Going out of my way to see an assorted group of Italian bagpipers known as zampognari wasn’t something I ever imagined taking an afternoon out to do in Abruzzo. In my head, bagpipes were something that droned on the wrong side of melancholy, and were hardly rock and roll. But constantly seeking to be disproved, off we sped down to Taranta Peligna to begin a musical journey of discovery into Abruzzo’s most famous muscians throughout the centuries.
The Zampognaro name is bastardized form of the Greek ‘simponia’, the plural for a harmonious single-beating reed, and yes gave rise to the modern day “symphony”. Present day Zampognari have come a long way historically from the once-poor shepherds that took up the pipes to earn some extra centesimo over the year; today those that play this instrument, and this appeared enough to fill a coach who were performing at the La Grotta del Cavallone as well as in Taranta itself, have a set musical itinerary that stretches right across the year: from 6th Jan – 28th November, popular songs; 29th Nov-8th Dec a 9-day prayer (called a Noveana) dedicated to the Madonna, and for that which they are most famous for, their pastoral and Christmas songs that they play in pairs traditionally in Rome (at invite from the Vatican for the best) from 9th Dec up to Epiphany.
Hearing their music, led by a single oboe called the piffero that plays the lead melody with the zampogna interjecting with cord changes, a bass line or soprano harmony, and spontaneously accompanied by a tambourine and accordion, even though it was improvisation to a set piece, a happy cheery folk dance beat came flooding through with a sound that to me sounded more Northern African. You can understand why it was the music of choice at harvest, the use of its pumping bass line acting as a motivating tease to those tired aching muscles to keep going in the hot summer sun.
If you think the pipes look rather more animally organic than their Scottish cousins it is simply because after curing the goat or sheep hide in one piece, the Zamognaro would turn the hide inside out leaving the hair inside the bag (the otre) that would be tied front of the rear legs. One of the front legs houses the blow pipe, the adjacent leg being tied. The chaters or drones are fixed into the neck of the skin.
You may find them around Chieti & L’Aquila playing homage concerts in grottos, which many an ecclesiastical scholar has claimed to be the original ‘stable’ within the nativity scene. Grottos (caves) feature very much in their pastoral tradition as it is here that livestock were often sheltered on the transumanza, the twice yearly migration of domestic animals at the end of spring and the beginning of autumn, between high & low grazing areas.
And if you happen to visit a presepe (nativity scene) and wonder why they have a bagpipe player in there, now you know…
If you want to catch the Zampognari playing in Abruzzo, this website publishes their calendar.
NB The most famous bagpipe player of old was Nero, who didn’t just fiddle, but played the Roman bagpipes, then called the tibia utricularis.
“Crib” [Latin praesepe,praesepium] in The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908