The fire glowed against the soot covered walls, blackened from years of work. I watched Ignazio’s hands deftly manipulate a piece of metal as streams of sparks flew illuminating his weathered face. The sound of the hammer echoed throughout the dark room, flattening the piece of iron, giving rythm to this ritual: the birth of the Marranzanu. As if by magic, an inanimate object becomes a musical instrument, ready to provide solid accompaniment to a friend’s song, ring out over the crowds of summer festivals and come to life in the mouth of its owner.
I’ve been in my native Italy for nearly two months now, on a fellowship from the “International Specialised Skills Institute”, which is giving me the opportunity to conduct research on Italy’s folk revival. The idea is to improve my own skills for performance back in Australia, as well as report (in the form of several short documentaries) on what is happening here regarding traditional folk music. I’d come to Catania to interview Luca Recupero, and learn about the role of the Marranzanu in Sicilian music today. We met in a Piazza close to the historic centre, an ex-carpark that had been occupied by a cultural organisation called 'Gammazita'. It was transformed into an outdoor library inviting the donation of second-hand books to be freely taken and swapped for others. Luca and I sat on pallet furniture painted in bright colours and he explained the history of the Marranzanu, as we examined over ten different models, none much bigger than the palm of his hand. Then he put one to his mouth, and with an impressive demonstration of rhythm and respiratory technique, he showed me, (and the kids playing nearby) the beauty of an instrument so apparently simple.
Luca is no stranger to the firey scene I’d witnessed in the workshop that afternoon. He has been playing the Marranzanu for years, and, simultaneously, researching the instrument that exists, in some form or another, throughout the entire world. He travels internationally with his band I Percussonici on a mission to bring freshness and innovation to an ancient instrument. Luca introduced me to another young and extremely talented musician, Giorgio Maltese. He is focused on recording elderly players and reviving a traditonal repetoire, driven by his passion for a musical culture that not many people know about today. Thanks to him I had the opportunity to meet Ignazio Verona, a smith who learned the job from his father. When he drove me back from Ignazio’s workshop he confessed to me that he was concerned about the future of the traditional music in his region.
For it must be acknowledged that the Marranzanu is in decline in Sicily. In souvenir shops there are many toy versions of the instrument to be found next to ceramic figures or tea towels printed with maps of the island. Beware, and do not be fooled, these are not professional instruments. The real Marranzanu is very difficult to find and not many Sicilians will know where they can be bought. They are the objects like the one I felt honoured to witness take shape in Ignazio’s workshop. They are formed by artisans like him, skilled in a craft that is thousands of years old.
I am usually saddened by the decline or disapearance of any musical tradition, but thanks to my meetings with Ignazio, Giorgio and Luca, I didn’t leave Sicily with any regret about the Marranzanu. The tradition is certainly not what it once was, but it has been transformed by modern times and is the source of new inspiration. There may not be many players left, and even less artisans capable of forming these instruments from silent strips of iron, but they do exist, and they are incredibly good at what they do.
As we say in Italy, “Sono pochi, ma buoni!”
First Published in Segmento Magazine (www.segmento.com.au)