Italy of course has a musical history that dates back thousands of years. One of the great aspects of this is that Italians have not forgotten this fact. Not only do they celebrate their own musical heritage but also embrace the music of many cultures and make it their own. At the top of this long list in recent times is American music. More on this later.
Our trip – the third visit to Italy in the last ten years – was focused primarily on the island of Sicily, which is unique in the Italian experience as it has been occupied for over 2500 years by many cultures, all of whom left their mark in many ways. Greek, Roman, Arab, Norman, Spanish and modern Italian influences abound. Here are a few of the musical moments we experienced related to those cultures.
We began our journey in the city of Catania, the second largest city on the island. The opera house there hosts world class performances of opera (Bellini was born and raised there so his operas are often performed) and symphonic presentations. We had just missed the last tour of the day but a sweet young Italian young lady allowed us to “sneak” into the hall to at least view the place. It is almost impossible to describe the beauty of this place. A few musicians were warming up on stage for a rehearsal that was scheduled so we had the briefest taste of the sound of the hall. Magnificent acoustics only begins to describe what we heard. The concert season throughout Italy begins in the Fall and runs into the Spring and all performances are sold out well in advance. If you are ever contemplating a trip to Italy and would like to experience an opera or symphonic concert in one of these spectacular halls, keep this in mind. We also visited the Palermo Opera House, which was equally spectacular.
As we ate dinner in a great restaurant one night a roving band of musicians playing guitar, recorder, clarinet and hand percussion entered and began singing and playing lively Italian songs. Yes, it was a bit “tourist-y” but we loved every minute of it and made sure we tipped a few Euros when they were leaving. The grins never left our faces (the fine Sicilian wine may have had something to do with this!).
Pretty much everywhere you will find accordion players on the streets and in the piazzas playing for tips, sometimes by themselves and sometimes with others. We heard many and they were all great. In one town (don’t remember which….) one of them was playing the theme to The Godfather, which was kind of funny and my guess is a bit bold, considering that the Mafia still holds much sway in many parts of Sicily! On another occasion we heard an accordion player with a guy playing something called a “boxo basso.” This is apparently a real instrument, not something homemade, which featured a large wooden box with an opening for volume and the neck of a stand-up bass attached to it on a large hinge. It only had one thick string but by moving the neck back and forth, stretching the string, and the player moving up and down the neck the notes would change. In other words, it was played entirely by ear and the guy playing it had a great ear, to say the least! They played some traditional Italian folk music and sounded great.
In the evening you could find guitarists in many of the piazzas in just about every town. And here is where the American influence becomes most apparent. Without exception, they were ALL playing American rock, blues and singer-songwriter tunes. Sometimes there would be two playing together. Here was a big difference from our previous trip three years ago. With more and more high-powered battery-operated amps available, some of these guys (and girls!) were LOUD. Some of them were quite good, some not so much but all played with great enthusiasm. Unfortunately, the use of loopers has reached epidemic proportions with some of these performers and that combined with heavy distortion with electric guitars made for a kind of annoying evening at an otherwise wonderful outside restaurant in Taormina, but so it goes I guess.
Although not a musical performance exactly, we went to a wonderful puppet show with recorded music (medieval instrumental songs on whistle with drum) in Cefalu, which along with many places in Italy has a rich history of very elaborate puppet shows that go back many hundreds of years. Although spoken (shouted!) in Italian, after about half the one-hour show I was able to follow the story, which involved a hero vanquishing his Saracen foe for his king and rescuing a captured priest. Much sword play, heads cut off, the flying Devil repelled, scary monster fought and killed in a dungeon, evil advisor to the king defeated. All hail the knight Renaldo! Lots of fun and well-staged. The kids in the audience, most likely more enthralled by Xbox where not overly impressed but the adults thought it was great!
Our trip concluded with three nights in Rome where we heard more street rockers, a cool gypsy band in Piazza Navona and of course more accordion guys. But the highlight of the entire trip music-wise was an evening at a small jazz club. There we heard a trio – electric hollow body guitar, tenor sax, stand-up bass – who were positively world-class jazzers. They played a wide range of jazz, from swing standards to bossa nova to pyrotechnic bop and I said to my wife, son and his fiancé that I thought it would not be possible to better players ANYWHERE. The guitarist was a joy to watch and hear from a few feet away. Incredible chops, perfectly constructed solos, prefect back-up for the sax player. I spoke with them briefly when they were on break and they seemed like great guys and were truly modest and grateful for my gushing comments on their playing. We stayed for two sets and I could have listened all night.
Which gets me to my final thoughts. As we have seen and heard in our previous trips to Italy (and I suspect the same is true throughout Europe), American jazz is loved by Europeans, both young and old. It makes me sad to know that the same cannot be said for most Americans, judging by the difficulty of finding jazz outside of limited numbers of places in big cities in this country. Jazz is truly American music and one of our finest exports. Europeans seem to want to understand the American psyche in many ways, and we made it our mission everywhere we went in Sicily and rest of Italy to let them know that what they are witnessing in the States today on a social level is NOT what “made America great.” But our music? That is something that we can be proud of. I know I am. And what a wonderful way to build bridges.
I’m not sure when I will be able to return to Europe. Soon, I hope. And when I do I’m confident that in some piazza or tiny bar or restaurant I will again hear some unknown player with monster chops embracing one of the most enriching forms of American culture, our music.
Ciao! Pace e buona musica,