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Smithsonian's Venice Piazza Brings Italian Folk Music to US Tourists


The 36th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. explores the cross-cultural influences among the lands of the ancient Silk Road, from Japan to Italy. On the National Mall, artists, craftsmen, musicians, dancers, storytellers, and cooks demonstrate their skills under tents that evoke Asian and Mediterranean architecture.

For several hundred years Venice was the point of entry to Europe for Asian goods and ideas. Glass, carpets, and silk passed through the markets of Venice. Musicians also shared their artistry and some instruments, such as the guitar, cello and violin, trace their roots to contacts with the East. At the Folklife Festival's Venice Piazza stage, the Italian group "Calicanto" performs.

In a composition called Adriatica, the sounds of an old diatonic accordion, called an organetto in Italy, are combined with those of the clarinet, the tambourine and the darabuka - the universal drum of the Arab world, found from Morocco to Pakistan. The composer is Roberto Tombesi, the founder of "Calicanto."

Mr. Tombesi says the group of six musicians got together 20 years ago with the goal of reviving traditional Venetian music and dance. But he says "Calicanto" has its own style, which combines the old with the new, the musical elements of Central and Eastern Europe with those of Asian countries. The group sings in the old as well as new dialects of the Adriatic coastal regions, such as Veneto, Istria and Dalmatia. Mr. Tombesi says "Calicanto's" music has one foot in the past and one in the present.

Vilote Adriatiche is an old love song originating in Istria, a peninsula of the northern Adriatic Coast, populated by Italian as well as Slavic people. Today, a part of Croatia, Istria was a region of the Venetian Republic, which collapsed at the end of the 18th century. The sound of Vilote Adriatiche reflects Italian and Eastern-European music traditions. Sung in the Veneto-Istrian dialect, it is a dialogue between a Venetian sailor returning from a journey East and his girlfriend back home.

Calicanto is named after an exotic flower that blooms in the winter. Roberto Tombesi says the group chose the name Calicanto to project the image of going against the mainstream. He says the group's audience ranges from teenagers to retirees.

Bealaguna is Roberto Tombesi's new song devoted to Venice. It expresses nostalgia for the old times and forgotten songs. Singer Rachele Colombo also plays the darabuka and the Nigerian udu drum.

Other "Calicanto" compositions, some of them instrumental, are about boats and fishing, great landscapes and faraway places, bloody battles and ethnic harmony. The group uses acoustic instruments, some of them modernized versions of ancient originals. Roberto Tombesi plays a lute-like instrument called a mandola.

Roberto Tombesi says his mandola is a replica of an old Renaissance instrument. It has the same sound, but is technologically more advanced.

The founder of "Calicanto" says the group's goal is not to conserve the past, but to allow the development of a new present with a taste for all things new and tolerance towards all things different. It reflects the theme of this year's Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. The Silk Road: Connecting Cultures, Creating Trust.