On the road to Melpignano
Melpignano, Puglia, Italy; Saturday, 8:00 p.m.
The sound of tambourines fills the air—not just from the stage, where the opening acts are performing, but also from thousands of tambourine-bearing audience members.
Raucous festival-goers pass around three-liter jugs of local red wine. They dance in pairs, sometimes circles, in a style of dance that (to my Jewish eyes) most closely approximates the hora.
It’s an odd blend: mostly Italians, from babies in carriages to elderly observers avoiding the crush in the center of the crowd (here, things more closely resemble a mosh pit), but mostly young people. Most appear to know the songs and sing along; many know the traditional steps, too.
The main concert hasn’t even begun, and it’s already difficult to find a free patch of ground close to the stage. I have come from Rome for five days, pretty much just to witness this unique event. After hearing about the Notte della Taranta and the Pizzica style of dance and music that goes with it, I became fixated on experiencing it for myself.
In the twenty-first century, La Notte della Taranta (the Night of the Tarantula) is a modern music festival occurring every August throughout the Salento region of Puglia (Apulia) and culminating in a finale event in Melpignano. Its roots, however, stretch much, much farther back. The event centers on the Pizzica, a style of folk music and dance that originated in the Salento region in pre-Christian Italy.
According to tradition, women in this region would become possessed by the spirit of the tarantula after being bitten by a spider during a certain season. They would begin to act out with strange antics and wild dancing. Nights of the Tarantula would break out in various villages as the spirit spread and more and more women succumbed to its grip.
Now, through a modern anthropological lens, this is a clear case of a ritualized upheaval of social order and codes, whereby women living in an oppressive culture could express rage and wildness in a way that would normally be totally unacceptable. Stories of possession by various animal spirits, leading to trance, hysteria or other phenomena, abound across world folk cultures.
La Notte della Taranta Today:
I can’t speak too much to this, having only been to the main concert. Today, at least in Melpignano, the tradition seems to have been somewhat sanitized. 200,000 attendees can do that. The Pizzica has come a long way from the village square, and it looks a lot different with lights and sound production and weeks of rehearsal than (I imagine) it would have even a century ago.
But who cares? I was hypnotized by the twirling white skirts on stage, fascinated by the folk lore surrounding the spirit of the spider, and enchanted by the percussive rhythms rolling on for hours.
Worth the trip? Absolutely.
Some outcomes of this excursion:
- I own a tambourine—which i can’t stuff into my backpack and which I will have to figure out how to carry with me everywhere.
- I must add another dance style on my to-learn list.
- I have a new love for a layer of Italian culture I never even knew existed until a few months ago.
Looking for somewhere to go next August? Maybe check it out—don’t buy a tambourine, though.