Owain Phyfe almost always performs with an unusual guitar tucked under his arm. What is it? The chitarra battente, often called the "renaissance guitar", comes to us from Italy. The story of the instrument itself is almost as fascinating as the music it produces...
The chitarra battente is an instrument of cultured musical origin (XVII century) adopted by the Calabrian peasants and adapted to such an extent as to assume characteristics and functions quite autonomous from those of the historical model.
The instrument is elongated in form with barely accentuated shoulders and sides, the back is curved, while the high lateral bands sometimes contain tiny holes called ears. The body is made from ribs of walnut or chestnut separated by very slender strips of lighter-coloured wood. The sound-board, in spruce, is bent at the base and decorated with various patterns in red and blue. The sound-hole is covered with a cylindrical rose in coloured cardboard pierced and cut out, from the centre of which emerges a paper 'flower'. The bridge which is mobile and low, is placed just beyond the bend in the board. The neck, in pear- wood or poplar, ends in a flat pegboard, slightly bent backwards and containing posterior pegs. On the palisander fingerboard, or else directly on the neck, are inserted nine metal frets and a nut in wood. The instrument uses four wire strings of a very small gauge (0.20 - 0.25 mm), some of them are frequently doubled. Often there is also a high-pitch drone string called scordino held by a peg that pierces the neck between the sixth and seventh metal frets. The strings are tuned as follows: a2. d3, b2, e3 (a3: the -scordino). There is also a chitarra battente with five double strings which is not, however, used much at popular level.
The chitarra battente is made in three sizes: the large chitarra about 100 cm long, the medium-sized mezza chitarra, about 90 cm long, and the small chitarrino, about 70 cm long.
In Calabria there is one of the principal Italian centres for the construction of the chitarra battente, it is It Bisignano (province of Cosenza) where the instrument-making family of the De Bonis lives and has been working since the eighteenth century. There are also a number of minor centres to be found at different points in all the three provinces. It is probable that in the past, the instrument was to be found all over the whole regional territory. Today, its area of diffusion is limited to an area in the Ionian hinterland in the province of Cosenza, and to a lesser degree to Catanzaro. In this area the chitarra battente still enjoys a certain vitality and functionality and represents for many players the only ,Guitar and more in general the musical instrument par excellence. In an area further south (the province of Catanzaro and that of Reggio) the instrument is to be found in a simplified model with a flat back and its organological characteristics are strongly influenced by the guitar (see Pl. V (b)).
The chitarra battente is used above all for the accompaniment of singing and for this type of use the instrument is considered particularly suited. In fact, the wealth of the harmonics that can be produced on it as well as the narrowness of the range, creates a sound texture that favours vocal emission and firmness of singing. The players express this characteristic by staring that the chitarra battente 'envelops and sustains the voice'.
The accompaniment repertoire of the instrument includes serenades (of love, scorn, friendship), alms gathering for Christmas and Easter and polyvocal songs. A very frequent type of serenade is that called a strofette (in verses) where two voices alternate the verses according to a fixed scheme: the first voice sings the strophe, the second takes it up and completes it, following a complex game of repetition, breaking up and recomposition of the lines-There is also an instrumental repertoire of - tarantellas and pizziche.
Of particular interest is the performing technique, which is what probably gives the instrument its name (battente literally means striking'). The right hand runs the fingers over the length of the strings and at the same time rubs and/or strikes the soundboard thus creating a double harmonic-percussive effect of particular efficacy (ribbummu). A particular rotation movement of the right hand, called rotuliata, permits the playing of triplets. The left hand fingers the chords on the first three strings. The fourth string is never stopped and acts as a fixed drone in the dominant which. if there is a scordino, is doubled an octave higher.
Calabria is the extreme south-western corner of the Italian peninsula (see map). it is washed to the west by the Tyrrhenian Sea, to the east by the Ionian, and the Appenine mountain range (Sila, Serre, Aspromonte) runs along its length from north to south. For administration purposes it is divided into three provinces: Cosenza, Catanzaro and Reggio Calabria. The region's economy is based essentially on small-time farming, pastoral activity and fishing; tourism is highly developed while industry is not.
A large portion of the population still shares an archaic agro-pastoral type of culture, transmitted orally and partially functional to the life of the communiry. In this kind of environment music assumes an important role.
In Calabria there are about thirty traditional musical instruments, some of which have strongly archaic characteristics and are in part, or entirely, extinct in other parts of Italy. Primary instruments are used exclusively to perform popular music, whereas secondary instruments are present in other socio-cultural sectors - there is a marked prevalence in Calabria of primary instruments, some of them constructed in specialised craft workshops, others made directly by the players themselves. This prevalence indicates a high degree of cultural cohesion, even if the acquisition of instruments from without is a sign of disintegration. Often the secondary instruments are totally revisited and adapted to the folk musical environment so hat they become autonomous with regard to the original models. A 'historical' case of this kind is that of the chitarra battente which has died out within the dominant culture, but has been adapted and adopted by the Southern peasant world and constructed in specialised craft-shops. The most striking case of all is that of the diatonic accordian, an instrument produced industrially and which the popular musicians of central and southern Italy, as well as of Sardinia, have taken possession of in a highly creative manner.
However, the prevalence of the primary instruments reflects also precise choices of timbre, obtained through the use of particular materials and specific craft techniques. Thus, for example, the triangle must be of wrought iron, and the membrane of the tambourine of cured skin, and so on. The culture is conductive to the manufacture of musical instruments and there are many workshops where they are made. The craft-shop is a very important place for the continuity of the musical tradition because it is the place where the instruments are renewed, and also acts as a meeting-place for the players. Among the approximately thirty popular musical instruments in Calabria, we can distinguish two basic socio-economic levels of use: agro-pastoral (peasants, shepherds, fishermen) and smalltown-artisan (barbers, tailors, butchers etc.). The first level is characterised by a prevalence of primary instruments, especially of the archaic variety, total lack of knowledge of Western musical theory, use of modal scales extraneous to the tempered one, instrumental specialisation (for example the zampogna-player - zampognaro) in no way akin to professional practice in the modem sense. The second level is characterised by a prevalence of secondary instruments, for the most part modem, sometimes electrified, elementary notions of musical theory, prevalently tonal musical forms, semi-professional or professional practice (for example plectrum groups, bands).