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Articles by: George De stefano

  • Art & Culture

    Roots, Re-Imagined: The Sicilian Jazz Project

    Jazz has been popular in Italy since the 1920s, and the list of Italian American jazz musicians is lengthy, stretching from New Orleans trumpeter Nick La Rocca in the 1900s to saxophonist Joe Lovano, a leading figure in contemporary jazz. But Italian-descended jazz musicians rarely have used Italian musical forms as the basis for improvisation or original compositions. Lovano, on his acclaimed Viva Caruso album, is an exception. Another is the Sicilian-Canadian guitarist and composer Michael Occhipinti.

    Occhipinti, a Toronto native well-known in Canada as the co-leader of the big band NOJO, is the founder and leader of The Sicilian Jazz Project, a band that re-interprets Sicilian folk and popular music. He, his brother Roberto, the band’s bassist, and vocalist Dominic Mancuso are the Sicilian core of the multiethnic ensemble. The SJP’s debut CD was released internationally last year, winning stellar reviews. The magazine All About Jazz called the album “exquisitely memorable.” The Sicilian Jazz Project is an outstanding work -- brilliantly conceived and performed, soulful, exciting, and surprising. I recently interviewed Michael about the origins of the SJP, his approach to traditional Sicilian music, and Sicilian (and Sicilian-Canadian) language and identity.


    What inspired the creation of the Sicilian Jazz Project?

    The Sicilian Jazz Project was inspired by a couple of things. In 2000 I made a CD called Creation Dream -- The Songs of Bruce Cockburn where I reinvented [Canadian singer-songwriter] Bruce Cockburn's songs as jazz pieces. I really enjoyed that process and wanted to do a similar project, but I wasn't sure what to tackle. Then, in early 2004, when my daughter Beatrice was three months old, I had a gig in the Netherlands and my wife and I decided that we would take the opportunity to visit Sicily to see my cousins there. I think having a child, coupled with the fact that my parents passed away in the mid-90s and being around my aunts and cousins, made me want to explore my Sicilian background a little deeper. My parents loved music and certainly I'd heard popular Italian music at weddings when I was a kid, but by the time I was playing music in my teens I predictably wanted nothing to do with it. I realized, however, that over the years I’ve performed music from all over the world and yet had avoided the place my parents were from, so the idea started to germinate. I mentioned it to my cousins and they gave me a few folkloric recordings to listen to. When I returned to Canada my brother Roberto let me hear the field recordings that musicologist Alan Lomax [and his Italian associate Diego Carpitella] had made in Sicily in 1954 and I think that was the final piece that made me decide to put the project together.

    How did you decide to approach the Sicilian material, very well known songs like “Viti ‘na crozza” and “Ciuri Ciuri?” Did you have a particular concept in mind guiding your interpretations?
    “Vitti na crozza” and “Ciuri Ciuri” are definitely the two well-known pieces on the recording, but most of the music was obscure and particular to certain towns and types of work, such as “The Sulphur Miner.” With the more obscure music, it was a process of figuring out whether a piece lent itself to reinterpretation, and of course that involved examining the musical elements of each one. With the popular Sicilian songs, it was more about the challenge of taking music that a lot of people have recorded over the years and seeing what could be done to the songs to make them different and surprising, as well as fun for the musicians to improvise over. With “Vitti ‘na crozza,” I simply decided to take the major key chorus and put it into minor, and that gave it more of blues feel, and then I messed around with some African drum patterns and decided to make it into a kind of African blues. “Ciuri Ciuri” was a response to my sister Silvia because she thought I was kidding when I told her I was going to record all Sicilian music. She said, “Yeah right, what are you going to do, ‘Ciuri Ciuri’?”
    With regards to having a concept, in many cases it was about changing the Sicilian elements in the songs to make them better suited to a jazz treatment or just different. For example, so much of the music is in a triplet feel. Think of the tarantella which has a kind of LONG--short LONG--short LONG--short LONG--short rhythm. One of my first concepts was to get rid of that very basic Sicilian musical element and change it to something else. Hence we turn ‘Jolla’ into a 7/4 funk groove.

    As a jazz musician, what appeals to you about this material, Sicilian musica popolare?
    I have pretty eclectic tastes and to me jazz is a very broad category of music, so the appeal was in the variety of music I heard on Alan Lomax's field recordings. Between the  Sicilian dialect and the strong Arabic influence in some of the music, some pieces didn't sound Italian at all to many people I played the recordings for -- they thought it was African -- so I knew we could cross a lot genres, which I like to do. I also thought we could open up people’s ears to sounds that they don’t always identify with Sicily.

    Of the selections on the album do you have any particular favorites?

    I like different pieces for different reasons, but “The Almond Sorters” and “The Sulphur Miner” are a couple of favorites. “The Almond Sorters” largely came about because a great classical music group, The Gryphon Trio, asked me to contribute something to a concert they were doing involving a number of guests, including Maryem Tollar, who sings it [on the album]. She's actually Egyptian, but she sings Sicilian dialect really well. “The Sulphur Miner” is based on an absolutely haunting performance by a sulphur miner, and every time I hear our singer Dominic Mancuso sing it, I still get chills. It is emotionally very powerful and really casts a spell on audiences and it pretty much always gets the strongest response when the final notes dies out.

    Unlike many Italian Americans, whose forbears left Italy 100 years ago and who no longer have any real ties to la madrepatria, you have family in Sicily. How has that connection influenced the SJP?
    Most of the Italians in Toronto came in the 1950s and have retained, at least for one or two generations, some of their dialect, and like me, have stayed connected to the family that remained in Sicily. In my family’s case, we're really close with our first cousins in Modica. For me, it’s an important connection because my own parents have passed on, so the opportunity to be around their siblings and to speak the dialect I learned as a kid makes me feel like I get to tap into a part of myself that I don't get to at home in Toronto. When my parents immigrated in 1952/53, their dialect froze with them, while the language continued to evolve in Sicily. It’s really easy for me to switch from Italian to what is now called “archaic dialect,” and it still puzzles a lot of people there how well Roberto and I know the old way of speaking and how well Dominic Mancuso sings it. Maybe more than anything, a first hand knowledge of dialect and affection for it probably was the strongest attraction to the repertoire of the SJP.

    The SJP has three members of Sicilian background, you, your brother Roberto, and vocalist Dominic Mancuso. For you three, this music is part of your cultural patrimony. But how did the others in the band adapt to it? 
    The other musicians in the group come from really varied backgrounds, not only with regard to their own heritages, which are Portuguese, Hungarian, French/Native Canadian, Egyptian. They also perform many kinds of music -- Cuban, classical, fado, South Indian, funk, etc -- so it’s a pretty adaptable band.  I think that in a multicultural city like Toronto, most modern musicians take it for granted that they'll do gigs and musical projects that jump between cultures. I didn’t feel the need to do too much cultural translation because I didn't start the SJP with the idea of performing authentic Sicilian folk music. Instead, I wanted to re-imagine Sicilian music so that it reflected the place that I grew up in, and for me that meant taking advantage of all of the knowledge the different musicians bring to the project. Having said that, there are some moments in the music when we do try to sound “authentic,” and the musicians are so good and adaptable that when I let them hear the source recordings, they know exactly what they need to do or take instruction really quickly.

    Since the recording was issued, where has the SJP performed?
    The album has had a great reception worldwide and we've been able to tour quite a bit.  When we went to Sicily for the Ragusani prize, Roberto, Dominic and I got to perform an outdoor show in my parents’ city of Modica, as well as in the opera house where our dad used to enter amateur singing contests, so that was probably the most emotional gig. With the full band we did an amazing festival in Zacatecas, Mexico where, even though we were completely unknown, the outdoor concert ended with a mini-parade breaking out and everyone clapping and singing along. Other highlights for me have been the Rochester [New York] and Montreal jazz festivals. I think we're going back to Italy this year and hopefully to Australia next year.

    What kinds of reactions do you get from your audiences – do the Sicilians/Italians experience it differently from non-Italians?

    The vast majority of gigs we've done have been for non-Italians, and it’s very gratifying that at performances like the Zacatecas festival or at the Vancouver Jazz Festival or the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, the audience is always captivated by the music and the stories that go along with the songs, and they relate to it. I describe it as being akin to Cuban or African music, in that people can enjoy the music and absorb the emotion behind it without understanding the words, although I do make a point of telling the story behind most of the songs we play. When we do gigs aimed at the Italian community, or perform in a place like Rochester where there are a lot of Italian-Americans, we get a lot more people connecting to it nostalgically as well as musically. At those shows people come up and start telling their own personal stories and what the music meant to them, and that's really moving.

