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Casa Cifali

  • Writer's pictureMassimo

The Last Chant of the Tuna Fishermen

The history of Sicily is linked for thousands of years to tuna fishing. It is full of legends and popular songs that are becoming lost in the memory of time.

Tuna fishing is a complex system of nets that are arranged in a barrage in a precise body of water. The nets first form an entrance corridor where the tuna are channeled followed by a large area made up of several chambers, the last of which is called the death chamber, and also has a net deposited on the bottom. As they pass the chambers open and close, trapping the tuna in a sort of spiral. At the end of their journey, surrounded by boats and nets, the men on the day of slaughter begin to hoist the net that is deposited on the bottom, which pushes the tuna to the surface. Each boat knows its place. You can see the tradition and experience in the precise movements of the Tonnarotti, or fishermen, as they arrange the boats forming a square, fixing the nets on the sides. There are those who observe the movement of the pack, while the orchestra is directed by the Capo Ra'is, a word of Arabic origin which means Chief of Operations, on his Muciara, which is the typical boat used for fishing, accompanied by two assistants. He stands in the center of the square and checks to ensure all the tuna have entered the square, giving solemn orders with the gesture of his arms. All of this is accompanied by the Cialoma, sung partly as a mixture of a religious chant, expressing the caresses and pain of the hunt, mixed with the almost superhuman effort of the Tonnarotti with propitiatory calls, the crossing of rods and harpoons, as the water turns red and frothy from the flapping of the fins in a tragic death cry. A scene like this acquires the drama of a Greek tragedy.

When the last tuna stops wiggling, a deep silence envelops the tonnara. At this point the boats return home, moving in an Indian row as if it were a procession. Only now do you realize that there is still the sun and the immensity of the sea. The tuna is brought to the factory where it will be processed. Some are exported, while the remaining fish will be sold in local markets.

Of the hundreds of tuna traps that were once on the island, today only the memory remains. The factories where the tuna was once processed have been abandoned for some time, along with the structures for the shelter of boats to wait for a new day of fishing, with their piazzas where nets were mended and the small fishermen's houses all around.

There are a few companies that still today process tuna to be preserved. Nothing is thrown away; every part is used to create unique dishes which are part of our popular traditions that have been handed down from generation to generation.

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