Canti di guerra, di lavoro e d​‘​amore: an unusual and individual compilation of women’s folk songs from northern Italy

Silvia Tarozzi and Deborah Walker, Canti di guerra, di lavoro e d​‘​amore, United States, Unseen Worlds, UW045 CD (2022)

Coming from backgrounds of contemporary classical and improvisational music, violinist Silvia Tarozzi and cellist Deborah Walker, both from the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy, add folk music to their repertoire with their first album “Canti di guerra, di lavoro e d​‘​amore” (“Songs of war, of work and of love”), on which they reinterpret the traditional folk songs of their region that were sung by working class women, women partisans of World War II and in particular women rice planters known as the Mondine or Mondariso. These songs tell tales of having to perform physically hard yet poorly paid work, and in conditions far from home; of protesting and political violence; and of love and presumably more prosaic topics familiar to women workers who sang while working on farms or in factories and mines. Tarozzi and Walker perform on all tracks themselves apart from track 6 “Il bersagliere ha cento penne” (“The marksman has one hundred feathers”) where they are joined by Nigerian singer Ola Obasi Nnanna and Andrea Rovacchi on mbira (a type of thumb piano), and track 2 “La lega” where a chorus of women chant the lyrics over violin and cello.

The album combines improvisation and the old songs of working women in Emilia-Romagna in a lively and unstructured way. Some of the songs may go back at least one hundred years – “Il bersagliere ha cento penne” became popular among Italian soldiers in World War I well over one hundred years ago – yet they sound fresh and sharp, especially when Tarozzi and Walker sing them together with much feeling. Some tracks like “Meccanica Primitiva” can be repetitive and in need of some editing so they don’t sound overly long, given that what they do seems like continuous looping of melodies or rhythms. While the duo’s presentation of the songs is minimal, with the instruments restricted to violin, cello, bells and Rovacchi’s mbira, there definitely is a raw ambience across the album thanks to a clean (but not too clean) sound from the instruments and the women’s own singing in combination. There are some very original experiments done with voice like “Tita”, a song done entirely a cappella save for ringing bicycle bells, and other tracks like “Parziale” and “Sentite Buona Gente” feature virtuoso violin gymnastics, though the results may be a bit shrill and not a little monotonous at times.

The best tracks are those where Tarozzi and Walker themselves sing in combination with their own instruments, in ways that feel so personal and intimate, as if they are telling stories from the past that need to be told because there are lessons within that every new generation of people needs to know. Many of the songs are based on real events that have caused suffering or led to drastic changes in people’s lives, not always for the better. The musicians pour their hearts and souls into this album and the passion behind it has led to a highly unusual and idiosyncratic work.