    Do you listen to contemporary Sicilian music, whether pop stars like Roy Paci and Carmen Consoli, or more folkloric bands like I Lautari?

    When I was gathering material for the recording I checked out a lot of music, both looking for authentic renditions and also looking at how current Sicilian musicians were interpreting folk music, as I was determined to try to be a little different. Yes, I’ve heard Roy Paci, and I actually got a few ideas from listening to a singer named Carlo Muratori, who has a pretty vast knowledge of Sicilian song. Even though he’s not Sicilian, I'd listened to Renzo Arbore quite a bit too, as I like what he does with really familiar songs.

    What do you think of Sicily’s image in the world, and are you consciously trying to say something about that with the SJP?
    The first time I went to Sicily as an adult was in 1992 and I went over with my own naive assumptions about the place.  I figured I’d see my family and then travel north to see all the “cool” Italian stuff that the tour books tell you to go see. I had no idea how beautiful Sicily was, and I was really blown away. At that time, however, the news was dominated by Mafia assassinations [Note: anti-Mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were assassinated in 1992] and even in a peaceful place like Modica there were soldiers guarding some of the buildings, so it was hard not to be aware of Sicily's reputation. In fact, on that trip I realized how many northern Italians had never visited Sicily and when I told them I’d been there they'd say "é brutto, no?" and I’d have to say “no” and tell them that in fact it was one of the most beautiful places we'd visited and that the people were fantastic. I don't know if I've set out to say something about Sicily's image with my project, but I do enjoy telling audiences about its history and the lives of the people they encounter in the songs. I also like to remind audiences that North America isn’t the first multicultural place that’s existed. Arabs, Jews, Christians, Normans, and Spaniards all left their mark in Sicily, and for a few centuries all of those cultures lived alongside each other pretty well.

    You and Roberto were awarded the Ragusani nel Mondo Award in Ragusa, Sicily last year. What is the award, and how did it happen that you and your brother were selected to receive it?
    The Ragusani nel Mondo recognizes achievement in different fields by people who trace their roots to the province of Ragusa. The Sicilian Jazz Project was part of why Roberto and I were selected since it’s my creation and he produced it and plays on it, but the award also recognized that we’ve both had busy careers as individual musicians prior to working on the SJP together. It was a fabulous experience. We took our singer Dominic Mancuso with us, and performed a couple of open air shows plus the award show itself, which was televised worldwide.

    Will the SJP tour this year, and any plans to play US cities?

     I definitely want to tour the band as much as possible as the musicians are not only great players; they are my friends and are really devoted to the project. I’ve been working on some European dates, and I also will be spending three or four months in Sicily later this year researching more folk music and learning more of my own history in Sicily. But I do want to build on the great response we received in Rochester by getting back to the U.S. more often. I'm waiting to hear on some dates in New York City, New England, and California, and if any of your readers want to book us, go for it!

  • Art & Culture

    Roots, Re-Imagined: The Sicilian Jazz Project

    Jazz has been popular in Italy since the 1920s, and the list of Italian American jazz musicians is lengthy, stretching from New Orleans trumpeter Nick La Rocca in the 1900s to saxophonist Joe Lovano, a leading figure in contemporary jazz. But Italian-descended jazz musicians rarely have used Italian musical forms as the basis for improvisation or original compositions. Lovano, on his acclaimed Viva Caruso album, is an exception. Another is the Sicilian-Canadian guitarist and composer Michael Occhipinti.

    Occhipinti, a Toronto native well-known in Canada as the co-leader of the big band NOJO, is the founder and leader of The Sicilian Jazz Project, a band that re-interprets Sicilian folk and popular music. He, his brother Roberto, the band’s bassist, and vocalist Dominic Mancuso are the Sicilian core of the multiethnic ensemble. The SJP’s debut CD was released internationally last year, winning stellar reviews. The magazine All About Jazz called the album “exquisitely memorable.” The Sicilian Jazz Project is an outstanding work -- brilliantly conceived and performed, soulful, exciting, and surprising. I recently interviewed Michael about the origins of the SJP, his approach to traditional Sicilian music, and Sicilian (and Sicilian-Canadian) language and identity.


    What inspired the creation of the Sicilian Jazz Project?

    The Sicilian Jazz Project was inspired by a couple of things. In 2000 I made a CD called Creation Dream -- The Songs of Bruce Cockburn where I reinvented [Canadian singer-songwriter] Bruce Cockburn's songs as jazz pieces. I really enjoyed that process and wanted to do a similar project, but I wasn't sure what to tackle. Then, in early 2004, when my daughter Beatrice was three months old, I had a gig in the Netherlands and my wife and I decided that we would take the opportunity to visit Sicily to see my cousins there. I think having a child, coupled with the fact that my parents passed away in the mid-90s and being around my aunts and cousins, made me want to explore my Sicilian background a little deeper. My parents loved music and certainly I'd heard popular Italian music at weddings when I was a kid, but by the time I was playing music in my teens I predictably wanted nothing to do with it. I realized, however, that over the years I’ve performed music from all over the world and yet had avoided the place my parents were from, so the idea started to germinate. I mentioned it to my cousins and they gave me a few folkloric recordings to listen to. When I returned to Canada my brother Roberto let me hear the field recordings that musicologist Alan Lomax [and his Italian associate Diego Carpitella] had made in Sicily in 1954 and I think that was the final piece that made me decide to put the project together.

    How did you decide to approach the Sicilian material, very well known songs like “Viti ‘na crozza” and “Ciuri Ciuri?” Did you have a particular concept in mind guiding your interpretations?
    “Vitti na crozza” and “Ciuri Ciuri” are definitely the two well-known pieces on the recording, but most of the music was obscure and particular to certain towns and types of work, such as “The Sulphur Miner.” With the more obscure music, it was a process of figuring out whether a piece lent itself to reinterpretation, and of course that involved examining the musical elements of each one. With the popular Sicilian songs, it was more about the challenge of taking music that a lot of people have recorded over the years and seeing what could be done to the songs to make them different and surprising, as well as fun for the musicians to improvise over. With “Vitti ‘na crozza,” I simply decided to take the major key chorus and put it into minor, and that gave it more of blues feel, and then I messed around with some African drum patterns and decided to make it into a kind of African blues. “Ciuri Ciuri” was a response to my sister Silvia because she thought I was kidding when I told her I was going to record all Sicilian music. She said, “Yeah right, what are you going to do, ‘Ciuri Ciuri’?”
    With regards to having a concept, in many cases it was about changing the Sicilian elements in the songs to make them better suited to a jazz treatment or just different. For example, so much of the music is in a triplet feel. Think of the tarantella which has a kind of LONG--short LONG--short LONG--short LONG--short rhythm. One of my first concepts was to get rid of that very basic Sicilian musical element and change it to something else. Hence we turn ‘Jolla’ into a 7/4 funk groove.

    As a jazz musician, what appeals to you about this material, Sicilian musica popolare?
    I have pretty eclectic tastes and to me jazz is a very broad category of music, so the appeal was in the variety of music I heard on Alan Lomax's field recordings. Between the  Sicilian dialect and the strong Arabic influence in some of the music, some pieces didn't sound Italian at all to many people I played the recordings for -- they thought it was African -- so I knew we could cross a lot genres, which I like to do. I also thought we could open up people’s ears to sounds that they don’t always identify with Sicily.

    Of the selections on the album do you have any particular favorites?

    I like different pieces for different reasons, but “The Almond Sorters” and “The Sulphur Miner” are a couple of favorites. “The Almond Sorters” largely came about because a great classical music group, The Gryphon Trio, asked me to contribute something to a concert they were doing involving a number of guests, including Maryem Tollar, who sings it [on the album]. She's actually Egyptian, but she sings Sicilian dialect really well. “The Sulphur Miner” is based on an absolutely haunting performance by a sulphur miner, and every time I hear our singer Dominic Mancuso sing it, I still get chills. It is emotionally very powerful and really casts a spell on audiences and it pretty much always gets the strongest response when the final notes dies out.

    Unlike many Italian Americans, whose forbears left Italy 100 years ago and who no longer have any real ties to la madrepatria, you have family in Sicily. How has that connection influenced the SJP?
    Most of the Italians in Toronto came in the 1950s and have retained, at least for one or two generations, some of their dialect, and like me, have stayed connected to the family that remained in Sicily. In my family’s case, we're really close with our first cousins in Modica. For me, it’s an important connection because my own parents have passed on, so the opportunity to be around their siblings and to speak the dialect I learned as a kid makes me feel like I get to tap into a part of myself that I don't get to at home in Toronto. When my parents immigrated in 1952/53, their dialect froze with them, while the language continued to evolve in Sicily. It’s really easy for me to switch from Italian to what is now called “archaic dialect,” and it still puzzles a lot of people there how well Roberto and I know the old way of speaking and how well Dominic Mancuso sings it. Maybe more than anything, a first hand knowledge of dialect and affection for it probably was the strongest attraction to the repertoire of the SJP.

