Tradition is such a double-edge sword. In the hands of the orthodoxy, tradition can be used as a bludgeon, meant to remind you of a lineage, as a means to keep you rooted in the past. In the hands of the inspired, tradition is used as a source to actually build for the future, a reminder of how malleable certain ideas can be forever in time, and could grow far beyond their assumed expiration. Re Niliu’s masterpiece, Caravi, is a welcome example of that second role tradition can play. A statement piece exploring how malleable the raw, hypnotic, Calabrian music of southern Italy is, Caravi was the product of a group that took apart the seams of their study to weave new ideas that could only come from personal experimentation/exploration.
Re Niliu originally began in the early 80’s as a group dedicated to researching, performing, and recording the little known folk songs of the Calabrese region in Italy. Beyond the widely known tarantellas, under Re Niliu, a younger generation could finally hear songs that spoke of the influential role African, Greek, and Middle Eastern migration played in the wider Italian tradition. Largely faithful to the folk songs they were encountering, on their first release, Non Suli E No’ Luna, Re Niliu stuck with traditional instrumentation — bagpipe, hand drum, rebec, and acoustic guitar — as a means to document some of the wonderful songs little known outside of their own homeland. In doing this, Non Suli E No’ Luna, was able to function as both a guide post for other Italian folk bands to explore that sound even further and to any listener to dig even deeper.
As the core of the group splintered of with those wanting to experiment with electric instruments staying in charge, Re Niliu decided they had to address that relationship between innovation and tradition. Using Calabrian children’s songs as starting points, Re Niliu worked to mesh new instruments like synthesizers, drum machines, and highly-treated guitars with the instruments they had managed to flesh out through further study: baglama, melodeon, and piffero. Knowingly turning their back on what was expected of them, and choosing to forge a new path, Re Niliu was painstakingly becoming a different group with an undefinable musical style.
Starling songs like “A Musica” and “Alla Calafricana” remind me of the deeply fragmented, Teutonic music of Faust that used Germanic folk music as a means to disassemble, and rearrange what new culture a younger generation wished to create out of the ambers of another — so, did Re Niliu. On “A Musica” the declamatory shout-singing found in “traditional” tarantellas transform into massive overlapping, and overwhelming, floating harmonizing that sounds like it’s captured from inside a dream. “Alla Calafricana” ends the album on a song which invokes the joyful, improvisatory, spirit that melismatic and microtonal music had brought to the folk music they explored before.
At least for me, what truly makes Caravi such a timeless album is really its deep understanding of how the best music doesn’t emulate so much as innovate. Wherever roots to their past exist, interesting segues that could be explored, must be, are. In the end, it’s all natural growth we all have to do. A totemic, little-known release, much like Ritmia’s equally vital Forse Il Mare, Caravi still has the feeling of a recent, unjustly forgotten, musical idea, that has plenty of inspiration left for anyone who happens to chance upon its discovery.