The Folk Music Festival That Started With A Spider Bite Night of the Taranta, an Italian folk music festival akin to Woodstock, celebrates a musical tradition that dates to antiquity.

The Folk Music Festival That Started With A Spider Bite

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The tarantella is a kind of folk dance and music that started in southern Italy. The name tarantella comes from the poisonous bite of a spider. Today, though, it's the theme of one of Europe's biggest folk music concert that attracts top international stars. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli was at the festival and sent this report.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: In the town of Melpignano, a huge stage has been built in a field for the Night of the Taranta. This is the concert's 20th year, drawing some 200,000 tarantella aficionados for four and a half hours of uninterrupted music and dance.


POGGIOLI: Young people have been camping out since dawn. It's an Italian version of Woodstock 50 years later. Four young men with tambourines form a circle and cheer as Micaela Nasillo, barefoot, frenetically spins around as in a trance, challenging the musicians to keep up with her.

MICAELA NASILLO: (Through interpreter) I feel the itch under my feet. The dance is called pizzica - the bite. When women working in the field were bitten by the tarantula spider, the only way to expel the poison was to dance for hours, even days. For me, it's the rhythm that makes me dance.

POGGIOLI: The tarantella, or pizzica, is said to originate in antiquity in Dionysian and Bacchanalian rites. Daniele Durante, the artistic director of the concert, says that in the Middle Ages, the dance evolved into an exorcism for real or imagined spider bites and psychological ailments.

DANIELE DURANTE: (Through interpreter) When the Catholic Church prevented women from dancing, there was one exception. The woman had been poisoned. She was tarantata. The only cure was for her to dance. That's how a pagan rite was adapted by the local Catholic Church.

POGGIOLI: Today, the tarantella has shed its mystical origins. Performed with tambourines, mandolins, flutes, bagpipes and accordions, it's an expression of pure joy as well as tongue-twisting lyrics.


RAPHAEL GUALAZZI AND ALESSANDRA CAIULO: (Singing in foreign language).

POGGIOLI: And for one night of the year here in Melpignano, the tarantella takes on an international flair, crossing over into jazz, rock, salsa and folk music from other cultures and traditions. Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez says all the guest performers had to learn the local dialect.

PEDRITO MARTINEZ: It's an amazing experience. I can identify myself with this type of music 'cause I came from folk music in Cuba. There's a lot of rhythm involved. And it's definitely connected. And it's all about happiness. It's beautiful.

POGGIOLI: Here's Martinez performing a lullaby called "Nazzu."


MARTINEZ: (Singing in foreign language).

POGGIOLI: Halfway through, Tim Ries, who plays saxophone with the Rolling Stones, jumps in.


TIM RIES: (Playing saxophone).

POGGIOLI: The great jazz vocalist Gregory Porter joins two Italian singers turning "Pizzica Aradeo" into a virtuoso scat rendition.


GREGORY PORTER: (Singing in foreign language).

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Melpignano.


PORTER: (Singing in foreign language).

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