    The SJP has three members of Sicilian background, you, your brother Roberto, and vocalist Dominic Mancuso. For you three, this music is part of your cultural patrimony. But how did the others in the band adapt to it? 
    The other musicians in the group come from really varied backgrounds, not only with regard to their own heritages, which are Portuguese, Hungarian, French/Native Canadian, Egyptian. They also perform many kinds of music -- Cuban, classical, fado, South Indian, funk, etc -- so it’s a pretty adaptable band.  I think that in a multicultural city like Toronto, most modern musicians take it for granted that they'll do gigs and musical projects that jump between cultures. I didn’t feel the need to do too much cultural translation because I didn't start the SJP with the idea of performing authentic Sicilian folk music. Instead, I wanted to re-imagine Sicilian music so that it reflected the place that I grew up in, and for me that meant taking advantage of all of the knowledge the different musicians bring to the project. Having said that, there are some moments in the music when we do try to sound “authentic,” and the musicians are so good and adaptable that when I let them hear the source recordings, they know exactly what they need to do or take instruction really quickly.

    Since the recording was issued, where has the SJP performed?
    The album has had a great reception worldwide and we've been able to tour quite a bit.  When we went to Sicily for the Ragusani prize, Roberto, Dominic and I got to perform an outdoor show in my parents’ city of Modica, as well as in the opera house where our dad used to enter amateur singing contests, so that was probably the most emotional gig. With the full band we did an amazing festival in Zacatecas, Mexico where, even though we were completely unknown, the outdoor concert ended with a mini-parade breaking out and everyone clapping and singing along. Other highlights for me have been the Rochester [New York] and Montreal jazz festivals. I think we're going back to Italy this year and hopefully to Australia next year.

    What kinds of reactions do you get from your audiences – do the Sicilians/Italians experience it differently from non-Italians?

    The vast majority of gigs we've done have been for non-Italians, and it’s very gratifying that at performances like the Zacatecas festival or at the Vancouver Jazz Festival or the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, the audience is always captivated by the music and the stories that go along with the songs, and they relate to it. I describe it as being akin to Cuban or African music, in that people can enjoy the music and absorb the emotion behind it without understanding the words, although I do make a point of telling the story behind most of the songs we play. When we do gigs aimed at the Italian community, or perform in a place like Rochester where there are a lot of Italian-Americans, we get a lot more people connecting to it nostalgically as well as musically. At those shows people come up and start telling their own personal stories and what the music meant to them, and that's really moving.

    Do you listen to contemporary Sicilian music, whether pop stars like Roy Paci and Carmen Consoli, or more folkloric bands like I Lautari?

    When I was gathering material for the recording I checked out a lot of music, both looking for authentic renditions and also looking at how current Sicilian musicians were interpreting folk music, as I was determined to try to be a little different. Yes, I’ve heard Roy Paci, and I actually got a few ideas from listening to a singer named Carlo Muratori, who has a pretty vast knowledge of Sicilian song. Even though he’s not Sicilian, I'd listened to Renzo Arbore quite a bit too, as I like what he does with really familiar songs.

    What do you think of Sicily’s image in the world, and are you consciously trying to say something about that with the SJP?
    The first time I went to Sicily as an adult was in 1992 and I went over with my own naive assumptions about the place.  I figured I’d see my family and then travel north to see all the “cool” Italian stuff that the tour books tell you to go see. I had no idea how beautiful Sicily was, and I was really blown away. At that time, however, the news was dominated by Mafia assassinations [Note: anti-Mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were assassinated in 1992] and even in a peaceful place like Modica there were soldiers guarding some of the buildings, so it was hard not to be aware of Sicily's reputation. In fact, on that trip I realized how many northern Italians had never visited Sicily and when I told them I’d been there they'd say "é brutto, no?" and I’d have to say “no” and tell them that in fact it was one of the most beautiful places we'd visited and that the people were fantastic. I don't know if I've set out to say something about Sicily's image with my project, but I do enjoy telling audiences about its history and the lives of the people they encounter in the songs. I also like to remind audiences that North America isn’t the first multicultural place that’s existed. Arabs, Jews, Christians, Normans, and Spaniards all left their mark in Sicily, and for a few centuries all of those cultures lived alongside each other pretty well.

    You and Roberto were awarded the Ragusani nel Mondo Award in Ragusa, Sicily last year. What is the award, and how did it happen that you and your brother were selected to receive it?
    The Ragusani nel Mondo recognizes achievement in different fields by people who trace their roots to the province of Ragusa. The Sicilian Jazz Project was part of why Roberto and I were selected since it’s my creation and he produced it and plays on it, but the award also recognized that we’ve both had busy careers as individual musicians prior to working on the SJP together. It was a fabulous experience. We took our singer Dominic Mancuso with us, and performed a couple of open air shows plus the award show itself, which was televised worldwide.

    Will the SJP tour this year, and any plans to play US cities?

     I definitely want to tour the band as much as possible as the musicians are not only great players; they are my friends and are really devoted to the project. I’ve been working on some European dates, and I also will be spending three or four months in Sicily later this year researching more folk music and learning more of my own history in Sicily. But I do want to build on the great response we received in Rochester by getting back to the U.S. more often. I'm waiting to hear on some dates in New York City, New England, and California, and if any of your readers want to book us, go for it!

  • From Eva to Elettra

    The Sicilian singer and songwriter Carmen Consoli has called herself “una piccola cantantessa” (a little girl singer), but now that she’s 35 years old, the self-deprecating diminutive doesn’t fit. Then again, maybe it never did.  Since she released her debut album, “Dueparole,” in 1996, the Catania-based Consoli has been a formidable figure with big ideas and ambitions, and the talent to realize them.

    Italy’s leading female rock artist, Consoli has been gradually building a following in the United States over the past few years, with appearances at showcase venues like Joe’s Pub in Manhattan and rock festivals like South by Southwest. In 2007, she performed at Central Park’s renowned Delacorte Theater, home to the New York Shakespeare Festival.  She performs at the City Winery in Manhattan on January 8. That show is sold out, a sign that Consoli is making inroads in the U.S. market.

    Consoli is a gifted lyricist with a woman-centric viewpoint and a musician equally adept at tender,  introspective ballads and fierce, roiling rockers. With her powerful voice that can go from a breathy purr to a Joplin-esque wail, and her charismatic stage presence, Consoli cuts a compelling figure on recordings and in concert. She also can be alluringly subtle, exuding a slow-burn sensuality that's hard to resist. 

    She’s given reign to the latter side of her musical personality in recent years, releasing, in 2006, “Eva contro Eva,” an album that was a significant departure from her previous work. Instead of electric guitars and rock grooves, there were acoustic guitars, mandolins, violins, accordions, bouzoukis, and even a string quartet. The tempos were slow to medium, and Consoli's vocals were more conversational than declamatory.
     

    The lyric writing was extraordinary; one Italian critic, noting that the songs collectively constituted a portrait of contemporary Sicily, likened “Eva” to “Spoon River Anthology,” Edgar Lee Masters' 1916 prose-poem about inhabitants of a fictional Illinois town.

    The change in direction continues on “Elettra,” Consoli’s latest release.  Like its predecessor, “Elettra” is a concise work, 10 songs in some 40 minutes. It also sounds much like “Eva,” with mainly acoustic instrumentation and stylistic influences drawn from Sicilian musica popolare and other Mediterranean folk music.

    In a recent interview, Consoli said that although “’Eva contro Eva’ is the direction that I want to follow,” the new album is focused more on lyrics than on sonic exploration.  And what’s most on her mind is women’s lives and experience – including their complicated relationships with men – lovers, fathers, and uncles.

    The album’s opening track, “Mandaci una cartolina” was inspired by the sudden death of her father Giuseppe last year. Though there’s obviously deep feeling in the words, there’s also irony; death is likened to an unplanned holiday, a surprise vacation. Consoli wonders, “Of all the days on which you could’ve left why did you think of Monday?”  Then, she asks him to “send us a postcard and a nice photo of you taking the sun on the beach.” 

    There are no warm feelings, ironic or direct, on “Mio Zio.”  The narrator recalls the eponymous uncle, now dead, as a sexual abuser who used to put “his greedy hands between my legs.”  But the niece’s revelation of the abuse brought her only disbelief and scorn. Here the music is more agitated, angrier, reminiscent of “Matilde odiava i gatti,” Consoli’s memorable portrait of explosive female rage from her 2002 album, “L’Eccezione.”

