Celum Calia. African speech and afro-european dance in a 16th century song cycles from Naples


Around the mid-16th century, in Italy, a group of anonymous humanists - courtiers versed in the arts of music, letters, and theatre - created a set of songs that depicts African slaves and freedmen singing and playing in an Italian town, probably Naples. While serenading their girls, the African characters in this song cycle cherish to to be freed by their masters. While singing, courting, and quarrelling, they speak an Afro-Neapolitan pidgin that combines the mispronounced local dialect with authentic African words and sentences in Kanuri -- an Afro-Nilotic language still in use in the Bornu region (North-East Nigeria). The songs are known as 'canzoni moresche', meaning Moorish (i.e. black African) songs. Although the 'moresche' were intermittently studied by a handful of European musicologists since the late 19th century, nobody had recognized yet that the most obscure sections in the lyrics were not a zany made-up of African speech, but a true language. Talking Kanuri, moresche's characters utter conventional greeting formulas and idiomatic expressions of racial pride, summon the black slaves in the neighbourhood, and make reference to song and dance as traditional ways to celebrate and communicate. For a long time, the first known evidence of written Kanuri have been considered those founded in scattered European manuscripts and documents dating around late 18th-early 19th century. Only the 'canzoni moresche' offer earlier traces of written Kanuri. They are also powerful cultural effect of African diaspora. A whole microcosm of African tradition, customs, feelings - and probably also shreds of original melodies and rhythms - appear to be featured in the Italian Renaissance.

DOI Code: 10.1285/i22804250v7i2p151

Keywords: African diaspora; African music; African dance; Renaissance music

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