Signore Tamburello: Mr. Tambourine Man’s Italian Cousin

As an Italian folk musician, I can’t help but wonder if Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” was inspired by being part of a Tarantella? The jingle-jangle that casts a dancing spell does sound an awful lot like what happens in one of these musical circles.

The tambourine or tamburello is one of the most recognizable instruments in Italian folk music, a circolo (musical circle) will always have at a minimum two musicians, one playing the organetto and one playing the tamburello. You will always see a tamburello in a tarantella because it provides the strong rhythmical support to the dance, this percussion is vital to the dance.

The traditional Italian tamburello is a single-skin frame drum, with a series of tiny cymbals wired into the frame that varies in size from a diameter of 15 to 50 cm.  Like the zampogna, a tamburello is made using sheep skin that is cured and then stretched over a circular frame into which the cymbals are also set. Along with the cymbals little bells of various sizes are attached to underline the volume and frequencies of the cymbals.  The tamburelli are often decorated with floral patterns along the wooden frame of fresco scenes.

Strangely enough, this is the only folk instrument that is played by women for it is considered a feminine character in the history and symbology of the tarantella.  Playing this instrument may seem effortless but there is a specific tambourine roll technique to master.  It is played by clasping the lower part of the frame in the left hand and beating the skin with the right, using the finger-tips, the palm, the wrist.  Further to this is an advance technique known as the thumb roll where the thumb is moves rapidly over the rim, producing a fast roll from the jingles on the instrument; a continuous roll is achieved by moving the thumb in a figure 8 pattern around the head of the tamburello.

The frequent rhythmic variation of this percussion alongside the buoyant chords of the organetto is rather mesmerizing and does as Mr. Dylan once said, cast quite a spell.

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