    The album’s title character is not the Elektra of Greek mythology who instigated her brother to matricide; instead she’s a prostitute who, though she practices a trade that subjects her to “indignant gazes,” is moved by genuine emotion and passion; she craves a lover who will “embrace me, in the light of day.”

    Though Consoli has said that words and stories are central to “Elettra,” the music is as sophisticated and captivating as her lyrics.  Backed mostly by members of her excellent touring band, Consoli sings with warmth, subtlety and vivid emotion. On “’A Finestra” her staccato phrasing and earthy timbre recall the great Sicilian folksinger (and Consoli role model) Rosa Balestrieri.  Consoli displays her chops on electric guitar, bouzouki, and bass on “Marie ti amiamo,” co-written with another distinguished catanese, Franco Battiato.  Sung in Arabic, Italian, and French by Consoli, Battiato, and guest vocalist Said Benmenni,  “Marie,” with its allusive lyrics and sensual pan-Mediterranean ambiance, provides some of “Elettra’s” most arresting moments.

    “Col Nome Giusto,” opening with an allusion to Domenico Modguno’s “La Lontananza,” is another high point, a tuneful and entrancingly romantic ballad in which the singer ruminates on love’s confusing contradictions, at the end expressing the certainty that “one day we will call all this by its right name.”

    Cerebral and passionate, tender and angry, inward looking but acutely attuned to social realities, Carmen Consoli’s “Elettra” captures a remarkable artist at a crucial stage in her career. The former “piccola cantantessa” and “bambina impertinente” (another self-chosen moniker) is now mature, but still evolving, rooted in a particular place and culture yet universal in her concerns and, as I like to think, in her appeal.       

    Carmen Consoli performs Friday, January 8, at City Winery in Manhattan. The show is sold out.

     

    “Elettra” is available as an import and from I-Tunes.

    Visit Carmen Consoli at her website

  • Op-Eds

    Personal Choice, Political Act


    I baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.

     

    With these words, accompanied by the pouring of water, Catholic priests baptize infants, initiating them into the Roman Catholic Church.

     

    To undo baptism, to “de-baptize,” is somewhat more complicated. The process, which the Church has given a Latinate mouthful of a name -- “actus formalis defectionis ab Ecclesia catholica” -- requires that individuals submit a form letter to the parish where they were baptized stating their intent to leave the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church considers baptism a sacrament that cannot be cancelled. But the “actus defectionis” letter means that the individual no longer will be affiliated with the Church, in effect de-baptizing him or her.

     

    The letter states, in part, “I hereby reject the teachings, dogma and authority of the Roman Catholic Church and any benefits, so-called sacraments, graces and blessings supposedly bestowed upon me, either in the past or the future. Furthermore, please note that I make these statements personally, consciously and freely.”

     

    In Europe, ex-Catholics increasingly have chosen to de-baptize. The National Secular Society in Great Britain reports that since 2005 more than 100,000 have downloaded the de-baptism letter from the organization’s website. There, and elsewhere in Europe, former Catholics de-baptize largely because they have left the faith. But a small but growing number of Italians are choosing de-baptism not only because they no longer consider themselves believers. They’re taking this dramatic step to protest the political stances and activities of the Catholic Church, as well as the privileges the Italian state grants it.

     

    In 1999, Italian law recognized the de-baptism procedure. Church officials are required to amend their records when baptized persons submit the letter declaring that they are no longer Catholic.  

     

    In France, the strict separation of church and state is enshrined in law. But in Italy, the 1929 Lateran Pacts between the Vatican and Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship guarantee Catholic religious education in public schools, and state funding of the Church itself.

     

    Not only that. In recent years, the Vatican, aided and abetted by politicians of the right and center-left, has flexed its muscles on a number of secular issues, particularly gay rights, abortion, and reproductive technologies such as artificial insemination. What in essence are Catholic policies are imposed on the Italian public, which increasingly rejects them. And although some 90 percent of Italians have been baptized, only about 25-30 percent are regular churchgoers. Yet the Church, and the politicians aligned with it, insists that the Church’s values should be those of Italian society. This, even though Catholicism has not been Italy’s state religion since 1984, followed five years later by a Constitutional Court ruling that secularism is a “supreme principle of the State.”

     

    So in Italy, choosing to be de-baptized is indeed a political act.

    Last October, Italy’s Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics (UAAR) held the first De-Baptism Day. More than 1000 Italians requested de-baptism certificates prior to the event, according to the UAAR. There also were De-Baptism Day demonstrations in 22 Italian cities.

     

    The UAAR, which claims some 3,000 members, argues that the practice of counting all baptized persons as Catholics gives the Church inordinate influence and power, allowing it to claim most Italians as members even though they “joined” as infants, when they hardly could exercise their own free will in the matter. The UAAR has challenged such practices as the installation of crucifixes in public schools and polling places and the allocation of tax money to Catholic charities.

     

    Encouraged by the success of the first De-Baptism Day, the UAAR has organized a second one, for October 25, 2009.

     

    I recently interviewed, via e-mail, two Italians who have gotten de-baptized: Raffaele Lelleri, in 2003, and Francesco Giudice, the following year. Raffaele, a social science researcher who focuses on gay issues, health care, and immigration, and Francesco, an information technology professional, were born and raised in northeastern Italy, between Austria and Slovenia. They moved to Bologna in 1997 and have lived together for the past 11 years. In September 2006, they were married in the city hall of Toronto, Canada. They together answered my questions about de-baptism as both a personal choice and a political act.


    Why did you both decide to be de-baptized?

    We decided to de-baptize for our self-respect, our freedom, and above all, our consciences. Today, in our country, the Catholic Church is a violent and arrogant power center, at war with the aspirations to happiness of many men and women, entirely centered on the defense of its own privileges, more interested in imposing its own ideas -- on same-sex couples, gender, divorce, abortion, euthanasia, assisted fertilization -- than in the actual lives that people live on a daily basis. We absolutely do not want to be complicit with this, not even on a purely formal level.

     

    This is a big deal in such a Catholic country as Italy. What reactions have you experienced?

    Many of our friends also have been de-baptized, especially in the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community. Some did it before us, and we gave the idea to others, so that by now it is rather well known. The word ‘de-baptize’ is now included in recent Italian dictionaries. Our families of origin have reacted in different ways --Raffaele’s with some irritation at the beginning, perhaps because this choice seemed too extreme; Francesco’s was indifferent. Everyone with whom we have discussed it was either neutral or very favorable about our decision.

     

    Being de-baptized isn’t just a personal matter; it has political implications, too. For example the Catholic Church receives tax and other economic benefits based on the numbers of people it can claim as being Catholic, that is, listed in baptismal registries.

    For us, the choice to de-baptize is above all an ethical question. This ethic is something both very private – regarding who we are, and what we believe – and very public, regarding the world we want, in which we can be ourselves. Given the war being waged by the Catholic Church, de-baptism is necessarily also a political act. But the Catholic Church itself proclaims that religious membership has a political connotation. Religion is now ever more political in Italy. Even the so-called devout atheists maintain that it is only the pope who can hold society together and give a future to Italy.

     

    “Devout atheists?”

    “Devout atheist” is an ironic oxymoron that describes people from the worlds of culture and journalism who, although they are declared atheists and have not had actual religious conversions, tend to defend the ideas and the positions of the Catholic Church for political reasons. Kind of like those in the United States who, though not religious themselves, uphold Christian values in opposition to Islam. In today’s Italy, the Catholic Church says that there cannot be ethics without religion. In our lives, with the respect we have for ourselves and for others, we try to show the contrary, every day.

     

    What has been the reaction of the Church to the de-baptism movement?

    At the beginning there wasn’t a single official position, both because the phenomenon was very limited in quantitative terms, and out of the fear of indirectly promoting it. The response was delegated to individual priests. Now the situation is different because there have been various official pronouncements, from both the Italian state and the Vatican state. Notwithstanding the fact that thousands have been de-baptized – though there are no official statistics, which only the Catholic Church could provide -- the strategy of both the Catholic hierarchy, and those that support it, is to not give any importance to this phenomenon. In the newspapers, for example, they give more importance to a single person, preferably a VIP, who re-converts to the religious life, and maybe goes to kiss a reliquary, than to the thousands who are ever more distancing them from the Catholic Church.

     

    You both used to be practicing Catholics. How did you become non-believers who decided to be de-baptized?

    We both were born and grew up in a peripheral part of the country where religion is still today one of the few social resources of local communities. If you wanted to volunteer, or work for a better society, or go camping in the summer with your peers, and maybe find a boyfriend, the only options were Catholic. For many years Raffaele was a member of Catholic Action, and even had a leadership role. In time, though, we came to realize, though with sadness, that we could not believe in an institution that didn’t believe in us.

