Of the 6,000,000 Jews who were murdered during the Shoah, or Holocaust, roughly 7,000 were of Italian nationality and heritage. This may by a statistically “insignificant” number, yet behind each abstract digit, there was a human being who had belonged to what was and still is the longest continuous Jewish population in Western Europe, a small yet robust enclave that predates the birth of Jesus Christ. It was partly because of this bi-millennial durability, and also because of their comparatively high integration and assimilation within Italian society as a whole, that many of the 43,000 Jews residing in Italy during WWII didn’t fully expect the unthinkable to happen to them. But when Mussolini was overthrown in July 1943 and then barely two months later freed from imprisonment by his Nazi sponsors, the puppet regime of the Italian Social Republic was proclaimed on September 23, and with its inception, the Jews of Rome and its surrounding areas in the north lost whatever modest protection they’d received from the formerly independent Italian military and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Now they were to be rounded up, incarcerated, and packed off to the likes of Auschwitz and Buchenwald (as opposed to Ferramonti and other less brutal domestic camps), where they would die agonizing and protracted deaths, where most would be effaced and forgotten as named individuals with particular identities, personalities, and histories.
Of course, things thankfully weren’t as horribly simple as that, because no Italian Jew was prepared to simply give themselves up to an all but certain death. Around a thousand joined the Resistance movement and thousands more did whatever they could to hide themselves, either taking discreet refuge in the homes of non-Jewish Italians or falsifying their identity papers. Whichever of these options they chose, the upshot was always the same: they had to abandon the life they’d lived and the homes they’d known for centuries, so that eventually they might be able to live it and know them again. And it’s with these personal struggles, these flights into the obscure and daunting unknown, that Barbez are focusing themselves with Bella Ciao, their fifth album as one of New York’s ever-exploding number of avant-rock-/post-rock-/jazz-leaning groups. Taking their inspiration from ancient Roman Jewish scales and melodies, Dan Kaufman and co. have constructed 11 songs that frame the uncertainty, anguish, and unthinkable boldness of the Resistance era in terms of taut guitar sinews, mournful violin cries, and an always nomadic rhythm section. Yet while the amalgamations of these elements are dynamic and involving in their own right, there hangs a question mark over the album’s authenticity or faithfulness as a whole, one that our position as members of a largely more peaceful and protected 21st century prevents us from ever answering with conviction or authority.
Despite this looming question mark, there’s more than enough positive things to be said about Bella Ciao on a purely aesthetic level. Throughout its duration, there’s a tension and a momentum that pushes its songs from one swollen juncture to another, creating a furtively dramatic undertow that imbues the album even during its more sedate moments. With opener “Shema Koli,” the convulsive looseness of the initial drumwork breaks into scratchy guitar swipes and an elastic Theremin cycle, these converging instruments evoking a sense of emergency and tumult as they then scramble onto a restive violin siren that forms the song’s central, distinctively Jewish motif. This impression of a community being thrown into turmoil and confusion, mobilized by fear and panic, is advanced by the explosion of unstable dissonance that peaks just before the track’s plaintive bridge. It’s also advanced through later songs, with “Yoshev Bester Elyon” featuring an unassumingly weighty and burdened guitar melody that at its midway point transforms it from a plangent, nearly concussed jeremiad featuring doleful shades of clarinet into a foreboding, string-laden recognition of some barely palatable necessity.
Aside from this yawning dread and insecurity, much of the album is colored by tones of mourning and loss, for obvious reasons. “Keter Ittenu” is a condensed, almost ceremonial lament that gradually swells and sidesteps toward an emotive bulge of grieving arpeggios, chastened violin sweeps, and bereaved clarinet, while “Kamti Beashmoret” begins its four minutes in a kind of desolated repose, with tiptoeing xylophone and the ever-present violin combining to shroud a barren landscape in gloomy stagnation. These recurring threads of sorrow and affliction occasionally threaten to mire Bella Ciao in an anguished inertia, in that only a few encounter the resolution or breakthrough they seek, and even though it’s entirely plausible to suggest that this is the perfect complement to its subject matter, it does sometimes prove itself to be the album’s conspicuous weak point.
But it should be counter-argued here that grief isn’t the record’s presiding sentiment. More prevalent is a mood of quiet defiance, of unpretentious opposition to the hardening threat against life, and in fact “Kamti Beashmoret” is as much an example of this as it is of a despairing solemnity. Around the minute mark, it breaks out of its languid cage, racing into a double-time fling through jumpy, quasi spy-themed rhythm guitar and harried strings, before settling into a more measured but no less resolute procession of ponderous refrains. A more palpable instance of this nascent insurgency is offered by “Et Shaare Ratzon,” which incorporates a spoken-word recitation of Pasolini’s “La Resistenza e L.A. Sua Luce” into its lithe pilgrimage across the faint glimmers of a disfigured hope. While the delivery of the translated poem often feels a little too stiff and earnest, the music itself — questing chord progressions, striving percussion, and attenuated wrinkles of piano — is wholly fluid, perpetrating an image of constant struggle and movement.
Normally, this would all serve to make Bella Ciao a qualified triumph, but the fact that it’s thematically centered on the Italian Resistance, and ultimately, the Holocaust invests it with a certain difficulty, at least in terms of its evaluation. That’s because there’s no way that I, as a twentysomething non-Jew living in 2013, could ever pretend to assess the extent to which the album’s 11 tracks credibly evoke the feelings and emotions that permeated Roman Jewish life within Nazi-occupied territory. Sure, there’s a significant degree of poignancy in its agitated elegies and dolorous uprisings, but how can we confirm who’s poignancy this is, and therefore how can we confirm the record’s success?
There’s the suspicion that, because of the (fortunate) lack of firsthand experience, such pathos derives almost exclusively from the curious or empathetic 21st-century imagination, with the result being that the album is much more a record or document of the attempt by Barbez and ourselves to comprehend atrocity or appear conscientious than it is of the actual horrors and inhumanity that people suffered 70 years ago. And even though the band has admitted elsewhere that Bella Ciao is ” intended as a rock record, and not a history lesson,” this unresolvable disconnection between their representation of past subjective experiences and the inaccessibility of these experiences — to them and to us — produces a certain superficiality, a certain thinness, insinuating that the album signifies less than it might have if it were addressing something more open to modern-day involvement and knowledge. But then again, hopefully mass persecution and murder will always remain inscrutable and remote to us.