Updated: Dec 12, 2022
As a child with Italian roots growing up in New Jersey, Michela Musolino recalls how much she felt she was missing out at family parties and holidays.
“The Sicilian dialect was spoken by my parents’ and grandparents’ generation as a way to have adult conversations, and to codify things,” the singer explains. “It was frustrating to me. They were having so much fun. I wanted to be in on it. I would say, ‘Dad, tell me what they are saying!’”
Her parents and grandparents would separate from the kids and break into their private, unfamiliar dialect that yielded demonstrative storytelling, with hooting and hand-motioning, and people gesticulating affably. All this baffled and exasperated young Michela, as she worked to understand a lone syllable of what they were outrageously carrying on about.
The only way, she decided, that she could enter their world was to study their language herself. Her father encouraged his daughter to learn Sicilian history and to discover the island’s dialect and her resulting fascination pressed her to further research songs.
“I would break apart a song and move into what they meant and where they came from. It was part of the journey to explore the language, Musolino says. “One thing I’ve learned is that Sicilian music has a great variation of history and culture and Sicilians have been documenting all of their music traditions since around the 1700s. Through transcribing and field recordings, Sicilian musicologists have documented a rich body of research.”
The Roots of Rosa
Michela Musolino has come a long way from a childhood spent only half-understanding her Sicilian heritage. She and her musical group, Rosa Tatuata – “Rose Tattoo” in English, travel the globe while focusing upon cultural integration. Those travels will take them to Butte on weekend of July 12-14, as part of of the Montana Folk Festival this summer.
Rosa Tatuata focuses its music upon traditional instruments like the tamburo (the Sicilian frame drum), organetto, marranzano (jaw’s harp) and the zampogna (Southern Italian bagpipes), introducing traditional songs into different musical contexts that rhythmically mirror the comingling of Old & New World. With an enchanting mix of ballads and dance tunes, Rosa Tatuata strives to take the imagination on an Italian journey to the clear, crystal-blue waters surrounding Sicily. In addition to Musolino, the group includes Phil Passantino, Charlie Rutan and Jeffrey Panettieri.
“I love this music because it is so full of human emotions,” explains Musolino, “knowing how they (Sicilians) relate to work, or justice, or to love, and or even to the emotion of lullabies.”
Her childhood love affair with Sicily grew as she did; the more that Musolino visited Sicily, the stronger her respect for Sicilian traditional folk songs grew. She discovered a mixture of Spanish, French, Arabic, Greek and other cultures forming Sicily’s unique musical traditions.
She also discovered a new world of sounds though the Sicilian languages as an unending expansion of verb variations and time and tense structures. Indeed, different regions of Sicily, such as Messina and Palermo, have many language variations within one shared dialect. While visiting Sicily, Musolino collected bundles of the island’s most dramatic recordings and exchanged tapes with friends, even enlisting help from her Sicilian family to search for specific requests.
Today, Michela Musolino incorporates the tamburo, the Sicilian frame drum, into her act. Her paternal grandmother played the tamburo, bringing one to America when she emigrated from Sicily, while her great-grandmother was known in her native village for her drumming and dancing.
“The drum is a major part of Sicilian culture and family life. One of the traditions was that when a woman became engaged, the first thing she would do was buy a drum, and that drum is what would make the spirit of the house happy.”
A Timeless Sound
Musolino’s artistic life was enhanced when she met guitarist, organetto player and folklorist Phil Passantino, and the pair chose to form arrangements from a repertoire of songs from Sicily and Calabria, the “boot” of the Italian mainland, occasionally mixing them with other traditional songs from southern Italy. Musolino and Passantino have since combined their talents with a pair of other instrumentalists, Charlie Rutan, and Jeffrey Panettiere, to form Rosa Tatuata.
“Honestly, I believe that young people are being shortchanged on the music and the pop culture that has been given to them. I think there is a lack of human dignity in today’s music and I think it’s unhealthy. When you are live, people can see the instruments and the ancient mouth organ and bagpipes. A lot of kids today only hear music through their headphones or the screen. I want to touch their hearts.
“Because of the raw emotion in this music you need to physically throw yourself into it,” explains Musolino. “There’s almost like a frenzy to this. There is a swell of emotion. You are talking about a song that really was at one point an anthem for a war. Then you find yourself singing a love song where the lover can’t sleep at night. You are singing a courtship song while stranded in the rain and begging not to be turned away. Lullabies are the most emotional out of all of the traditional songs. It’s raw emotion. It’s hard not to show it.”
Musolino believes that where conversations fail, music succeeds, and that where relationships falter, music thrives. This live event in Butte will be a perfect opportunity for attendees to discover a magical musical idiom rarely seen in Montana and to witness
Musolino’s ability to grip the audience – especially the younger members of the crowd – and convey to them a different mode of experiencing music.
Rosa Tatuata perform at the Montana Folk Festival, in Butte, July 12-14, 2019. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.montanafolkfestival.com.