        

    There are gays and lesbians who say they are Catholic and want to reconcile their sexual identity and their religion. What’s your opinion?

    We don’t want to be like the Catholic Church, which from on high says what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad. Everyone has his or her own path; as long as you don’t harm anyone else, it’s OK. We are firm in our convictions and happy to be anti-clerical. At the same time, we value gay Catholics and we believe that they are doing important work within the Church. We have chosen to change it from outside, they from within. Certainly it’s not easy to be gay and Catholic. If they decide to give up their fight, we would not condemn them. We don’t judge even the very many clergy members who are homosexual. We would like, however, for them to make their voices heard more often, to show that there really aren’t such clear-cut borders between the religious and LGBT communities.   

        

    Do you think the de-baptizing movement has the potential to grow in Italy or will it be a “niche” phenomenon?

    Tough question...it’s very likely that in the coming years the de-baptizing movement will remain more a niche phenomenon than a mass one. This is not a problem, though, because if we stay united, our potential to change things necessarily will grow. We are and will remain a minority, but we must be an active minority. In any case, the secularization of Italian society will continue. It remains to be seen, however, if inertia and apathy will win or if there increasingly will be more people ready to commit themselves to opposing the politics and the privileges of the Catholic Church. We believe that those of us who are de-baptized must speak up more about ourselves because we are not devils or crazed revolutionaries, as they portray us. We are instead some normal people who have some minoritarian ideas and/or identities that risk being wiped out if the Catholic Church were to be all-powerful, as it would like.

     

    It’s often said that although only about one-third of Italian Catholics attend church regularly, the Church and the Vatican still wield considerable power in Italy.

    Without a doubt the Catholic Church – its rites, its resources, its values, its schools, its means of communication, its voluntary groups – is an important part of Italian heritage, above all for the older generation. It really would be very difficult to imagine our country without the Catholic Church. And many thousands of outstanding individuals have contributed to the good of society through Catholic voluntary groups, even if they don’t fully share the church’s politics. Moreover, the fact that that the Vatican geographically is so close to Italy certainly matters. The Pope intervenes very often on the national scene, which he seems to think is his own backyard. Then there are more political issues – for many years being Catholic has meant being anti-communist. This position was very significant under Fascism, during World War II, and after, when the Italian Communist Party was the strongest of any in the West, and in these times. Loyalty to the dictates of the Catholic Church, even to its privileges and its whims, is used by many as a political weapon to discredit adversaries and, unfortunately, too often it even wins elections.

     

    What do you think of the argument that the de-baptizing movement actually is a tribute to baptism because by going to the trouble to get de-baptized you show that you take the sacrament seriously, which “real” atheists wouldn’t do?

    We do not underestimate the importance of baptism: it is like a brand that defines you. But for us, the most important thing is to be anti-clerical; this is our political and public stance, which has to do with our ethics and our morality. Francesco, though, is more agnostic whereas Raffaele is more atheistic; therefore we do not have a single shared opinion on this matter. But in our daily lives we both want to live according to our morality. It’s difficult to go against the current, but you feel satisfaction because you are acting in accord with your principles, with integrity.

     

    For more information about de-baptism and the Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics, visit the UAAR website

  • Art & Culture

    Sicily Rocks 'Bruccolino'



    Roy Paci plays major venues – concert halls, big clubs, festivals – when he tours Italy, Europe, and Latin America.  But the Sicilian singer, trumpeter, and bandleader made his United States debut Sunday, October 11, in the auditorium of a junior high school in Brooklyn.

     

    Paci and his band Aretuska came to the borough – actually, Avenue P, in Bensonhurst -- as part of a weeklong series of events in New York and New Jersey organized by Italy's National Association of Migrant Families (ANFE) for Italian Heritage and Culture Month.  The week’s theme is the fight for legality and the struggle against the Mafia, in Sicily and Italy, with a dedication to Joseph Petrosino, the New York Police Department detective murdered in Palermo in 1909 by the Mafia.

     

    The “Concert for Legality” at the Seth Low Junior High School in Bensonhurst, which also featured Sun, another Sicilian band, will be repeated October 15, 7:30 p.m., at the Felician College University Theater in Lodi, New Jersey.

     

    Whatever the circumstances, the opportunity to catch Paci and Aretuska perform was not one I could miss. I’ve been a fan of Paci for several years, having found his blend of Sicilian musical tradition and global sounds (reggae, ska, R&B, jazz, rock, rap, samba) totally irresistible.  He’s made several terrific albums with Aretuska  (Baciamo le mani, Tuttapposto, Parola d’onore, Suonoglobal, and the compilation, Bestiario Siciliano) as well as Matri Mia, a collaboration with Banda Ionica that takes Italian banda (marching band) music to places it has never been. He’s also collaborated with the French-Spanish rocker Manu Chao and the Malian duo Amadou and Mariam.  

     

     

    I’d heard that Paci and Aretuska kill on stage, and the DVDs I’ve seen of their performances bore that out.  Even so, I was unprepared for just how exciting they were.  Paci and his nine musicians, dressed in black, opened with “Isola dei fessi,” from Suonoglobal, and from the first bars I knew this was going to be a memorable gig. Paci’s drummer Jah Sazzah is one of the few non-Jamaicans I’ve heard who really nails reggae’s characteristic “one-drop” rhythm, and when he and bassist Mike Minerva locked in the groove, the music demanded dancing.

     

    But – and how to put this politely? – much of the audience was not age-appropriate for Paci and Aretuska.  The show, which was free, was more of a community event for the Sicilian Americans of Bensonhurst than a showcase gig for one of Italy’s major pop stars. The anziani enjoyed the opening set by Sun, a Palermo trio (augmented by two additional players) that plays a Sicilianized jazz that sometimes strays into New Age-y territory.  But Paci’s music – hard-driving, funky, and loud – didn’t seem to be the old folks’ tazza di tè.  There even was a rapper! As the set went on, there were more and more empty seats.



     

    The rest of us, though, had a fantastic time.  Paci and Aretuska knocked out tough, tight versions of some of their best numbers – “Viva La Vida;”  “Searchin’ for the Sunshine;” “Yettaboom;” “Malarazza;” “Sicilia Bedda;” “Cantu Siciliano,” their re-make of “Mambo Italiano;” and “Toda Joia, Toda Beleza,” a madly catchy samba that was an international hit in 2007.  And in a nod to Italo-America, they closed with  “Eh Cumpari,” with the manic Paci rushing about the stage to conduct each musician’s playing.

     

    By then, the front of the hall was packed with some very happy fans, all of us dancing our butts off.  It was the response Paci and Aretuska seemed to be craving from us, and they looked very happy to get it. They certainly more than deserved it.  To say that Paci works hard would be an understatement.  From start to finish, he was a whirlwind, playing excellent jazz trumpet, singing with more power and nuance than on the recordings, all the while dancing and even leaping into the air. The members of Aretuska keep up with their hyperkinetic boss, their coordinated moves evoking British “two-tone” ska bands like The Specials and Madness as well as African American soul revues.

     

    I left the show convinced that Roy Paci and Aretuska can find an audience in America. I’d even venture they’re more likely to cross over than some of the other top Italian acts who’ve performed here in recent years, like Jovanotti, Carmen Consoli, Vinicio Capossela, and Avion Travel. You don’t need to know a word of Italian, or have previously heard their music, to enjoy them. The band’s rhythmic power – almost entirely derived from music of the African diaspora – plus their charisma, humor, and energy – make them one of the best live acts I’ve seen in quite a while. Paci may be the pride of Sicily, but his and his band’s appeal transcends boundaries of nationality and culture.

     

    And although it was big fun to catch them in a small, intimate show, they really deserve to be presented in a bigger, high-profile Manhattan venue.  Forse la prossima volta?

     

    On Tuesday, October 13, Paci joined several other Italian musicians for a presentation at New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò.  Mauro Pagani, the veteran Italian rock musician (Premiata Forneria Marconi) who in recent years has led the orchestra at the Notti di Taranta pizzica festival in Puglia, discussed his career and, on violin, played a duet with the New York-based guitarist Marco Cappelli.

     

    Before their performance, Cappelli spoke about his excitement at coming from Italy to play in New York, and his fondness for both Italian American jazz musicians and Jewish-American klezmer music. Sun, as a trio, performed acoustic versions of the two Rosa Balestreri numbers they played in Brooklyn, “Mi votu e mi rivotu” and “Ballata per Peppe Fava.”  Paci, voluble and frequently hilarious – he related how a German newspaper had described him and Aretuska as a band of Sicilian mafiosi – showed three of his videos, including the “What You See is What You Get” sequence from the 2006 film “La Vera Leggenda di Tony Vilar” (The True Legend of Tony Vilar). The film, which stars another southern Italian musician, Calabria's Peppe Voltarelli, will be screened Tuesday November 10, 2009 at Casa Italiana.

