by Luca De Simone

What is the tammurriata? To answer the central question of an article that is looking to inform people with a vague if some knowledge of this term, and of the connected rite , is certainly not an easy task(1). When Chris asked me to write this article, he actually made this task more easy. All I have to do is simply describe my experience. This allow me to do not quote the eminent anthropologists and ethnomusicologists who observed and in some case tried to decode this characterizing phenomenon of the Campania’s region (2). So…what’s the Tammurriata? Living it as an insider, as drummer, when it comes the night or it is already dawn when I put my drum in its bag, I questioned myself, trying to reflect on the experience just made. This is my explanation: the tammurriata is an “event”. Clearly I must explain what does it mean for me this term. It is simple, it is exactly what you can find on a dictionary, it is something that happens in a certain place, on a certain time. But it is necessary to add something to this definition, and it is that tammurriata is a “complex event”, made by elements to which it is intimately connected. Without them, even just one of them, this event cannot exist. Am I confusing you? I’ll try to make myself more clear, describing one tammurriata, better The Tammurriata, starting with the key terms previously used, i. e. the place, the time, the elements and/or the actors of the ritual.


What is the place where a tammurriata is performed? When we talk about tammurriata we actually talk about a ritual, therefore is self-evident that he place, or the places, useful for the fruition of the ritual event have to be considered sacred by the culture producing this event. Therefore the places where happens the ritual of the tammurriata are mostly sanctuary, and, to be more precise, specific Christian sanctuary connected with the cult of Mary. The most important are: teh sanctuary of Madonna di Montevergine (Mercogliano-AV),of Madonna dei Bagni (Scafati-SA),of Madonna dell’Arco(S. Anastasia –NA), of Madonna Delle Galline(Pagani-SA),of Madonna di Briano (Villa di Briano-CE),of Madonna dell’Avvocata(Maiori-SA). This is just a partial list of the more relevant sanctuaries, often quoted in all the texts about this topic. I would add more, even if not directly connected with any sacred building, but still considered suitable for the ritual by the popular devotion, such as the sanctuary of Materdomini (Nocera-SA), Pimonte (SA), Parete (NA), Cicciano (NA). It seems impossible to quote every place in just an article. One of them is, to me, particularly dear: the “Maronnelle” square (3), where in the past was performed “O’ ball’ ‘ngopp’o’ tambure” (the dance over the drum), typical of my town, San Nicola la Strada.
It would be necessary a specific article to describe, even shortly, just one of the feast connected with the named places, with all the differences we can find in the rituals, in the atmosphere and even in the choreutic and musical performance. What I will describe with more detail will be the metaphoric, magic, place, that you can find in every feast, maybe the place more disconnected with time and space but also at the same time more tangible, for the participants no matter why, and thi sis the circle. What is the circle? Keep on reading …


When is the tammurriata performed? The ritual events when a tammurriata is performed follow a peculiar calendar, based on the catholic festivity. Basically they star in February, for the Candelora (February 2), and tend to happen more frequently after Easter until September. Both the opening and closing rituals connected with the tammurraita are performed at the sanctuary of Montevergine, which Black Madonna, or “Mamma Schiavona” (Mother Slave), mother of all the slaves, is object of specific devotion by the people from Campania. It is not unusual that “O’ ball’ ‘ngopp’o’ tambure” is performed even during carnival times (this more in the Caserta’s area). But peraphs the real time of the tammurriata is what the elderly of my town call “O tiemp’e’ moffallann” (The time of now-is-coming-the-year/anniversary) or “’O tiempo e chillu tiempo” (The time of that time), in other term an imagined time, close to the “Once upon a time…” of the fiary tales.


How and who do perform the tammurriata? The fundamental actors of the ritual are four: the cantatore (singer), the tammorra’s player, the ballatori (dancers), and the circle attendants. With the term tammurriata we refer at the same time to a song, a dance, a rhythm and a specific situational context . For this reason I said before that we cannot speak of tammurriata, as event, without the elements that constitute this event. If we take the single element this will be just a partial representation of the event itself. IfI play, for instance,  the necessary rhythm to accompany the song and the dance, by myself at my home, without singers, dancers and attendants, I am not “doing” a tammurriata, but I am just playing the rhythm, and this happens when every fundamental actor is missing. Let now examine the specific component of the tammurriata.

