Polyphony of Ceriana: The Compagnia Sacco - (DVD)

2010. Documentary Educational Resources. Length: 74 minutes.


Reviewed by John H. McDowell, Indiana University

[Review length: 786 words • Review posted on January 9, 2013]


This seventy-four-minute documentary features powerful singing on the part of a male choir whose members are resident in Ceriana, a small, picturesque town located between the Alps and the Mediterranean coast in West Liguria, western Italy. The Compagnia Sacco, which has been active since the late 1920s, took its name from the lunch sacks its members carried into the fields with them, and remains active into the twenty-first century as a group of men who sing in concert settings, both in Ceriana and beyond, as well as in local gatherings and events such as Holy Week processions and autumn festivals.

The singing style features a deeply resonant bass drone upon which first and second voices configure a lush interweaving of overlapping vocal harmonies. Most of the songs dwell upon the mysteries of amorous encounters; one tells of Donna Lombarda, who was convinced by her neighbor to poison her husband, only to have the tables turned on her as her little son speaks up to warn his father. Another song, pursuing a different theme, tells of four robbers who are apprehended by the authorities. These are narrative songs that spin out their tales in a delicious leisure as the story advances one phrase at a time, and the voices encase each segment of the lyrics in a sensuous web of sound.

This documentary, directed by the Swiss-French ethnomusicologist Hugo Zemp, offers several full performances of items in the Compagnia Sacco repertoire, moving between settings ranging from formal concert performance to casual singing at social gatherings. Indeed, ingeniously, the Donna Lombarda song is made to open the documentary video by shifting between different performance settings without losing track of the song’s developing plot.

In addition to the stunning musical performances, this video captures key facets of Compagnia Sacco as a social phenomenon. Most striking is the ambience of male companionship that pervades the singing sessions. Individual personalities do emerge – for example, the mustachioed Giovanni, with his irrepressible verve – and there are undercurrents of rivalry, and possibly resentment, that are perceptible at times, but the prevailing mood conveyed in this footage is of a dozen or so men, most of them in the middle-stages of life, united in and by the spirit of song. There is a radiant joy that emerges when the singing is at its most resonant, and one senses that it is wonderful to be a part of such a scene. Indeed, these men, in the well-selected interview segments, confirm the pleasure they derive from conjoining their voices in song.

Likewise, this documentary nicely portrays the connection of the singers to their families and to the Ceriana community. There are occasions when the men gather, with wine carafes on the table, to sing for themselves, but the documentary emphasizes the involvement of the Compagnia in the social and religious life of the community. We see them performing, along with other choral groups, in a processing of sacred images during Holy Week, at the fringe of the town’s chestnut-roasting festival in the fall, and at a variety of indoor and outdoor assemblies of friends and relatives. It becomes apparent that the Compagnia Sacco has become emblematic of local culture and a necessary presence in local activities, an impression that is confirmed when we see them bring feted at the town’s cultural center.

The Compagnia Sacco came to the attention of American folklorist Alan Lomax during a collecting trip to Italy, and years later he was instrumental in bringing them to the United States. This attention from the Americans brought a degree of fame to the group, and the older members recall Lomax’s appreciation of their pure vocal sonorities – he didn’t want it dressed up with guitars!

There is a touching (and informative) moment in this video when one of these older gentlemen revives for current members of the group a set of lost stanzas for one of their favorite songs. It seems that each song is a loose collection of lines and stanzas, evolving as singers circulate in and out of the group and the Compagnia Sacco persists in its remarkable trajectory. We learn, in one of several informative interview segments, that aspiring younger men must show that they have an ear to carry a tune before they are admitted as new members of the group.

Polyphony of Ceriana is a well-crafted documentary, generous in its supply of undoctored footage yet supple in the way it locates Compagnia Sacco in its physical and social settings. This documentary, either in its entirety or through selected snippets, can be used effectively to introduce students to the male singing traditions of the region, and more broadly, to explore in this context issues associated with musical performance as culture.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.