From house to house, between rural districts and scattered houses, the teams of collectors of alms bring their devotional songs at dusk. They enter the homes, greet those who welcome them and narrate the stories of Saint Anthony the Abbot, the mighty protector of the stables and domestic animals, venerated by the farmers. Each meeting is warmed by the fire, while wine and biscuits help the wanderers to continue their rounds until late at night.
The ritual use of the collection of alms sung in honour of Saint Anthony the Abbot draws on some elements of his biography written by St Athanasius. Anthony was born in 251 at Koma, in Egypt, and died on 17th January 356 in Quolzoum, at the age of 105. He lived as a hermit in isolated places, eating only food that was given to him; his fight against the noisy demons took place with the help of song and prayer. He was also considered a powerful thaumaturge, able to heal people from serious diseases and to release them from demonic possession.
The order of the Antonines was officially founded in the West in 1297, but the activity of religious orders and congregations inspired by the holy Egyptian had already been deep-rooted for a long time: his followers were specialized in curing ergotism and helping the poor and worked in foundations and hospitals. They lived on the collection of alms and breeding of pigs – which were fed by the entire community – for the maintenance of the buildings and the therapies based on pork fat. Sick people and pigs were announced by bells, just like the musicians that go round collecting alms with a bell fixed to the top of a stick. Today the begging team recreates the image of the group of hermits following the holy saint, or that of the Antonines collecting alms to be destined to the poor and the sick. Songs and music are the tools that give power to the ritual: according to local beliefs they purify places from negative influences, as for Saint Anthony the Abbot they were the instruments used to defeat the devil.
In Penna Sant’Andrea, according to a tradition which is still alive throughout the Media Valle del Vomano, in the days that precede the 17th of January, teams of musicians and singers come into homes and perform songs for alms collection for the Feast of Saint Anthony the Abbot. It is a ritual that involves the whole town, the nearby districts and the houses scattered over the countryside. Families open their doors and provide guests with wine and cellittë – the traditional pastries filled with grape jam – in exchange for music and the blessing of the house and of the people who live there, the domestic animals and the foodstuffs obtained from the slaughter of the pig. The ritual is celebrated in an atmosphere of shared joy and solidarity, and it is an opportunity to strengthen social relationships and redefine the bonds that form the fabric of the community: in fact, not paying a singing visit to someone with whom you are in good relations of friendship is considered, even today, a form of offense. On the other hand, welcoming the teams on their way is an honour and refreshments are always offered, together with food to take away: sausages, pork loin, cheeses, biscuits and, sometimes, roosters, rabbits and other live animals.
A song discovered by Ettore Montanaro, locally called Don, is very widespread in the countryside around Penna Sant’Andrea , and it used during the collection of alms to bless the approach and the entrance to the houses and, at the conclusion of the visit, to thank and say goodbye to the inhabitants and to wish them prosperity and abundance.
WATCH THE VIDEO
The entrance song
The “Li Sandandonijrë” group enters a country house and performs the entrance and greeting song.
Penna Sant’Andrea (Te), 14 January 2018.
Video footage by Stefano Saverioni,
Don Nicola Jobbi Study Center Archive/Bambun.
Transmission and preservation
The groups of musicians who have worked over the years in the territory of Penna Sant’Andrea consist of men or boys, who learned from their elders the repertoires used during the collection of alms. The group of “Li Sandandonijrë”, formed as a cultural association in the mid-1990s , started out as a spontaneous group of friends who in the course of the decades never interrupted the tradition of ritual singing, inheriting it from older people in the community. The familiarity of the population with the practice of dance and song even in contexts other than those related to festivities scheduled in the religious calendar and to the ceremonial occasions typical of the peasant society, such as the international folklore festivals which have emerged in the last fifty years, has been a stimulus for the revival and circulation of repertoires. This phenomenon of renewed and deeper interest has led to the creation of some music recordings, videos, publications and exhibitions, some dedicated to the musical traditions for the Feast of Saint Anthony the Abbot, such as those organized by the ethnomusicologist Marco Magistrali, the ethnochoreologist Giuseppe M. Gala, and by the anthropologist Gianfranco Spitilli together with the documentary filmmaker Stefano Saverioni.
The history of the texts and melodies is marked by continuous elaborations: in the course of the twentieth century several songs for the collection of alms were introduced or reshaped such, as Don or different versions of the so-called Good Afternoon, or the Tivul’ e ’ttavule, a testimony of the great flexibility and adaptability of the oral tradition, in which texts were sometimes written then later conveyed through oral transmission.
The practice of itinerant singing in the days that precede the saint’s day is still very popular and is repeated every year, performed by groups with up to ten members. The late mayor of the village Antonio Fabri dedicated a great deal of passion and attention to this tradition and he was involved directly in the rounds of alms collection being himself a player of the friction drum, also-called battafochë.