     


  • Art & Culture

    Passion and Politics

    Vincere

    Directed by Marco Bellocchio

    Written by Marco Bellocchio and Daniela Ceselli

    Marco Bellocchio has titled his new film “Vincere” (“To Win”), but the veteran director could just as well have named it after a classic Italian social satire from the 1960s, Pietro Germi’s “Seduced and Abandoned.” Bellocchio recounts a little-known piece of Italian history, the relationship between the young, pre-Duce Benito Mussolini and Ida Dalser, an early admirer whom the future dictator probably married, and definitely impregnated and
    then discarded. Mussolini’s treatment of Dalser parallels his seduction, brutalization, and betrayal of Italy and its people who, like Dalser, all too eagerly succumbed to his toxic allure.
     

    Bellocchio’s film draws on the historical record while taking imaginative leaps from it. But “Vincere” also investigates how history is recorded and transmitted, and how those who control words and images secure ideological and political hegemony, or, as Noam Chomsky would put it, “manufacture consent” to the dominant order. 

    If that all sounds rather dry and abstract, the film decidedly is not. “Vincere” is full of ideas, but it also pulses with operatic passion, and, atypically for Bellocchio, unabashedly embraces melodrama. The iconoclastic director, who made his debut in 1965 with “Fist in the Pockets,” has created some of his best work in the past ten years – “My Mother’s Smile” (2002), a satire of religious hypocrisy that outraged the Vatican, “Good Morning, Night” (2003), an account of the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades, and the surreal comedy “The Wedding Director” (2007). But “Vincere” may well be Bellocchio’s masterpiece.

    The film begins in Milan in 1907, when Benito Mussolini was a Socialist militant and newspaper editor. At a public meeting, Mussolini attempts to prove to the crowd that God does not exist by challenging the deity to strike him dead. When this does not occur, Mussolini claims victory. Among those impressed by this jejune stunt is Ida Dalser, young, beautiful, and bourgeois. She is stirred by Mussolini’s fiery rhetoric and, like so many Italians in subsequent years, erotically entranced as well. During their first sexual encounter, the camera fixes on Dalser’s face as she climaxes, her expression not only ecstatic but also astonished, as if she can hardly believe this man’s sexual potency and its effect on her.

    Dalser’s passion for Mussolini is so overwhelming that when he is expelled from the editorship of the Socialist Party newspaper because of his support for the European war breaking out in 1914, she sells her possessions to provide the start-up capital for his own newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia.  She also bears Mussolini a son, whom she names Benito, and the two are married. (The film accepts Dalser’s claim to have wedded Mussolini, although it acknowledges at its conclusion that no record of their nuptials has ever been found.)

    But Dalser soon discovers that her husband actually is married to another woman, Rachele Guidi. The two women meet in a field hospital where their husband, now a soldier wounded in battle, is recuperating. Each is outraged by what they assume is the other’s imposture, and they strike each other. Witnessing their clash is no less a figure than King Vittorio Emanuele III, whose visit to Mussolini’s bedside is more an acknowledgment of Mussolini’s rising political stature than an errand of mercy.

    The scene depicting the meeting of monarch, future dictator, and the two women is one example of the film’s inspired representation of historical events. Although Vittorio Emanuele indeed did meet with Mussolini and his two wives, he did so on separate occasions; there was no single encounter at which all four were present. Bellocchio’s departure from the historical record, however, synthesizes key motifs in one dramatically powerful scene: Mussolini’s betrayal of Dalser, and his reconciliation with the conservative social order he once despised and opposed -- another kind of betrayal, that of the Socialist movement and its hopes for peace and progress. 

    From here on, Ida has no further contact with Mussolini. She’s allowed to live with a relative under what amounts to house arrest. But she’s hardly the meek, submissive type and she refuses to be shunted aside. She instead fights to have her marriage and her son’s legitimacy recognized by Church and State. For her, it’s a simple matter of justice and human decency. She obsessively writes letters to the Pope, the King, and Mussolini himself decrying the injustice done to her and her son. Even when warned that her persistence will only result in her losing custody of the boy, she continues the letter writing until she is sent off to an insane asylum. A Fascist official eventually takes custody of young Benito and he is sent to a boarding school where he is known as Benito Dalser, his true paternity denied.

    Even in the asylum, where she is confined with other “mad” women, she refuses to relent. She keeps writing her letters, flinging them through the bars of the madhouse. The years pass; Mussolini makes peace with the Catholic Church, consolidates his regime, and leads Italy into a calamitous war. Ida is transferred to another institution, still intransigent in her refusal to accept the reality of her situation. A sympathetic  psychiatrist tells her that she’s courting doom with her behavior. He knows she’s not mentally ill. But she should give up her futile rebellion, in order to survive. In these times we have to be good actors, he says, advising her to perform the role of a “good Fascist woman” who knows that “her place is in the home.” Fascism will not last forever, and there will again come a time when one can speak and act freely.

    Ida listens and seems to acquiesce, but nothing can deter her. Even when asylum officials are prepared to release her, she chooses continued confinement rather than accept the condition of her freedom – acknowledging Mussolini’s marriage to Guidi and ceasing her protests. 

    Bellocchio brilliantly dramatizes Dalser’s tragic story, imbuing it with pathos and outrage. But “Vincere” is much more than a historical epic about a wronged woman. After Ida is cast aside, she encounters Mussolini only through his media images, in newsreels, propaganda films, and newspaper headlines. Bellocchio juxtaposes the mediated reality depicted in the archival footage and the images he has constructed of Dalser, Mussolini, Vittorio Emanuele and other historical figures, creating a visually fascinating and thematically rich dialectic.

    Throughout “Vincere,” Bellocchio examines the power of images to heighten and shape reality. Newsreels glorify war as a form of “hygiene” for the Italian nation. In a propaganda film, Mussolini rants about Italy re-establishing its ancient imperial glory through conquest as crowds of adoring Italians cheer him on. To depict the reconciliation of ecclesiastic and Fascist state power, Bellocchio includes a film clip of Mussolini and the Pope at the 1929 signing of the Lateran Pact. After the psychiatrist counsels Ida to pretend to be a “good Fascist woman,” newsreel images appear of Italian mothers performing that very role as they nurse their infants, the camera moving from one breast-feeding woman to another to create an assembly line of lactation.   

    But Bellocchio also acknowledges that the manipulation of images can serve less sinister ends. Ida, watching Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Kid,” reacts with shock and grief when the Little Tramp is separated from his son. Then, when they are reunited, she sheds tears of joyful relief. She cannot be reunited with her own son, but the Chaplin movie provides a kind of catharsis for her.

    As cinematic art, “Vincere” is a marvel; to call the filmmaking “bravura” would be accurate but inadequate to describe what Bellocchio, and his cinematographer Daniele Ciprí, have accomplished. The Sicilian Ciprí, with his compatriot and collaborator Franco Maresco, has directed a number of irreverent feature films that have provoked outrage in their homeland. But even Ciprí’s harshest critics will have to applaud his work in “Vincere.” Out of varied and potentially clashing elements – documentary realism, heightened poetic realism, Eisensteinian montage and tropes of Futurism, the aesthetic movement that welcomed Mussolini – Ciprí has crafted a coherent and captivating visual style for the film.     

    “Vincere” boasts an extraordinary performance from Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Ida Dalser. A leading film star in Italy, Mezzogiorno powerfully, but without grandstanding, registers Dalser’s single-mindedness, strength, and (at times ill-advised) courage. As her plight worsens, she becomes a kind of instinctive anti-Fascist, rebelling against a regime determined to crush her. She fully earns our sympathy, even when we, like the kindly psychiatrist, feel that she’s being self-destructive. Filippo Timi, as the young Mussolini, exudes arrogance, violent megalomania, and sexual charisma.

    But why this story, and why now? Bellocchio has said that he was moved by Ida Dalser’s tragedy and, as he researched it, saw it as historically significant and worthy of cinematic reconstruction. He has denied any larger political or ideological intent. But “Vincere,” with its depiction of a ruthless, demagogic leader who used mass media to affirm his regime and manipulate the public, invites comparisons, intended or not, to another libidinous Italian politician-propagandist who is very much with us. 

  • Life & People

    The Beat Goes on




    It’s amazing that the pizzica, a centuries-old folk music from an obscure part of southern Italy, not only has survived but now thrives, as both a living tradition and as a foundation for some exciting and forward-looking new music. 

