Six Northeast Ohio musicians are giving long-forgotten Italian folk music new life.
Cleveland jazz drummer and composer Anthony Taddeo started the musical project Alla Boara and recruited notable area musicians. Vocalist Amanda Powell, guitarist Dan Bruce, trumpeter Tommy Lehman, bassist Ian Kinnaman and accordionist and keyboardist Clay Colley round out the project.
The artists create modern arrangements of traditional Italian folk songs that have long been forgotten from history or otherwise faded into obscurity.
Alla Boara will debut its album, “Le Tre Sorelle,” Oct. 21.
From writing a research paper to composing for a new group
The group’s name comes from the Italian terminology for a traditional song that blue-collar laborers would listen to while working out in the fields.
Introducing these regional songs to new audiences in the United States was a passion project for Taddeo, whose father is from Italy.
“Other than just liking the name and liking the look of it and all that, I wanted the name to reflect the fact that we are focusing primarily on the music of the people and not classical Italian music,” Taddeo said.
Folk music is significant because it’s the music of everyday human beings—it consists of traditional, rural songs passed down among groups of people connected by the same cultural thread.
Taddeo said the group’s mission is to inspire others.
“Take some time to look back into who you are and what your musical heritage is,” Taddeo said. “It might inspire you to create something that you wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Taddeo said when he was attending the New School in New York City, he was assigned to write a paper on global music, and through his research he found field recordings from ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax.
“He spent six months in Italy recording little snippets into the everyday lives of some of these, you know, just ordinary people working in the fields,” Taddeo said. “I was just blown away by how diverse it was and by how beautiful it was.”
Taddeo said he’s grown up with a lot of pride around his Italian heritage, but he was previously unaware of the country’s rich history of field music.
Over the next decade, he began learning instruments specific to this type of music and composed his first piece based on the Italian folk songs he studied.
While attending graduate school at Youngstown State University, Taddeo was encouraged by his professor Dave Morgan to continue pursuing this style of music and turn it into a bigger project.
“I know how much work it is to put together an ensemble,” Taddeo said. “But the more that I kept on writing for it, everything just kind of was so effortless and so joy filled.”
He said he’s been surprised at the audience response to these songs.
“People identify—or maybe even just think that they can identify—with this music right away. There’s a certain buy-in with when you say ‘Italian folk music’ that they feel like they know something,” Taddeo said. “Then when we play, I think everyone is so taken aback by how different it is than what they thought it would be, that they’re even more intrigued.”
Recruiting local musicians to modernize traditional folk songs
Taddeo began his interest in music at the age of five when he started tap dancing. He said rhythm has always intrigued him, and he went on to start playing piano and the snare drum.
Jazz drummer Roy Haynes inspired the young musician to keep playing drums and make connections so he could find a stage to perform on.
After living in New York for several years, Taddeo returned to Cleveland and was excited by the region’s talented and diverse music scene.
“I would argue that we’re kind of in this period of having quite the renaissance,” he said. “In Northeast Ohio, you know, there have been a couple of years where I’ve been fortunate playing so much more and actually making a better living here than I ever did in New York. So I cannot complain.”
Taddeo often performs with Grammy-nominated vocalist Helen Welch and Americana band Hey Mavis and leads jam sessions at the Bop Stop twice a month.
“I love this idea of getting to play all different styles, playing with all different kinds of people,” he said. “For me, music is really relational. So, I’ve found that in my career, that’s kind of at the center of my personal mission statement: That music is a means to relationships.”
Taddeo said each style of music has its own “language” and studying these different ways to communicate opens up new possibilities of people to connect with and relate to.
Forming the Italian folk music project Alla Boara started with Taddeo considering who he enjoys being around and trusts.
“Also, they need to be able to bring these certain musical things to the mix,” he said.
When he composes music for the group, he works to introduce modern elements while weaving in the common thread of traditional Italian field songs.
“Without a doubt, Amanda Powell was the person that I first thought of and dreamed of being in this project,” he said. “And when she said yes, that was really, I think, the moment where it felt like it was a go.”
Powell mixes elements of baroque, opera, classical, jazz and global music in her singing style, embodying the diverse and modern sound Taddeo was looking for.
“That was the most important piece for me, was having someone that not only was comfortable singing in Italian, but she is so diligent about how she studies the language that she’s singing in and how she expresses the ideas that are in the language,” Taddeo said.
Taddeo had Powell study the Italian field recordings that inspired the Alla Boara project and translate them into her own expressive vocal style
He then recruited additional artists from the Northeast Ohio music scene to flesh out the instrumentation of the group, which includes accordion, piano, trumpet, flugelhorn, bass, drums and electric and acoustic guitar.
Taddeo said he and his bandmates pull from the Lomax field recordings and interpret the melodies how they want.
They develop modern harmonies and new segues and interludes for the music, but otherwise they keep the traditional songs as they were written.
“Our musical heritage is still a fertile ground for creative cultivation. We don’t have to sound like Taylor Swift when we write a song,” Taddeo said. “We can use things from our past to really influence what we write in the present.”
Last October, the group participated in educational outreach activities with a group called ORMACO, or Ohio Regional Music Arts Cultural Outreach.
“We reached about 3,000 different students of all ages from, like, 2-and-a-half years old, all the way to seniors in high school,” Taddeo said. “And then we even went to a couple of retirement homes and things like that. So, I love it. That was really fun. “
Celebrating Italian culture through song
Alla Boara’s new album will also feature instruments like scacciapensieri, known in the U.S. as the jaw harp, and a Tamburello, which is a large tambourine.
Taddeo said both instruments are at the center of Italian folk music.
The group recorded tracks for the album in February 2021 and recruited additional players like Chris Coles, Michael Ward-Bergman, Jamey Haddad and students from the Youngstown State ensemble to contribute to the recordings.
“It was like the whole family came together to make this happen,” Taddeo said.
One song on the album is called “Fimmene Fimmene,” which Taddeo said roughly translates to “woman” or being from a female perspective.
“This was a field song that was being sung by these women that were being sexually harassed by their bosses. This speaks to the courage, endurance and the strength of these women,” he said.
Another track, “Funeral Lament,” is a tradition in Central and Southern Italy.
“The idea is that it’s a way to deal with grief. And this is actually one situation where we take the field recording and it’s actually part of the performance,” Taddeo said. “It’s [a woman] talking about the loss of her husband and being left with the kids and not knowing what to do. At some of our live performances, people are in tears just because the emotion is so raw.”
Alla Boara will perform songs from their debut album at a string of shows this fall throughout Ohio and Pennsylvania.
They’ll have two album release shows—one at the BOP Stop Oct. 21 and the other at Istituto Mondo Italiano in Pittsburgh Oct. 22.
Taddeo said he hopes people attend the album release shows and feel inspired to look back into their own culture and musical heritage.
“It’s the first time in my career where the part of my heritage that I cherish most and the part of my artistry that I cherished most are meeting,” Taddeo said. “It’s just been very fulfilling.”
Six Northeast Ohio musicians are giving long-forgotten Italian folk music new life.