The village of Gambatesa is in central southern Italy, in the southeast corner of Molise, on its border with Puglia.
The Zampognari and Gambatesa
Part I - My Grandmother
My grandmother remembers that the zampognari ("bagpipe players") used to come to Gambatesa in the 1930s. They came at Christmas time to wish a Merry Christmas to the people in Gambatesa and in the other villages of the area. They played the bagpipe in front of every house and people could offer something to them (most of the time money). Many of them came to Gambatesa. Probably they were organized as a team, and the whole team would go from one village to another.
They were poor people doing this job to earn money at Christmas time. But there were other men who came to Gambatesa for the same kind of thing. There were two men, one with a birdcage with a parrot in it, and another with a organetto (a kind of little accordion). Folded papers with a prediction about the future written on them were kept near the birdcage. People wondering about their own future could ask the parrot to choose one of the folded papers on which the future was supposed to be written. The saying a furtune du papaial' (in Italian, la fortuna del pappagallo, "the fortune foretold by the parrot") comes from that tradition. The saying was used to make fun of people.
The tradition didn't go on because before the bagpipe players were needy people, but afterwards life became easier and they didn't need to do it any more.
Last year  one of the zampognari came to play in front of my grandmother's house. She was moved and she gave him some money. He said: "Thank you and Merry Christmas", and he went on playing in the village. The zampognari come to wish a Merry Christmas.
They are trying to re-establish the tradition of the bagpipe players in Molise.
It is still possible to find the plaster figure in the presepio. The figures are used in the little family presepi. Most of the time the presepi were made by the children in Gambatesa. In the Church of San Bartolomeo Apostolo there has always been a presepio. We can still find zampognari in the church presepio; they are supposed to play for the Little Child. Last year a big presepio was made near the post office.
© 1974 World Book
"They were poor people ..."
Lucia wrote: "My mother from Colli a Volturno (emigrated to USA 1900) recounted how her father and others traveled to Rome (oxcart, I believe) to play their bagpipes at Christmas. I think the story was: he threw his bagpipe overboard on his arrival in America, as he was not fond of it, or the experience."
The story of the zampognari may sound romantic, but the pipers were out all day in the freezing cold. They were poor men trying to earn a little money at Christmas time, instead of being home with their families.
The Zampognari and Gambatesa
Part II - My Mother's School Teacher
In the beginning of the 1950's Elena (Linuccia [Note 1]) Abiuso was my mother's teacher at the Gambatesa Primary School. Every year, just before Christmas, Donna Elena (as she was called at that time) would talk about Christmas time and the zampognari.
"We are a few days before Christmas. As you can see the weather is cold outside, there is wind and snow, and a few years ago that was the time when the zampognari used to come to visit us and to wish us a Merry Christmas with their instruments. Oh, children! It was so wonderful! The whole family would be inside the house at night time, cooking or just talking and then suddenly you could hear the sound of the zampogna. IT WAS CHRISTMAS TIME! The whole family would run outside to listen to the zampognaro's music."
"But now they don't come anymore, because the tratturo [Note 2] doesn't exist anymore. Each poor family was given a piece of it to cultivate.
"December, the month of the zampognari coming to announce Christmas and the birth of Christ, playing for the Little Child in the presepio. Often there was snow in Gambatesa at Christmas time. It was magical!"
The zampognari were part the atmosphere of Christmas. They were a Christmas image [Note 3], of course, because in all the presepi there were zampognari.
Donna Elena would go on to tell the children that the zampognari were poor shepherds from Abruzzo and Alto Molise [Note 4]. The shepherds used to pass through Molise using the tratturo, herding the sheep from the mountains to the plains of Puglia, mostly to the sector of Apricena [Note 5]. You must remember that at that time Abruzzo and Molise were one Region, only divided later; so that the shepherds and the people of Gambatesa had the same culture.
Most of the shepherds used to drive the sheep to Puglia around the month of November. But December was quite cold in Puglia, too. Taking advantage of the fact that the sheep had to be kept inside at that time of the year, the shepherds used to organize themselves in teams and go from one village to another to play the zampogna for Christmas.