     

    The pizzica (also known as pizzica pizzica and pizzica taranta) originally was the music of tarantismo, a cultural phenomenon that emerged in the southern Salento peninsula of the Puglia region. Music and dance were employed in a symbolic ritual to cure peasants, mainly women, of illnesses purportedly caused by the poisonous bite of the tarantula.  The afflicted would dance, to the point of collapsing, to the frenetic rhythms of the pizzica songs (usually in straight or accented 6/8 time) played by a small group that included tamburello (large tambourine), violin, chitarra battente (a large four- or five-string southern Italian guitar), and organetto (a type of accordion). 

     

    The spider’s bite, however, was a metaphor for other conditions, such as grief, depression, and sexual frustration. Dancing the pizzica was a culturally-sanctioned and collective way for poor, politically disenfranchised peasants to act out and exorcise individual psychological conflicts. 

     

    Nandu Popu of Sud Sound System, a band that mixes traditional Salentine styles with reggae and rap, has called pizzica “the music of our grandparents, who were slaves of the aristocrats.” 

     

    Tarantismo has pretty much died out, albeit relatively recently; psychotherapy has taken its place. The pizzica “has acquired a new function, that is, to represent the cultural identity of Salento,” according to ethnomusicologist Tullia Magrini.  But not only Salento: the pizzica long ago spread to other parts of Puglia, mixing with various local idioms. The tarantella, the “spider’s dance” common throughout southern Italy and Sicily, developed from the pizzica taranta.

     

    Today there are musicians who specialize in traditional repertoire and performing styles (Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, Uccio Aloisi Gruppu, Tarantolati di Tricarico), those that perform new material in traditional styles (Officina Zoe, Aramirè), and others that fuse pizzica with global sounds, mainly reggae and dub, rock, rap, and techno (Nidi D’Arac, Sud Sound System, Ammaracicappa). Since 1997, pizzica has been the drawing card at La Notte Della Taranta, an annual event held in the Salento town of Melpignano that has become one of Europe’s major music festivals.

               

    In 2000, the Neapolitan singer-songwriter Eugenio Bennato founded Taranta Power to promote the pizzica and other southern Italian music, through concerts, recordings, and music education initiatives. The Taranta Power project, says Bennato, aims to counter “the unfortunate backward image that the tarantella has assumed in the world’s collective imaginary, conveyed by lame folkloric groups and by banal musical expression totally divorced from the raging reality of the taranta ritual.”

     

    Bennato hails Rione Junno, a new sextet made up of young musicians from Monte Sant’Angelo, a city in Puglia (but not Salento), as exemplars of the Taranta Power ethos. Eschewing “backward-looking folklorism,” they instead are “part of an alternative and contemporary wave in ethnic music…one of the most outstanding representatives of the new music rooted in tradition but looking toward the future.”

               

    TarantBeatProject, their first album, for the most part justifies Bennato’s praise. As the title suggests, the rhythms of pizzica are the main focus. The band uses traditional instruments -- chitarra battente, tamburello, and zampogna, southern Italian bagpipes -- but also electric bass and programmed beats. Recorded in Naples, the album’s chief auteur is Vinci Acunto, of the Neapolitan rock band Bisca, who produced, arranged, and mixed TarantaBeatProject, as well as programming the electronics on every track.

               

    Rione Junno – named after Monte Sant’Angelo’s Junno neighborhood, the city’s ancient historic center – don’t have a charismatic frontman like Nidi D’Arac’s Alessandro Coppola or virtuosic instrumentalists. With no one personality dominating the band, the ensemble sound – lean and beat-y, rooted in tradition but definitely non-folkloric -- is the thing.

               

    A roster of guests joins the core band on most tracks. Sha-One from the Neapolitan rap group La Famiglia shows up for “23 Marzo,” which recounts the violent police repression of a 1950 workers’ demonstration. Guitarist Elio “100 Grammi” joins his Bisca bandmate Vinci Acunto on several selections.

               

    Eugenio Bennato’s on board, too, singing lead on “Sponda Sud,” one of his recent songs about “zingari ed emigranti” (gypsies and emigrants) traversing the seas of the global South. Several African vocalists who’ve worked with Bennato, and other Italian artists -- Mohammed el Alaoui, Assane Diop, Samir Toukour, and Zaina Chabane – augment the band’s singers, who favor the plaintive monody typical of much southern Italian folk and folk-derived music.

               

    Rione Junno’s first record is a bit thin – nine tracks, plus three re-mixes. The group’s identity doesn’t quite seem fully formed.  But if the band isn’t yet as commanding as Nidi D’Arac, whose brilliance was evident on their first recordings, Rione Junno is nonetheless a promising new addition to Puglia’s rich musical scene.

               

    I like to think of Mimmo Epifani, a terrific musician from San Vito dei Normanni in Salento, as the Yomo Toro of Italian roots music. They’re both masters of plucked string instruments associated with traditional music: Toro plays the cuatro, a type of Puerto Rican lute, Epifani, the mandolin and mandola. Like Toro, a stalwart of so many classic Fania salsa records of the 1970s as well as a solo artist, Epifani is rooted in folk tradition yet hardly limited to it. The Puertoriqueño and the Italiano are both virtuosos and bold improvisers.            

               

    Epifani has collaborated with some top Italian musicians -- Roberto de Simone, the esteemed musicologist and founder of La Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare, vocalist Massimo Ranieri, Eugenio Bennato, Avion Travel, jazz pianist Danilo Rea, and Tuscan rocker Piero Pelu. He released his first album as a leader, Marannui (Forrest Hill Records), in 2004. A wide-ranging but cohesive mix of pizzica and other styles (there was even a jazz ballad), Marannui ranks as one of the best Italian recordings of the past decade.

               

    There was a good story to go with it, too. Mimmo called his band the Epifani Barbers because he’d learned to play mandolin and mandola in a barbershop owned by Costantino Vita, a musician well versed in traditional Salentine music. Vita, along with Peppu D’Augusta, who led several pizzica groups, schooled the young Mimmo in pizzica and other local styles. Following his apprenticeship under Vita and D’Augusta, Epifani studied mandolin at the Padua Conservatory.

               

    His new record, Zucchini Flowers, continues Marannui’s blend of tradition and innovation, but it’s even more adventurous. Produced by Fausto Mesolella, the guitar wizard of Avion Travel, the album’s 12 tracks give Epifani plenty of space to display his remarkable technique on mandolin, mandola, mandoloncello, and guitar. His instrumental versions of Domenico Modugno’s “La Donna Riccia” and “Lusingame,” a fine if lesser-known canzone napoletana by Nino Taranto, are dazzling but not show-offy; Epifani’s embellishments serve, and enhance, the songs.

               

    Epifani sounds even more self-confident as a leader than he did on his debut. On Marannui he shared vocal duties with several singers. He handles most of the leads on Zucchini Flowers, and his singing is as distinctive as his playing – a big, earthy voice with a pronounced vibrato. Sometimes his vocals have a bleating quality that sounds Balkan, not surprising given the longstanding Greek influence in southern Puglia and the region’s proximity to Albania.  Listeners used to smoother and less rustic Italian vocal styles may be in for a shock. But to me his vocal attack is as bracing as a glass of good primitivo, Puglia’s best-known grape.

               

    He shares vocals with flautist Giorgia Santoro on “La Pizzica delle Fate,” an a capella number that’s the album’s most unusual track. “Fate” is Italian for “fairies,” and Santoro’s breathy lead sounds like it’s emanating from some ethereal being. When Epifani leaps in, the piece becomes something else altogether – an encounter between the otherworldly and the material world, the latter incarnated in Epifani’s gritty voice.

               

    “Cucuzza e acqua,” “Lu Sittaturu” and “Garbato e Saporito” should make his teachers Vita and D’Augusta proud of their former pupil– they’re pizziche that demonstrate Epifani’s mastery of the traditional form and his gift for making the ancient idiom sound absolutely up to the minute. “Lu Sittaturu” starts off slow and mournful before exploding into an up-tempo rave up, Epifani playing and singing like a man possessed. “The raging reality of the taranta ritual” that Eugenio Bennato misses in lesser artists’ work is fully present here.

               

    Sud Sound System’s Nandu Popu, noting that the pizzica was born out of poverty and oppression, has expressed the hope that “we will come to sing fewer songs of suffering and more hymns of freedom.”  There’s not much that’s hymn-like in Mimmo Epifani’s zesty music, but there’s definitely the sound of freedom, and a lot more.                                  

     

    This article originally appeared at 

    Rootsworld

    , the online magazine of “the music of the world.”         