The musician (or drum player) is set aside completely from the grasped instrument, i.e. the tammorra. As a matter of fact the pivot, the main axis, is the instrument itself.. No matter if you talk about tammurriata or “ball ngopp o tambur”, it is the instrument that give the name for what I am talking about. Not without reason one of the typical strophe sung by the singer is “Comm’ son belle stù tambur, ca nisciun o tuculea e chill son” (How good is the sound of this drum, nobody touches it and yes it sounds). The tammorra is a frame drum with a diameter between 35 and 60 cm., filled with cymbals around the frame. The materials used in order to make it are: obviously the wood, the skin (generally goat skin, even if contemporary makers may use the most different materials), and cymbals made from recycling materials, such as tomato tin cans. Nowadays it is not unusual to find materials more responding to the musicians needs, with a huge improvement on cleanness of the sounds and on expressive possibilities of the drum. For instance my drums my drums are made with a crossed grains wooden frame (like snare drums of a drum set), with accurate finishing touch and border outlining, with cymbals placed on an perfectly centred axe and  selected skins, natural or synthetic, with tuning mechanism. About the musical technique we can see how the drum has a slit (or indentation) where the musician grasps it, while with the other hand play he rhythm. Basically the drum is hold with the left hand and played with the right hand. This way to hold the drum is called “masculine”. Even the way to hold the drum is indeed precisely regulated. For instance holding the drum with the right hand and playing it with the left is the typical “feminine” way. But this has not to be interpreted in biological sexual terms, rather under a more symbolic perspective. A woman can hold the drum with the left hand or, vice versa, a man with the right hand, suggesting a subversion of conventional roles. This is an interesting topic but I need to postpone the discussion because my goal here is just to describe, therefore I stop here.

The rhythm is essentially a 2/4, that tends to become a ¼ when the “votata” (a particular choreutic and rhythmic figuration) is performed. This rhythmical stressing can change from area to area where the tradition of tammurriata is rooted. For instance, near the sanctuary of Madonna dell’Avvocata, like in other areas of the Amalfi coast, the rhythm becomes a 4/4. Even if it is not unusual to see other instruments, such as ciaramella (sort of folkloric oboe) (4), the sisco (sort of flute) (5), and more recently, the accordions, the tammorra is the only absolutely necessary instruments to accompany the song and the dance. Sometime it has even an harmonic function, when some singers, particularly talented, tune their voice basing on  the drum harmonics.

The singer is who sings the tammuriata, he/she is almost a sacerdotal figure among the group of the rite’s attendants, above all when he/she is a character  recognized as “guardian of the tradition” by the community where the ritual is performed. I want to describe what the singer is for me, as a drummer. One day, coming back from a “feast” filled by memoris and reflections about the enormous devotion I had just seen, I asked my teacher if he was a believer. He thought for a second and then answered me “For sure I believe in the singer”. In a ritual such as the tammurriata, when you become a participant subject of the ritual itself, it doesn’t matter what are you intellectual assumptions moving your daily life, you become a devout, and in a devotional system the singer is the officiant of the rite, it will be him giving me the signal to start, it will be him to handle the phases of the musical and choreutic performance, if he sings I will stay on 2/4, when he finishes the strophe and extends the note I have to play on ¼ to give the dancers the signal of the votata. Ig he doubles, I have to double with him, if he sing at loud I will play vigorously, if he whisper I will take the dynamic low, when he gives me the signal I close the performance. If the rhythmic patterns change on the suggested accents by the song then the tenor of what is sung changes, the tammurriata is generally a quiet long performance, that can last for a few hours, and during this time the singer, or the singers, can change drastically the atmosphere and the theme of what they sing. They can move from sentences with a mystical flavour dedicated to the Virgin Mary or concerning the mystery of life and death to strophes with violent contents, bloody, or sexually explicitly, even if all these elements can be present in a single strophe. The strophes can be taken from a traditional corpus, and differently combined e moulded from performance to performance, as well as created by the singer, sometime referring to new stories or to daily facts. As a matter of fact the tammurriata is a continuously evolving tradition. As I already said there are several patterns of tammurriata, some of them easily recognizable, such as the giuglianese. In this case is the sisco that stresses the rhythm and the timing of the dance, but in general when I am asked “How many variants of the tammurriata can exist?” I answer “As many as the singers. They are  who decide the rhythm”.