Donna Elena said that most years it was the same zampognaro who used to visit them. After a while they knew each other. If the family was around the table for supper, the zampognaro was invited to join them for the meal.
People gave them money, but food too, for example flour, grain, dried fruit, bread, taralli [Note 6], oil. Food was the only thing that poorer people had to give the zampognari, sometimes only two slices of bread.
The Zampognari and Gambatesa
Part III - The Mountain Shepherds
According to my mother the shepherds used to cross Molise and Gambatesa until 1953-1954, but she never really saw them. She just remembers that one time there was a big flock of sheep in the fondo valle (i.e. the bottom of the valley below the village of Gambatesa through which the Tappino River flows [Note 7]).
Going on the tratturo the shepherds used to stop for the night in the Tappino Valley. There were between 300 and 400 sheep in each flock. Most of the time they would stop near the Taverna del Tufo. Giuseppe Vena was the owner of this taverna ("inn"). Some of the herds used to stop at the Masseria Pulliccio (owned by Francesco di Domenico) and at the Masseria Valente. The inn and the two masserie ("farms") were next to each other in the Valley. [Note 8]
The Pulliccios and the Valentes used to cater (i.e. cook the evening and morning meals and provide fresh water) for the shepherds and allow them to put their tents near the farms. The tents and all the cooking tools the shepherds had were littered by donkeys. If it was a rainy night, they were invited to rest in the barn. Most of them were men. The evening was often spent talking with the families in the masseria. People of Gambatesa were affectionate to them because the shepherds were nice people and they understood each other. It was mostly the same shepherds who came twice a year (Spring and Fall), year after year; and the farmers looked forward to their coming.
The shepherds were simple people living all the time with their sheep and four or five dogs [Note 9]. They were gente con poca cultura, pecorari, gentilissimi, troppo gentili ("people of little education, shepherds -- i.e. herders of sheep, pecorai -- with the kindest of hearts, only too kind"). They were people who lived outdoors, the shepherd's way of life being passed from father to son.
Once their tents were set up, the shepherds had to milk all the sheep. All the milk collected in the evening and the next morning was given to the masseria in return for its hospitality. Cheese was made from the milk. If the tents were not set up near a farm, the milk and the cheese made from it was for the shepherds, who later sold it. They used to stay just for one night. They liked to set up their tents near farms -- They felt safer near the farms -- to avoid staying alone at night time and because they needed water (for washing etc...).
My father remembers huge flocks from around 1947-1948. During the following years there were less and less, until trains and lorries (trucks) replaced the traditional crossing by foot.
Note 1: Linuccia is a diminutive of Elena. [Photograph showing Elena Abiuso.] [Back]
Note 2: The tratturo was a wide grassy path that shepherds once used to herd sheep and cattle between the highlands of Abruzzo and the plain of Puglia (transhumance), an ancient path that shaped the history of the region. [See The Sheep Migration Trails of Molise.] [Back]
Note 3: For Donna Elena something important was missing from Christmas without the visit of the zampognari. They were a Christmas "image" in the way that the Christmas tree and Advent Calendars are Christmas images for northern Europeans. For example, when Karol Wojtyla came to the Vatican from Poland to be Pope John Paul II, he added a Christmas tree to the traditional Italian presepio in St. Peter's Square. [Back]
Note 4: Alto Molise is the mountain area in the southwest of Molise called "Matese". Molise's town of Campitello Matese lies at 4,687 feet above sea level. [See this relief map of the mountain ranges of Abruzzo and Molise; if you draw a straight line from Naples to Termoli, the first mountain range you run into is the Matese.]
