Zampognari: Italy's Christmas tradition of bagpipe-playing shepherds

The spectacle of bagpipe-playing shepherds, known as zampognari, is common in central and southern Italy during the Christmas season and still exists in Naples and Rome.

Dressed in traditional sheepskin and woollen cloaks with peaked hats, the pipers come into the city from their mountain homes, performing traditional music and hymns including the much-loved Italian carol Tu scendi dalle stelle.

The zampognari are important figures in the folklore of Italian regions such as Abruzzo, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Lazio, Molise, Puglia and Sicily.

These otherworldly characters perform traditional Christmas melodies on the zampogna, an ancient wind instrument made of animal hide, whose music is hypnotic and very loud.

The arrival of the zampogna is considered auspicious and they feature strongly in the Christmas crib tradition of Naples, thanks to a popular legend about shepherds playing music on their pipes upon seeing the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.

As for the musical instrument itself, the zampogna should not be confused with the northern European bagpipes, both due to differences of geographic origin and the fact that the zampogna usually has at least two melodic reed pipes.

The music played on the zampogna is often accompanied by a ciaramella or piffaro, a wind instrument similar to the oboe.

So keep an ear out for the zampognari this Christmas - you will hear them before you see them!

Photo Antonio Bini - Visit Italy