Giovanni Savino TEDx Mediterranean- “Oral Tradition is the most valuable of our possessions. If we don’t lose it, no one can take it away from us.”
I just got back from presenting my work in Cannes, France, at the first TEDx Mediterranean event. It was a wonderful experience and a most interesting occasion for a cultural and friendly exchange with other researchers, musicians and artists.
“Oral Tradition is the most valuable of our possessions. If we don’t lose it, no one can take it away from us.”
Here is the text of my TEDx presentation and a few photographs (courtesy of Guglielmo Campione)from the event.
My name is Giovanni Savino, I was born in Italy and I started playing the trumpet when I was six years old.
As I grew up I got involved in many different fields of the arts in order to express the creative spirit I was born with, as creativity has been, throughout my life, the most enjoyable survival tool I could find.
I soon got involved in music recording, then in photography and cinematography, telling many stories through images and sounds over the past 30 years.
When I was a teenager, I shot a film that perhaps was to shape my entire career as a visual artist and a researcher.
It was a six minutes long BW film shot on a grainy super8 film stock about my grandparents reminiscing about their youth, spent in extreme poverty, in the wild west of our native Tuscany: Maremma.
As I improvised (just like with my trumpet) my first film-making experience, I began recording about 5 hours of conversations with my grandparents, which I then edited down while shooting cinematic portraits of them, their faces by now, over seventy years distant from their so vivid memories.
That short, grainy film, opened my eyes and validated what I tried to pursue for the rest of my life and my career: preserving oral traditions.
More importantly that film taught me the modus operandi to capture such materials, which I would use with many people from many different walks of life in years to come.
Moreover, to this day, when I go back to those recordings and footage, I get tears in my eyes and at the same time feel a great happiness, to have been able to preserve a slice of the personal and social history of my dear grandparents.
This leads me to discuss briefly a statement that could summarize the essence of today’s speech: “Oral Tradition is the most valuable of our possessions and if we don’t lose it, no one can take it away from us.”
Life and culture move at an increasingly fast speed, worldwide. I feel it is of paramount importance to discover and preserve the enormous amount of data that does not get recorded in history books, data that is passed along in speech but also in music form from grandfather to father to son. Oral depictions, sometimes very personal, at times very subjective, other times photographically accurate, of events, traditions, songs and feelings can help us to truly reconnect with the past, in a very intimate way, something impossible to achieve through mainstream historical documents.
And today, in the world, there are two factors that make preserving human oral tradition more important than ever: The displacement of great numbers of people for natural or socio-political causes and the relentless attack upon autochthonous cultures by strong corporative powers, enabled by the mass media, promoting the erasure of cultural diversity by imposing new and monotone global values even in the most geographically remote parts of the globe.
Also, in our society, time is becoming a rare commodity and the fast pace of our lives, certainly is not an enabler for social reunions where a cultural connection between different generations can be achieved through storytelling.
My first audiovisual presentation is an excerpt from a photo reportage I did in one of the poorest Haitian immigrant settlements in the Dominican Republic: Batey numero dos (Batey two).
While not geographically too far from the riches and the modern lifestyle of a Dominican city, people here live on an average of ten dollars a day, six months of the year, the other six months, on zero income.
This is because the private sugar cane company employing them requires their services only during harvest season, leaving these workers to fend for themselves the remaining six months of the year.
There is a local clinic, just two rooms and a cabinet full of aspirin, painkillers and condoms serving over 8000 Haitian workers, also from nearby settlements.
Since the sugar cane company employs airborne weed killers liberally spraying from an airplane all over the area, there has been a great increase in eye problems and blindness amongst the workers.
Obviously, since the Haiti earthquake, the number of Haitian nationals illegally crossing the nearby border in search of work and better life conditions has greatly increased.
Most of these people own nothing if not the ragged clothes they are wearing. They live in substandard housing, cement and zinc roof shacks built in the 1950’s, often up to 15 people in a room, sleeping amongst dirt, vermin and desperation.
They told me their biggest problem is food. They are hungry. The little money they earn harvesting sugar cane is barely keeping them alive six month of the year. The remaining six months they are on their own.
You would think that this is a living hell and indeed it is.
However, the human values of these workers, the social cohesion and the profound respect for their cultural heritage truly impressed me during the time I spent in Batey numero Dos.
I am going to show you today just some street portraits of these workers, their children and their families.
From a photographic and conceptual stand point I decided not to show the abysmal living conditions of Batey numero Dos and focus instead on these people’s faces, forgotten faces in modern, busy world, faces loudly shouting their suffering but also their inner strength and ancestral roots.[wpvideo Mec47nSS]
I find some of the children portraits particularly impacting; they stare into my lens as if due to their young age they hadn’t yet experienced the hardship of their parents but they already knew what life had in store for them.
The soundtrack is a traditional song amongst the many I recorded there, when some workers gathered to play one night, once back from the fields, using plastic buckets as drums. This is the music from their past, music from voodoo ceremonies they perhaps started attending at a very young age, in their villages.
I noticed how the children present there were attentively listening to the chanting and drumming, literally ingesting it into their memory bank to learn how to sing it themselves one day and perhaps eventually teach it to their own children.
This music appeared to me to be this people’s most valuable possession, handed down through many generations, something that unlike everything else in their existences cannot be forgotten, modified, brutalized or taken away from them.
Now I would like to present a very short excerpt from my documentary “The Real Comarca of Liborio” as an example of how oral tradition, in this case music, can remain as the only testimonial of a major social and political movement.
Liborio Mateo was a peasant born in a remote village of the Dominican Republic, near the border with Haiti at the beginning of the 1900.
He suddenly disappeared during a hurricane and his family, thinking he had died, started arranging for his funeral.
Liborio showed up the day of his funeral saying that God had lifted him up to the sky during the storm, investing him, despite Liborio’ s reluctance, with supernatural powers to heal and counsel humanity for a period of 33 years.
Very soon many people started following Liborio and his Christian values based on humility and altruism, elevating him to the pantheon of popular religion as a living saint.
Liborio moved to the mountains and started living with an ever-increasing group of followers, while performing miraculous healings and even resuscitating the dead, as oral tradition largely recalls.
Apparently Comarca, Liborio’s music was always present in the life of the Liborio camp, accompanying many everyday events, from social gatherings, to prayers, to supernatural healings.
Comarca lyrics, sung over a fairly simple melodic and rhythmic structure, talked about religious values and supernatural events but also commented very boldly on social injustice and political corruption.
Around 1920, a time of great changes in the Dominican society, rapidly moving towards the industrial age in the middle of a North American military occupation, Liborio and his followers became a very unwelcome and potentially dangerous phenomenon for both politicians and the military.
The altruistic, peaceful but at the same time socially rebellious aspect of Liborio’s message and way of life was feared by the occupying forces as destabilizing the political situation in the country.
The US Marines finally assassinated Liborio, in 1922.
But Liborio’s philosophy did not die with the man. Instead it kept resurfacing for many years, with different leaders and always on the beat of Comarca music, until it was finally destroyed, as a social movement, in the massacre of Palma Sola in 1962, where hundreds of followers, men, women and children where murdered in cold blood by the Dominican Army.
Nevertheless Liborismo still exists today, not openly as a social movement anymore, but in the heart and soul of many lower class Dominicans and through Comarca music, still being performed mostly at religious events by small groups of old musicians who try their best to pass it on to their sons and grandsons.
One of the most popular Comarca song goes: “ They say Liborio is dead – Liborio is not dead at all….”