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Voices Spring-Summer 2005:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Born to Giglio” by Stephanie Trudeau here.
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Volume 31
Spring-Summer
2005
Voices

Born to Giglio by Stephanie Trudeau

“They took me home from the hospital in a Giglio shirt, so I guess I’ve been part of the Giglio since I was born. And I still have the shirt.” That’s Danny Vecchiano’s explanation for his lifelong involvement with the Giglio, a sixteen-hundred-year-old celebration of an extraordinary bit of southern Italian history. Born in 1977 in Williamsburg, Danny still lives on Havermeyer Street, the block of the feast.

Music is such a vital component of the Giglio celebration that it is said that without music, the four-ton Giglio structure would never get off the ground and dance through Williamsburg’s streets the first Sunday after July 4. The official band for the Giglio Feast is the Vecchiano Festival Band, led by Danny Vecchiano. Danny epitomizes the passing on of Giglio traditions and cultures: His great-grandparents came from a town outside of Nola, near Naples, and he is the third generation to be actively involved in the festival. Danny Vecchiano (center) lifts the Giglio with the paranza.
Danny Vecchiano (center) lifts the Giglio with the paranza. Photo: Stephanie Trudeau


Lily Lifts

The Giglio festival was brought over by the Nola immigrants who settled in Williamsburg more than one hundred years ago. It reenacts a powerful tale, passed on through the generations in both Italy and Brooklyn, of sacrifice and homecoming. In the fifth century, Nola was overrun by North African conquerors who took the townsmen as slaves. St. Paulinus, Nola’s bishop, offered himself in exchange for a widow’s only son, and two years later, after he had won freedom for himself and the men of the village, their boat was met by the grateful women of Nola, each waving a giglio, or lily. The earliest Giglio celebrations, honoring Paulinus right after his death, were simply presentations of bouquets of lilies brought to the church in the town center. Soon, the bouquets were mounted on poles, and eventually a base was created to support the poles and a statue of St. Paulinus was placed on top.

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, guilds and artisans vied with one another to design tall papier-mâché and wood structures and giant representations of the lily bouquets. When festive music was added in the seventeenth century, the Giglio began to dance. The Giglio used in the yearly celebration in Williamsburg is a seven-story tower composed of aluminum, papier-mâché, and plastic painted and decorated with gigli and the image of St. Paulinus. A platform at the base of the tower supports a twelve-piece brass band and singer. The entire assemblage—tower and band—is hoisted and carried by 112 dancing and marching men, the paranza (lifters). A separate boat, complete with fitted mast, sail, and rigging, represents the ship that returned St. Paulinus from captivity. Like the Giglio, it has a band and singer and is also carried and danced through the streets. Members of the Vecchiano Festival Band perform on both the Giglio and the “boat.”

Crowds line the parade route of the Giglio celebration.
Crowds line the parade route. Photo: Martha Cooper
Danny started playing trumpet when he was eight years old, studying with Sarge Mirando, a veteran trumpet player of the feast. He then studied with band leader Laurence Laurenzano, who after twenty-two years handed over leadership to Danny in 2000. Because he studied with Laurenzano, Danny says, “I kind of got groomed into the job … it was logical. I had a history with the feast and knew all the tunes, and I knew all the people involved with the feast.” Danny has a bachelor of science in music education from New York University and is currently band director at Brooklyn’s Fort Hamilton High School.


That the Giglio Festival is very much about passing on traditions, rituals, and culture from one generation to the next is evident in the Vecchiano family history. Danny’s great-grandparents came from Palma, Italy, just east of Nola. They settled in Greenpoint, the Brooklyn neighborhood next to Williamsburg. Family involvement began with Danny’s grandfather and then passed on to his father, Anthony “Paste” Vecchiano, who has been in charge of building the Giglio for more than thirty years. The elder Vecchiano served as paranza and lieutenant (in charge of a corner of the Giglio platform) and in 1989 became leader of the lifters and boss of the procession. “You wait your whole life to become the number one guy, the Capo,” Danny told me. That year Danny had the honor of playing trumpet with the band on the Giglio platform. He was eleven, the youngest ever to play with the band on the Giglio. Danny now leads the Giglio band not on the platform but from his position as lieutenant. Does he aspire to be Capo one day? Of course he does.

Marching or symphonic band music accompanies the Giglio for much of the way as it is carried along the procession route, but it is the Giglio song that actually makes the Giglio dance. The Giglio’s route is punctuated by a series of “lifts,” which last roughly three minutes and cover approximately thirty feet. Each lift begins with the official feast song, written in Williamsburg and used since 1959, “O Giglio e Paradiso.” The band ends the music to the first stanza with a crescendo, the Capo raises his cane, and the 112 lifters become the single paranza that lifts the Giglio off the ground and then makes the structure dance.


New Traditions

“O Giglio e Paradiso” has become the mainstay of many other cultural celebrations of the Italian American community in Williamsburg. It is often played at both weddings and funerals; as “Giglio taps,” the same musical break that signals the lifting of the Giglio during the feast becomes the signal to the pallbearers to raise the coffin. The song has also traveled to Nola and is performed at the Giglio feast there.

There are other Giglio songs in the festival repertoire, and Danny Vecchiano considers himself something of an archivist of the event’s traditional music. He plays the music of the East Harlem Giglio, the most popular song being “O Giglio di Cent’otto” (“the Giglio of 108th Street”). He plays older songs from the 1950s as a tribute to someone who has passed on or if requested by an old-timer.

Danny also plays American songs that have now become traditional to the Giglio: the themes from Rocky, Superman, and New York, New York, and swing songs like “In the Mood.” Because few neighborhood people speak or understand Italian anymore, he includes music that everyone can enjoy, including 1950s and 1960s rock-and-roll. Many of the musical traditions are fading out; more so in Italy than in the United States, according to Danny: “Typically the music used in Nola is Italian pop songs you hear on Italian radio, even songs like the Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’.” Danny thinks maybe the Italians have moved away from traditional songs because pop music gets everyone involved, young and old. By continuing to play traditional Giglio songs, Danny feels he is preserving Italian culture and traditions for Italy and Brooklyn.

 






Stephanie Trudeau is a singer and music educator at three elementary schools in Brooklyn. She has just completed her B.S. in the history and performance of American popular song and is currently researching the continuity of Italian culture and traditions in festa celebrations. She will spend next year in Italy as a Fulbright scholar.


Music is such a vital component of the Giglio celebration that it is said that without music, the four-ton Giglio structure would never get off the ground and dance through Williamsburg’s streets the first Sunday after July 4.


For Further Reading

For Further Reading Orsi, Robert. 1985. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Posen, Sheldon, Joseph Sciorra, and Martha Cooper. 1983. Brooklyn’s Dancing Tower. Natural History 92(6): 30–37.

Primeggia, Salvatore, and Joseph Varacalli. 1996. The Sacred and Profane among Italian American Catholics: The Giglio Feast. International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 9(3).

Sciorra, Joseph. 1989. “O Giglio e Paradiso”: Celebration and Identity in an Urban Ethnic Community. Urban Resources 5(3): 15–20, 44–46. This article includes the lyrics, both Italian and English, for “O Giglio e Paradiso.”




This article appeared in Voices Vol. 31, Spring-Summer 2005. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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