La Notte della Taranta, Puglia, Italy
As the legend goes, there was only one way to survive the bite of a tarantula. And the workers in the fields of Italy discovered it.
When the spider bit you and the venom started to move within your body, you had to move with it. The only way to flush out the poison from a potentially lethal bite was to dance. But a slow waltz would not work, nor even a flowing tango. You had to throw your hands in the air, jump, thrash, shout. You quite literally had to dance like your life depended on it.
And it was from this story that the traditional dance of the Puglia region, called the ‘pizzica’ – which literally translates as ‘bite’ was born. And it is for this that everyone comes together each year for the Night of the Tarantula – or La Notte della Taranta.
Now, of course, the story itself may not be true. Dancing may not be the silver bullet to survive a tarantula’s bite. It doesn’t really matter, though. The dance has intertwined itself with the culture of Puglia. The festival to celebrate it has become the largest party this region’s residents will see each year.
Puglia is in the south of Italy – it is essentially the heel of the boot if you can picture a map of the country. While it is a popular area for local tourists, it is as traditional as any southern Italian region. The land is full of small towns and villages and the culmination of the La Notte della Taranta festival is held in one of these called Melpignano.
The population of this small quaint town is normally about 1000 people but for the main night of the festival it swells to more than 100,000! They come not just from Puglia but from all across Italy, taking special trains put on from the large cities of the region and turning surrounding streets into overflowing carparks. The small roads and alleyways in the centre of the town are lined with stalls selling food, drinks and crafts. The crowd jostles affably with each other in the early part of the evening as they move around looking for friends and fun.
The focus of the festival – both physically and culturally – is the centre stage. From the front of it stretches an enormous grass field which all the tens of thousands of people fill as the sun sets and the entertainment starts. On the stage comes the music for the sea of human dancers on the grass to release the venom inside.
The music is mesmerising in its own way. Technically you would probably describe most of it as ‘folk music’ but, for me, that normally conjures up quite boring images of an old guy with a fiddle. This is much more than that and the energy and passion thrown into the performances is thrilling. Sweat splashes off one young man who sings and beats his tambourine as he whips the crowd into a frenzy.
Musical acts take the stage for their performances before another one takes their place. One after another, more and more bands and singers and dancers appear as the night wears on. The music starts around 7 o’clock in the evening and goes all night long. I head for bed a bit after 1 o’clock in the morning but it is still going strong. People are arriving as I leave and some of the headliners still haven’t performed. This is a party that will only end when it has to.
And this is the point that I find so fascinating about La Notte Della Taranta. The crowd is as diverse as the people in the region – from young children to old great-grandparents, they all drink and dance and sing together. The oldies move like they’re teenagers again and the teenagers drink enough to move like the oldies. But it’s all good fun. There’s such a festive atmosphere in the crowd – even with 100,000 people – and strangers join in dances with others, sing in newly formed groups and (most importantly) respect each other.
Italy has no other major music festivals – no Glastonbury or Coachella. They’ve been tried, I’ve been told, but didn’t succeed. It feels like Italy has a culture where that wouldn’t work but something like this does perfectly. And perhaps that’s because it reflects the society down here in the Puglia region of the country. It’s about keeping it in the family, the generations coming together, with music that everyone knows the dances to, and with (lots of) wine to share.
In some ways, everyone here has been bitten. Not by tarantulas, but with a spirit that needs to be unleashed.
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Time Travel Turtle was supported by Puglia Events but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.