By Stephen Hiscock
‘Bella Ciao’ – the title track of this amazing album – became the anthem of the Italian resistance movement during World War II. The author is unknown but their words have been translated into many languages and sung by subsequent partisan movements for decades. “Bury me up in the mountain, under the shadow of a beautiful flower,” – the song says – “and the people who will pass by will say to me, ‘What a beautiful flower!’ This is the flower of the partisan, who died for freedom.” This new album by Barbez is inspired by those Italians that fought against the Nazis when they came to Rome after Mussolini’s deposition. With Italy being an ally of Germany during WWII, this was a fight inextricably linked to the attempted extermination of Roman Jews – the city’s oldest continuous community, having been in Rome since pre-Christian times.
The source material here is the music of the Roman Jews – thousands of years old and passed down orally through generations of musicians. This is distinct from any other Jewish traditional music and uses scales unknown in Ashkenzi or Sephardic melodies. Barbez dress these tunes in surf guitar, cacophonous drums, revolving vibes and languorous clarinet but never lose the beating heart of the music. The opening of the album (‘Shema Koli’) is the best opener to an album I’ve heard in ages. Furiously scrubbed high guitar notes are overwhelmed by tumultuous drumming which suddenly bursts into a theremin-led ‘secret agent’ theme.
‘Yoshev Beseter Elvon’ is a beautiful violin melody played over creeping bass and vibes and accompanied by the kind of tremolo guitar you hear in a nightclub run by David Lynch whilst the title track of the album is every bit as stirring as you’d expect it to be – a defiant melody sung even more defiantly by guest vocalist Dawn McCarthy (of Faun Fables). ‘Kamti Beashmoret’ starts with an achingly sad vibes/violin melody before exploding into an insistent, driving guitar riff and galloping drums. The melodies are strong throughout – often through judicious use of layered instruments. ‘Echa Yasheva Vadad’ combines vibes, theremin and clarinet playing the same tune and the sound is such that it sounds like a new mysterious instrument. Pamelia Kurstin’s theremin playing is worth of mention in this respect – it’s utterly vital to the sound but not immediately obvious it’s there.
The arrangements and production are beautiful, sparing and perfect. It’s one of the most sonically colourful albums I’ve heard in a while and there is a real band sound here. Recorded and mixed by longtime collaborator Martin Bisi, the sound is rough hewn, raw and affecting whilst the arrangements are lean and sparing on the surface but actually full of intricacies that serve the whole. The playing is fantastic as well – from John Bollinger’s exciting, tumbling drumming, Danny Tunick’s colourful, spinning tuned percussion to the shifting finger-picking twang of band leader Dan Kaufman and the mournful, sad tone of Catherine McRae’s moving violin playing.
The album ends with ‘Channun Kerov Rachamav’ played simply on upright piano and violin. It sounds like an old recording with hiss and pedal noise – as if it was recorded in an Italian attic many years ago. It ends unresolved. It’s the album’s final reminder of the history and future of this music.
Bella Ciao is released by Tzadik