Thursday, September 23, 2010

Love and Death in Sicily

Both of my parents were born in a small village called Torre Faro (“lighthouse”), which is situated on the very northeast corner of Sicily, right across from the Italian mainland, where the Tyrrhenian and Ionian Seas converge into the Strait of Messina. Like many of the town’s long time residents, both sides of my family hail from a long line of fishermen.

The strait’s transparent blue waters, affording visibility down to the very bottom even a hundred feet below the surface, lend themselves well to spear fishing, particularly for sword fish. Though swordfish are not quite as plentiful as they used to be, the Strait of Messina has a long tradition of spearing for swordfish which dates back a couple of millennia, as far back as when the Greeks had colonized Sicily. Boats specifically built for this purpose have kept basically the same design, changing only in size and method of propulsion, as diesel motors have now replaced the half dozen oarsmen who used to propel the boats in centuries past. Otherwise, the basic design includes a tall mast with a crow’s nest, from which a watchman spots the swordfish and guides the boat accordingly; and a long gangway protruding from the bow, from which harpoons are hurled at the hapless swordfish.

When the watchman in the crow’s nest spots a female swordfish and the harpooner manages to spear her, they immediately look for an opportunity to harpoon her male companion as well. The thinking is that the heartbroken male will loyally follow his mate, preferring to go to his death rather than abandon her. Though stories of back-to-back catches of a female swordfish and her mate are quite common, I am not sure if there is any truth to the traditional explanation of this phenomenon, or if it is simply a matter of folklore.

But this type of folklore is vintage Sicily, whose music and literature abound with themes of love and death. The application of these themes to swordfish was popularized in an old folksong by Domenico Modugno called Lu Pisci Spada (“The Swordfish”). On the one hand, the poetic lyrics were intended as a silly parody of the Sicilian obsession with love and death, an intentionally melodramatic ballad of the untimely death of two ill fated underwater lovers. And yet the tender and beautiful Sicilian poetry coupled with the realism of the watchman’s cry from the crow’s nest can almost make you forget that it is a parody; it might even bring a tear to your eye.

I hope you enjoy the attached video montage with music and translated lyrics from Modugno’s classic Sicilian ode to love and death under the Sicilian waters…

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