The Matese Mountains form the wall or border between Molise's Province of Campobasso and Campania's Province of Caserta. The Comune ("village and its agricultural land") of Gambatesa lies in the southeast corner of Molise, on its border with Puglia. [Back]
Note 5: Apricena is a comune in the Province of Foggia, Puglia, between the city of San Severo and the Adriatic. [Back]
The Taralli of Gambatesa
Note 6: In Gambatesa, taralli are small biscuits, made from dough that is shaped into rings and then boiled in water before baking. There is no leaven in the dough, but there is olive oil; boiling this dough has the effect of leavening. The biscuits have a strange texture, not fully crisp; they are shiny, yellow and slightly brown, about two and a half inches across and about 1/2 inch thick, but there are as many sizes as there are families in Gambatesa.
The rings of dough are boiled in a large, deep pot of water, like for spaghetti. You can put them on a dish towel when they come out of the water, before moving them to a baking sheet. If you let the dough rest for a while after it is kneaded, it will be easier for you to roll under your fingers. And you should wait a half hour between taking the biscuits out of the boiling water and putting them into the oven. This recipe will make enough taralli to fill a Panettone box.
1 kilogram of flour (2.2 lbs)
2 small wine glasses of water, 150 ml (5 oz) each
2 small wine glasses of olive oil
1 spoonful of salt, not a coffee spoon but larger
Heat oven to 250 degrees C. (550° F.)
Mix the ingredients and knead the dough very well. Break off a small piece of dough and roll it under your fingers to make a cigar shape (about 7 inches long); then make a ring. Drop the rings a few at a time into boiling water until they rise to the surface. Then bake them in the oven until they are golden yellow; this takes 10 minutes more or less, but you must watch them carefully, checking their color.
The water in the recipe can be replaced with dry white wine (1 glass water, 1 glass wine, or 2 glasses of wine, 300 ml total). The wine of Gambatesa tastes a bit like vinegar. "Because we do not put purcarie ("rubbish") in it," people in Gambatesa would say. But each family usually makes its own. [Photograph of the taralli of Gambatesa. Compare the method by which Biscotti con le uova are made; it is quite similar.]
Even poor families could have taralli, because any woman who could boil water at home could make taralli, as long as there was a communal oven or she knew an "oven woman" (a woman with an oven in her home who would use her oven for other people). And because of the boiling method, the taralli could wait to be baked, unlike bread dough which had to go into the oven as soon as the yeast had made the dough ready for baking. [Back]
Note 7: Map showing part of the fondo valle. The Tappino is a torrente ("a stream that rushes down from the mountain"). The expression fondo valle means "the bottom of the valley below the village", which in Gambatesa is just north of the village. [Back]
Note 8: The map in Note 7 shows the Masseria Valente and the Taverna del Tufo, and their relation to the village center of Gambatesa. [Back]
Note 9: The famous Abruzzesi shepherd dogs. In the mountains of Abruzzo the shepherds put spiked collars on these dogs to protect the dogs from wolves. [Back]
Christmas Eve Notes and More Shepherds
• When the Shepherds of Abruzzo Came to Rome at Christmas: a short account of the zampognari from an old French storybook.
• Two paragraphs from Ignazio Silone's The Seed Beneath the Snow (1942) about the shepherds and sheep on Abruzzo's mountains.
• The celebration of Christmas Eve in Camden, New Jersey, by immigrants from Gambatesa and their children.
• Historical background: Stories about bagpipes and mangers (Nativity scenes) and about Italian pastoral Christmas music.
• The entire story of Christmas Eve in the Gospel according to St. Luke (It is very short), with a note about the three Masses on Christmas Day.
Other Special Days in Gambatesa:
• Easter in Gambatesa, from Palm Sunday through Easter Monday.
• St. Joseph's Day (La festa di San Giuseppe), March 19th, in Gambatesa.
• Notes about Gambatesa's other traditions, including La Madonna delle Traglie (Wheat Festival); La Madonna del Rosario (Grape Festival); the legend of "The Old Man and the Stone"; and Saint Lucy's Fair.
• Life in Gambatesa in the last century, including "When Wheat was Like Gold" and "Everyday Life in Gambatesa, which was farming life".
The URL of this Web page: http://www.roangelo.net/valente/zampogna.html
Last revised: 16 May 2008 : 2008-05-16 by Robert Wesley Angelo
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