Bella Ciao, by Barbez
In the digital age, music albums are often seen as quaint, obsolete. Yet a well-crafted collection of songs often carries with it a narrative arc, even when the compositions lack words. That’s exactly the case with the latest album by the Brooklyn-based band Barbez. Its 11 tracks are rescued—literally—from the liturgical songs of Roman Jews that even Nazi hatred and genocide could not wipe out.
Rome’s Jewish community dates to two centuries before Christ, and some of the melodies that form this project’s backbone may be nearly that old. Yet they were almost lost—twice. The first time was around 1904, when changes to Jewish worship in Rome made many of these liturgical melodies obsolete. The second time was when the Gestapo sent some 2,000 Roman Jews to Auschwitz. Only 16 came back alive.
No wonder Leo Levi, an ethnomusicologist, the Alan Lomax of Italy, felt an urgency to record elderly Roman Jews singing their fading rites after World War II. Half a century later, Barbez leader Dan Kaufman was introduced to the recordings by Yotam Haber, a 2005 Guggenheim fellow. Kaufman traveled to Rome for ten days, immersing himself in this lost musical world. The result is an album that walks the tightrope between ancient tradition and modern reinvention with panache.