The next stage of folk music
by James M. Manheim
Is Fiamma Fumana the first folk group to specify beats per minute in the track listing on its album? Or the first electronic outfit to feature bagpipes? You can decide for yourself when these young Italians three women and one man come to the Ark on Monday, April 11. The exciting thing is that their music really raises the question.
Traditional folk music and dance-club electronics may seem to stand at opposite ends of the musical spectrum, but the idea of combining them isn't new. Folk ensembles like Finland's all-female Vrttin have experimented with electronics for years, often trying to build big, Gabrielesque soundscapes that rest on foundations of traditional tunes. And for electronic creators, the manifold musical instruments of the world are novelties, flavors to add to the recipes for new sounds that they program into their musical machines.
Fiamma Fumana, though, is something different. Its members describe their music as "simultaneously a tribute to the tradition of women's singing in Emilia [the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy] and Italy in general . . . and a revitalization of that tradition by a new generation and its musical culture electronic dance music, the most natural musical expression for young people in twenty-first-century, postindustrial, affluent Italy." Their music consists of traditional songs and dance tunes, not just underlaid by electronic rhythm tracks but quite closely woven together with them.
The electronics are sophisticated and varied. The tunes underlying Fiamma Fumana's music are simple, immediate, close to the earth; some of them are rooted in the music of the mandine, choruses of young female rice gatherers. The basic material consists of such textures as groups of women singing responsorially, or powerhouse tunes from an accordion or the piva emiliana bagpipes.
Does it work? Have fun deciding. The chief strength, IMHO, is the live electronics of the Italian Eritrean Medhin Paolos; she makes much of an art that is in its infancy, that of using
electronics to react to other elements in a musical composition. The lead vocals of the singly named Fiamma grab me less. She integrates her dry voice into electronic textures, so that the folk tunes lose the little unsmoothed details that give them their resilience and kick. Any such complaints from an old folkie are minor, however. Electronics are remaking our musical thinking at the most basic level, and what's happening here is that young people are thinking about how to work the past into the new picture. The Ark's speakers may resonate with some sounds they've never transmitted before, but Fiamma Fumana may well be the next stage of folk music.
[Originally published in April, 2005.]