Sonic Ethnography: Identity, Heritage and Creative Research Practice in Basilicata, Southern Italy

Sonic Ethnography: Identity, Heritage and Creative Research Practice in Basilicata, Southern Italy. Lorenzo Ferrarini and Nicola Scaldaferri (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020). 

Review by, Noelle Molé Liston , New York University

A striking black-and-white image by Stefano Vaja shows two rows of young men clad in velvet blazers and caps and holding large bells, against which the evening light glimmers (p. 77). At the entrance of a church, the young men carry the bells with an air of dutiful concentration, with their two hands attentively clasping the bell’s top handle. With the bells in a stationary position and the young men’s mouths closed, the elegant photograph seems to convey quiet stillness, a moment of twilight readying.  The group is participating in a festival known as the Campanaccio in the village of San Mauro Forte in Italy’s southwestern region of Basilicata, an annual ritual documented in Lorenzo Ferrarini and Nicola Scaldaferri’s Sonic Ethnography: Identity, Heritage and Creative Research Practice in Basilicata, Southern Italy. Each chapter is accompanied by a “sound chapter” and Chapter 2 gives the soundscape of the 2002 Campanaccio. Listeners will hear the bells sounding like a combination of wire bristles and metal clappers on metal, rustling and high-pitched all at once, only late in the track does a more familiar bell-ringing sound dominate, ending with a watery ripple of ringing, and the faint guttural vocalizations of cows. The auditory world of “regular rhythmic  sequences,” at first listen, sounds steady and repeating, with no discernible melody or harmony (53). How can this cacophony represent the same event as the seemingly silent image? 

Alas the genius contribution of Sonic Ethnography: the book works as an exercise in sensorial division where you approach the same event three times: by reading, by sight, and by sound. Each time the experience of the Campanaccio tells a different story. Yet by engaging the authors’ carefully staged methodology–privilege one sense at a time–readers emerge with a rich, multi-sensorial triangulation of contemporary lifeways. Unlike documentary film, the division of sound from image “allows reader-listeners to switch off the images, as it were, and concentrate on sound only” (p. 18). 

The authors encourage the “reader-listeners” to “play and experiment” (p. 19), to “listen to the image” (p. 184), or, as Afterword author and anthropology of sound leader Steven Feld recommends, to switch up the order of their listening, reading, and looking. As a whole, Sonic Ethnography is a stunning enactment of a profound phenomenological principle that “no media controls primal authority either when it comes to memorability or to explanation,” as Feld puts it (p. 189). 

The Campanaccio is only one of several annual celebrations across Basilicata that Ferrarini and Scaldaferri examine, such as the Maggio festival in Accettura, which involves ox and men bearing the weight of a felled giant oak tree from the woods and raising it in the town square (p. 21); the festival of the Madonna del Pollino, and its highly governed soundscapes and silences (Chapter 3); and Lucanian wheat festivals (Chapter 4).  Chapter 5 represents an archival sonic ethnographic study of Giuseppe Chiaffitella who recorded in his birthplace of San Costantino Albanese and New York City beginning in 1957 (p. 130). The sound chapter is particularly evocative as listeners hear Chiaffitella and others, in a mix of English, Italian, Albanian, sending spoken messages and songs to loved ones. 

Ferrari and Scaldaferri know their aesthetic choices are meaningful and lasting: representing celebration and ritual in Basilicata, they teach readers, is an act of great consequence, as well as their own participation as “scholar-artists” (p. 187): for Scaldaferri as a musician, and for Ferrarini as a photographer. The authors remind us that the iconic photographs by Franco Pinna and others, accompanying Ernesto De Martino’s ethnographic opus still circulate in ways that figure Southern Italians as pagan, enchanted, and unintentionally reify their practices as timeless (p. 8-9). Yet it was also the “exotic alterity” of De Martinian imagery that has long attracted ethnographers, photographers, filmmakers, public attention, and funding to the region, and in part, prompted residents to value and continue to practice their festivals (p. 174, p. 9, p. 113). 

Ferrarini and Scaldaferri are uniquely attuned to the changing historical and cultural circumstances of heritage practices.  For example, Ferrarini details the video surveillance during the Madonna del Pollino celebration, which the town has mounted to patrol where music is allowed and where silence is required. The power struggle involves the latest iteration of Catholic Church restrictions, together with DeMartinian ethnologists, that aims to create a rigid binary associating silence with Catholic piety and sound with paganism (p. 87, p. 94). Readers also learn about the near absence of wheat cultivation in the land of the wheat festival, where the practice of making elaborate wheat arrangements is in the minds and fingers of precious few individuals (p. 105, p. 115).  Finally, Scaldaferri recognizes that his participant observation as a zampogna or Italian bagpipe player represents a consequential part of a heritage revivalism, as his pledge to participate helped secure the few remaining dancers (p. 161). 

Sonic Ethnography offers an astonishingly rich occasion to study ethnography, and deserves to be read, heard, and assigned widely. It is fittingly part of Manchester’s series, Anthropology, Creative Practice, and Ethnography, with series editors: Faye Ginsburg, Paul Henley, Andrew Irving, and Sarah Pink. 

In a single monograph, readers can examine collaborative writing, autoethnography, photoethnography, and archival ethnography.  Most of all, the book introduces and theorizes the practice of sonic ethnography, showing “what sound does, and on what it allows people to do” (p. 5), and woven throughout are their original contributions like sound chapters, soundmasks (p. 53), sonic devotion (p. 88), sonic control (p. 95), sound souvenirs (p. 132), and sound monuments (p. 165). The ethnography creates an inventory of ethnographic sonic practice, which the reader is genuinely inspired to engage and adopt. Ferrari and Scaldaferri have written an outstanding and remarkable book, which deserves to be accompanied by a soundscape of collective applause, whistles, and hearty shouts of “Bravo!” 

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