The album cover of Bella Ciao, the fifth full-length album from Brooklyn’s Barbez, is by the great photojournalist Chim. He started Magnum with Robert Capa and covered the Spanish Civil War in the 30s and WWII and Europe after the war. As a journalist Barbez’s Dan Kaufman wrote about the Spanish Civil War for The Nation and because of that piece Chim’s nephew gave the band permission to use this photo, which is one of his most renowned. The picture is of Rome in 1948, three years after the end of the war.
Bella Ciaowas recorded and mixed by the incomparable Martin Bisi (Swans, Sonic Youth, Herbie Hancock, Ramones, John Zorn) at B.C. Studios in Brooklyn, NY with band leader and guitarist Dan Kaufman producing. Bella Ciao is being released by John Zorn’s Tzadik label. I hope you’ll consider covering this release via feature or album review. Please let me know if you need the music.
Bella Ciao was influenced by the traditional music of Roman Jews, and inspired by the legacy of the Italian Resistance during World War II, which was inextricably interwoven with the Nazi’s attempt to exterminate Rome’s Jews.
The city’s oldest continuous residents, Jews first immigrated to Rome more than two thousand years ago; their arrival predates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the diaspora that followed. Through the centuries, Roman Jews maintained an identity distinct from Sephardi and Ashkenazi cultures, and their music, too, remained singular and mysterious.
In July, 1943, Benito Mussolini was overthrown in a coup; by early September the new Italian government had signed an armistice with the Allies, and the Germans responded by occupying Rome. They demanded 50 kilograms of gold from the city’s Jewish community, to be delivered in less than two days, or the community would face mass deportation. Somehow, the enormous amount of gold was found in time, but on October 16, 1943, the Gestapo deported more than a thousand Roman Jews to Auschwitz; only sixteen survived.
On March 23, 1944, a small group of Italian partisans attacked a column of more than 150 S.S. officers with a homemade bomb and mortar shells. It was one of the most daring partisan actions in all of German-occupied Europe. Thirty-three German troops were killed, and in one moment the myth of Nazi invulnerability in the occupied city was shattered. In retaliation the Nazis executed 335 Italian men and teenage boys, including more than 70 Roman Jews at the ancient Ardeatine caves. After the war, two of Italy’s greatest poets, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alfonso Gatto, wrote about the legacy of the Italian Resistance, and their work, alongside the beguiling melodies of the Roman Jews, provides the thematic inspiration for Bella Ciao.
This album’s title track, probably the most famous artifact of the Italian Resistance, is another pillar of the record’s theme. The song’s lyrics were written during the war by an unknown author and have been translated into dozens of languages. “Bella Ciao” describes a partisan’s wish to fight-and die, if need be-so that others may one day be free. “Bury me up in the mountain, under the shadow of a beautiful flower,” the song goes. “And the people who will pass by will say to me, ‘What a beautiful flower.’ This is the flower of the partisan, who died for freedom.”
Since its formation in Brooklyn in the late 1990s, Barbez has released five albums, each of them engineered and mixed by Martin Bisi. The group’s last record, Force of Light was an homage to the Romanian-Jewish Holocaust poet Paul Celan. It was widely hailed in the press with allmusic.com calling it “one of the most profound settings for poetry in music” of all time.
For the past decade, Barbez has performed across the United States and Europe including engagements at UCLA’s Royce Hall in Los Angeles (sharing the bill with the MC5 and Sun Ra Arkestra), the Festival Territoria in Moscow, Russia, and the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris, France. Over its history, Barbez has collaborated with a diverse group of musicians including Dawn McCarthy (who contributes vocals to the new album) of Faun Fables, the cellist Julia Kent of Antony and the Johnsons, and the singer and guitarist Nils Frykdahl of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum.
Barbez is made up of the following members: Dan Kaufman (Rebecca Moore, Shelley Hirsch) guitar, Pamelia Kurstin (David Byrne, Air, Cibo Matto, Seb Rochford) theremin, Peter Hess (Balkan Beat Box) clarinet, Danny Tunick (The Clean, Bang on a Can All-Stars) marimba, vibraphone, Catherine McRae (Sam Green, the Quavers) violin, Peter Lettre (Shearwater) bass, and John Bollinger (Sway Machinery) drums.