And so began my hour or so with the Trallaleri. It felt like a real, honest practice: The group sang about 12 tunes and had ample time to yell at each other (“it’s a Ligurian thing, Lucica assued me”), discuss arrangements and drink. The squadre, called “I Raccögieti,” is one of about five active teams in Genoa proper. A brief explanation on how it all works:
The Trallalero – la Squadra di Genova
Each squadre has very specific voices that play specialized roles. First, there is a triumvirate of melody voices. In the above video, the gentleman in the yellowish polo shirt, Mario Olivieri, is the tenor or the primo voice. Next to him, the baritone, which sings counterpoint to the tenor. Then there is the contralto, above in a striped shirt – an amazing singer named Stefano Ardigò Contraetu. The contralto sings in a highly-stylized falsetto voice. Everything is done in the distinct Genoese dialect.
On the other side, a full choir of basses, directed by a lead bass. Then, the really odd addition: the chitarra, or “guitar” – the man in the video, towards the back, with a hand over his mouth.
Women are a rarity in this music, so we were especially lucky to catch one of the few female singers of this style, Lucica, taking over the role of tenor:
There seems to be a good deal of debate about the origin of the music. Some whom I spoke with disagreed about Lomax’s theory of longshoremen origins. According to Stefano, the music started in bars in the 19th century, mixing religious music with popular Opera and Ligurian folk traditions. Clearly the port did bring in outside influences and it seems they show up in the music – the droning bass recalls Greek Orthodox chants (or other Eastern vocal styles). Just check it out (another recording without video but with better audio):
What is the future of the Trallelero in Genoa?
Genoa was recently the subject of an urban makeover. The city’s infamous port was scrubbed clean(er) and great effort was taken to attract tourists to this once-seedy town. These days Genoa is stunning. Stately avenues lined with 19th century buildings dot the hills over the city, offering vertiginous views over the Ligurian Sea. The old port is cleaned up and the piazzas burst with life. A massive, modern aquarium on the harbor recalls Boston or Baltimore, rather than a salty longshoremen’s den.
According to Stefano, this gentrification has started to push Trallalero outside of the city, deeper into the mountains behind Genoa. He says that Trallalero is now alive and well in small villages, but interest in dying out in the city. The chance that you’ll run into some Trallalero harmonizing in piazza on a typical tourist jaunt are low. A funny irony: a folk music that is quintessentially urban in nature is now moving to a more rural setting. An almost opposite effect than what we’ve seen with countless other folk traditions that start rural but ended up widely practiced in cities.
I’ll end this post with a particularly poignant number, “E Americhe.” It’s the story of an immigrant to America – fitting for Genoa’s history and fitting for my upcoming return to the shores of E Americhe.