The dancers are the people dancing the tammurriata. To describe the dance is possible but reductive. You must see the dance, therefore I suggest to watch the attached clips. The choreutic figures that can be performed by the dancers are endless, and of course they vary from area to area, and like the strophe of the singer and the rhythmic performance of the drum they change in intensity and choice of steps in a single osmotic process. Anyway basically they are two fundamental movements for the dance: when the singer signs the strophe and the drum beats in 2/4 and when the votata is performed, with the extension of the last note of the strophe and the drum goes in 1/4 > the votata names actually comes from the fact that in this moment of the performance dancers “votano” (turn), coming closer on the axis constituted by their own bodies, sometime like if they are run after each other, sometime facing up, sometime clasping by the legs or the arms, in such a beautiful way, spectacular, drawing a circle….. yes, to describe a dancer is basically impossible. Another peculiar characteristic of the dancers is that when they are dancing they always stress the rhythm with a percussive instrument called “castagnette” (castanets). They are made by two concave wooden parts tighten together. The name comes in part from the peculiar form and in part from the sound, recalling the crackling of castagne (chesnut) cooking on the fireplace. Like in the drum grasping people tends to identify the castanets on the right hand as “male”, and the one on the left hand as “female”. Sometime a notch in the concave part differentiates the “male” castanet from the “female” one. Therefore if the singer “in” his strophes can be sometime a man and sometime a woman, if the drummer can decide his/her own identity depending how he/she grasp the drum, the dancer is always male and female at the same time for how long the dance lasts.

The circle. If we want to give a simplistic definition the circle is just the group of the attendants, with the singers and drummers along the borders, and the dancers in the middle. But it would not be a precise definition. It would be much better to define it as a participative assembly of what is going on inside, but even in this moment I am not completely correct. As I said previously the circle is the authentic locus of the tammurriata, because wherever sanctuary or feast you are where a tammurriata is performed, no matter about the choreutic, linguistic and musical differences or whatever, the fundamental element will be always the circle. Without the ircle we cannot spak of tammurriata, but only of a performance of dances and musics, because it lacks of the participation of the sacred. The circle is made by the dancers, drummers and singers who will assist or replace people already there, but mostly is made by the “devout”. Members participate every moment of steps, every strophe of the song, wh is in the circle dance, sing and play at the same time, even if apparently stays still, because he/she participates with touchable tensions for the other participants, like when we get excited, scared or we laugh during a theatrical performance because we are completely immersed into the narration and no matter what’s going on, it looks authentic for us. (6)

1)    the term tammurriata itself is very much vague. We don’t know if it is a recent term or present in the local culture since ever. Sometime it will be not easy to hear it from an elder participant. He/she will use no names and, if you force him/her the answer will be “O’ball ngopp o tambur”, the dance on the drum, which is the translation even of the term tammurriata. Some other time people, even traditional performers, will use with no problem the term tammurriata, above all in the Nocerino-Sarnese area. In my county of origin (Caserta), the term tammuriata simply doesn’t exist, and people mostly use the term “O’ball ngopp o tambur”.

2)    Campania is a Southern Italian region

3)    Little Madonnas

4)    Vernacular oboe with double tongue, diffuse din Southern Italy

5)    Typical flute from Campania, used during the performance of the specific variant of tammurriata called giuglianese. This last name comes from the town where it is performed, i. e. Giugliano in Campania (CE). It is also called “siscariata” in the Aversa’s area, also in Caserta County.

6)    Briefly, what happens is an energy exchange, based on different forms of language, often non-verbal

Published by Chris Sampson

Chris Sampson is a musician, web developer, videographer, and writer who has been working in the music industry for 20 years including radio, web, performance, concert promotion, and instruction.

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