November 12, 2013

Barbez reimagines history in ‘Bella Ciao’

Bella Ciao is the new joint by Brooklyn band Barbez, released on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. The seven-piece plays Nelligan Hall this Friday.


By Lara Kinne

Bella Ciao is a significant anti-fascist anthem in Italy; now it is also the significant title of Barbez’s latest album, a message its composer, Dan Kaufman, envisioned from a historical site in Rome.

He visited the narrow Via Rasella during a trip in 2009. The exact street where on March 23, 1944, a small group of Italians took on 120 German soldiers using a homemade bomb and mortar shells. Thirty-three Germans died. It was a brief triumph for the Italian Resistance before the Germans murdered 335 people in retaliation. Those deaths included 70 Roman Jews. One building at the end of Via Rasella is still splattered with cracks and holes, reminders of one of the most horrible war crimes of Nazi-occupied Italy.

The original folk song “Bella Ciao” surfaced with the Italian partisans of WWII. Barbez covers this song on the new record. The threads of Jewish music are instrumental in Barbez’s framework for the album; it was Kaufman’s way of honoring its history and combining that with Roman influence.

Kaufman was first introduced to this type of music by a friend and fellow composer, Yotam Haber. While in Rome, Kaufman immersed himself in the archives at the historic Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cicilia music institution, where he found several traditional Italian recordings preserved by ethnomusicologist Leo Levi. Roman scholar Elio Piattelli was also a substantial contributor to the preservation of oral Roman Jewish traditions after the war. Those discoveries planted the seed for Bella Ciao.

Kaufman was moved by the story of Via Rasella and felt “Bella Ciao” carried that sad, yet hopeful message left by staggering loss.

“We wanted to say something without being too dogmatic,” Kaufman said. “I feel like it worked in its way to get a message out there.”

The album accomplishes the story of two eras. On one side, the ghostly presence of old Roman and WWII-era sounds. The other side: his father, who was hospitalized in critical condition during the album’s creation. He died in January 2013. Kaufman paid frequent visits to the hospital between working on the record.

“There’s stuff under the surface [of Bella Ciao] where I’m like ‘oh my God’; I kind of remember what was going on when I was writing that song, or tracking, or mixing it.”

He added that the album felt like a snapshot of his life. In the most disheartening experience, he inverted those emotions into what you hear on Bello Ciao – uncapped compositions, surging with instrumental vigilance, dripping poetry.

“All the intensity of feeling was already there, but it was positive.”

The poetry comes from two wartime poets: gay communist and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini and hermetic poet Alfonso Gatto.

Spoken-word presentations of those poems on Bella Ciao dramatize the orchestral mosaic of the seven-piece Barbez. Violin swoons mourn the lives lost. Clarinet compliments the brew with a warm, klezmer tone. Splashes of vibraphone, organ, piano and theremin enter like passing voices on the street.  Kaufman’s electric guitar interjects with a post-rock kick. The outcome is practically a new level of Roman Jewish sound.

“That kind of why I felt like it was important,” Kaufman said. “Taking something really distant from the past…there is a message that’s kind of universal.”

That very statement marries what Alfonso Gatto wrote post-war: “The Resistance … is not an exceptional moment of being; it is the opposite – a period that endures in time and in history to form a common conscience.”

Welcome back Barbez this Friday, Nov. 15 at Nelligan Hall.

2010 Portland Ave.

$8; Show at 9 p.m.

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