Mardin – the legend behind many works of Aretha Franklin, The Bee Gees and Norah Jones), came to Salento and helped us to finalise all the recordings in two or three weeks. He brought everything home and mixed the album, which was latterly mastered by Joe LaPorta – another exceptional sound engineer who recently won a Grammy for David Bowie’s Black Star”.

All of these experiences and encounters, which occurred over the last two years, have inevitably remodelled CGS’s sound. However, the ensemble hasn’t denaturalised their approach to music, always staying true to their roots.

I have to say that the most significant thing in our music is that the main ingredients are always the same. As a matter of fact, we haven’t changed our instruments: we still play the violin, bouzuki, accordion, frame drum, recorders and Moog bass guitar (which we already used in Quaranta). In addition, there are even more drum parts than in our previous works, and we also overlapped some frame drum sections. However, even if the ingredients are the same – despite the incursion of Justin Adams and his electric guitar, plus the acoustic guitar of Piers Faccini, or even the piano of one of our American producers – I feel that the sound is different. The production, arrangements and mixing made the final outcome different. I’d say that it’s fresher, more powerful and closer to other international productions”.

It’s not only CGS that are looking for and earning some recognition on the international music scene. It looks like more and more Apulian musicians (and Salentinian in particular) are opening up to the world.

“The Apulian music scene is really lively at the moment. If you consider the world music panorama, the Apulian one is still pretty young, almost a newcomer. For this reason, there’s so much desire to make our music known abroad and to spread it everywhere. Artists like Antonio Castrignanò and Kalàscima, or the Notte della Taranta itself and its orchestra (which is directed by Daniele Durante, my father, at the moment) are all part of a solid reality able to make its voice heard internationally”.

On Friday night, Canzoniere’s world tour will bring the Apulian sound to London for a very Christmassy event. We asked Mauro how they succeeded in transposing the studio recordings on stage and what will happen at Rich Mix.

We recorded the album in a studio, apart from two songs (“Pizzica De Sira”, and “Aiora”), which were both recorded live; we played the tracks entirely by ourselves. I mean, there’s no electronica or special effects in it. So, once on stage, we will propose the songs almost in the same way as we recorded them. The idea is to have an even more pronounced trajectory: we’d like to let the audience have an immersive experience, and for this reason, the set list will draw from our past and present repertoire.”

Then, to bring our music abroad is always emotional, because, as if by magic, the language, cultural and time barriers fall down and people feel embraced and engaged by it. In a matter of seconds, it all becomes an explosion of energy and rhythms.”

 I also believe that there are many elements that bring our music closer to the British taste. I’m talking about the dance fuelled by the sound of the fiddle and drums. So, I reckon that what people need to do is simply join us and everything will work out just fine. Anyway, to make it even more alluring for the London audience, I have some good news for you because Sam Lee will join us on stage during our Rich Mix show”.

Photo ©: Francesco Torricelli