     

     

     

    Zucchini Flowers

    Mimmo Epifani

    Finisterre

     

    Taranta Beat Project

    Rione Junno

    Rai Trade/CNI




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  • Op-Eds

    Beware the Boomerang

    Bigots, whether as individuals or as political actors, tend to hate immigrants and queers. They see the former – especially if racially different -- as invaders bringing contagion, whether symbolic, in the sense of “inferior” foreign cultures, or literal, i.e., infectious disease. Sexual minorities are seen as an internal menace, a moral infection that undermines “traditional” values and social structures. Check the political platform of any right-wing political party or formation and you’ll see the “gemellaggio” – twinning— of homophobia and nativism.

    This equation doesn’t always hold. Two (deceased) politicos, Jorg Haider of Austria and the Netherlands’ Pim Fortuyn, were gay men who led right-wing, anti-immigrant political parties. And members of racial, ethnic and religious minorities certainly can be homophobic. African Americans in California supported Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage ballot initiative, and in

    Europe, Muslim groups that denounce “Islamophobia” often are vociferously anti-gay.

     But in general, the proposition, scratch a racist and find a homophobe (and vice versa), is pretty reliable, especially in politics.

    In Italy, anti-racist and gay activists are now approaching these issues as one. Last month, ARCI  -- Associazione Ricreativa e Culturale Italiana, a national association of social and cultural groups formed in 1957 under the auspices of the Italian Communist Party -- launched its campaign, “Racism is a Boomerang,” with a press conference at the Italian parliament.

    “Racism, and the many ways in which it is manifested, represent a danger not only for those who experience its consequences, but also for democracy, because only by defending the rights of all is it possbile to guarantee the rights of everyone,” stated the ARCI press release.

    “This is why we call it a boomerang, whose dramatic effects are destined sooner or later to strike also those who promote and practice it.”

    A poster from the campaign illustrates the theme. It features a photo of a bald black man and a grey-haired woman, looking directly at the viewer. The text between them states, “You call us dirty nigger and disgusting lesbian. But  you’re offended if someone calls you an Italian mafioso.” The tagline reads, “Racism is a boomerang. Sooner or later it comes back to you.”

    The man and woman in the ad aren’t just any black man or lesbian. They are Jean- Léonard Touadi, the African-born and only black member of the Italian parliament, elected from the Italia dei valori (Italy of Values) party, and Anna Paola Concia, a lesbian activist elected last year from the Partito democratico (Democratic Party).

    The ARCI campaign, by linking two distinct forms of prejudice, might seem simplistic.Though both are common to the political Right, racism and homophobia have different social and psychological roots, and they manifest themsleves in different ways. But in an Italian context, the link makes sense. The term “razzismo” is often used in Italy to describe not only racial prejudice but other kinds of bigotry and discrimination – against gays, women, Sicilians and other southern Italians. More specific terminology, like “omofobico” (homophobic) and “sessista” (sexist) may be used, but in my experience, far less often than “razzista.”

    To non-Italians, the comparison between racial and anti-gay prejudice and the stereotyping of Italians as mafiosi might seem a stretch. But for many Italians, the enduring association of their nationality with organized crime definitely rankles, and for them constitutes a form of “razzismo.”   

    ARCI says that the “Boomerang” posters will appear all over Italy. I’ve read media accounts and have received reports from friends in Rome who have seen the posters there, including near the Termini transportation hub. The neighborhoods near Termini have high concentrations of both immigrants and gays. But the broader visibility that would come from the posters appearing nationwide, and in such critical venues as schools and other public institutions, seems unlikely in today’s Italy, governed by the anti-immigrant, racist, and anti-gay Right.

    Still, I can only commend ARCI for trying to raise consciousness about racism and homophobia, which, though different forms of intolerance, are both toxic, for their victims and for a democratic society.

    Arcigay, Italy’s national gay rights organization affiliated with ARCI, has issued a new report, “La Montagna e La Catena - Essere Migranti Omosessuali Oggi In Italia” (The Mountain and the Chain: Being Gay Immigrants in Today’s Italy). The 41-page document draws its conclusions mainly from interviews conducted with gay and lesbian immigrants in Italy. The findings are organized around 12 themes, which include the immigrants’ experience of being gay in their countries of origin and in Italy, their relations with their communities of origin, their participation in Italian gay life, their access to health and social services, and their experiences of being in same-sex relationships with native Italians. 

    The report noted that public and non-governmental services for immigrants, a new phenomenon in Italy, aren’t responsive to the needs of non-heterosexual newcomers, and that the information, counseling, and support services provided by Italian gay organizations often presume a “Western” model of sexual identity that non-Western immigrants might not accept.

    Some respondents said that although they felt there was a “double stigma” attached to being both foreign and gay in Italy, the former condition presented more problems because racial and ethnic difference is more difficult to hide than sexual identity. For these immigrants, it’s easier to be gay in Italy than in their countries of origin. An Iranian man told the Arcigay researchers, “I come from a country where I cannot exist…here at least I’m not afraid to live.”

    But a Peruvian, when asked which people had more difficulty accepting homosexuality, Italians or his co-nationals, replied, “The Italians,” because of “the Pope” and their purported greater adherence to Church teachings. “We Peruvians are Catholic, too,” he said. “But we understand. We understand.”

  • Dining in & out: Articles & Reviews

    Setaro, Ti Amo


    We were driving from Napoli to eat pizza in Vico Equense when I saw the highway sign: Torre Annunziata.


    For me, the sign signified one thing only: Setaro pasta. When I said as much to Dario and Enzo, our hosts during our stay in Napoli, they laughed. Dario, in the passenger’s seat, turned around and gave me a surprised look. But how do you know about Setaro? he wondered. Do you have it in America?

    Certo! I replied. Rob, my partner, added that not only is Setaro available in New York, but that I hardly ever use any other brand.


    It’s true. I love Setaro. I’m pazzo for it. Joe Sciorra wrote about his passion for figs in one of his I-Italy blogs. I’m as wild about the farinaceous creations of Torre Annunziata’s premier pastificio as Joe is about il fico.


    I get my Setaro at Buonitalia, the great shop in Manhattan’s Chelsea Market owned and operated by Mimmo Magliulo and his wife Tonia. As far as I know, Buonitalia is the only outlet in New York where you can purchase it. Sometimes I think Mimmo ought to pay me a little stipend, or even better, reward me with bags of Setaro, for all the sales I’ve made for him.


    In Buonitalia, packages of Setaro pasta are arrayed in open boxes along one wall of the store. On numerous occasions I’ve seen customers pick up a bag or two, examine it, and ponder whether to buy. This is where I step in. It’s the best pasta you’ll ever find, I say. “You use it?” they typically reply. Nothing else, I say. There usually follows a discussion of why I prefer Setaro to all other brands. They’re usually convinced by now. The remaining hurdle is the price – about $7 a bag.  But, as I point out, those bags contain about two pounds (there are smaller, 17.1 ounce packages, too) and besides, you can’t argue with quality.


    Sold!


    So what makes Setaro so good?


    Pastificio Fratelli Setaro, like so many Italian businesses, is a family concern, founded by Nunziato Setaro in 1939. Nunziato’s son Vincenzo runs the company today. Setaro produces pasta artigianale (artisanal pasta) using traditional techniques and production methods that most industrial pasta producers have abandoned. The Setaro product is made only from hard durum wheat flour (semolina) and water from near Mt. Vesuvius. The pasta is extruded through bronze dyes (trafile in bronzo) and then allowed to slowly air-dry at low temperatures. The use of bronze extruders, rather than the Teflon ones used by many industrial pastifici, produces a rougher surface that makes for an especially toothsome pasta that “holds” whatever sauce you use. It cooks up perfectly al dente, and is so flavorful that, even when dressed with the simplest sauces, like aglio olio, it’s great.


    I wouldn’t think of making pasta chi sarde with any other bucatini. When I make a rich meat ragu, I use Setaro’s rigatoni or paccheri. For pasta alla matriciana, the spaghetti alla chitarra.  For a simple sauce with ciliegini (cherry tomatoes), garlic and herbs, my favorite anti-clerical pasta, strozzapreti (priest-chokers). For a seafood sauce, the calamarata (shaped like calamari rings), linguini, or spaghetti.  


    The penne rigate al nero, made with black cuttlefish (seppia) ink, is a particular favorite when it comes to seafood pasta dishes. So, let me conclude with my recipe for pasta al pesce spada (swordfish) made with Setaro’s black, ridged penne. A caveat: this recipe is more of a guideline to preparing the dish than a formula. So feel free to vary ingredients and their amounts as you like.


    Penne al pesce spada di Zi’ Giorgio



    One-half to 3/4 pound fresh swordfish, cut into small chunks

    2-3 cups canned San Marzano tomatoes, chopped, or the equivalent in cherry tomatoes, halved

    2-3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley or basil, or both; or 1 teaspoon dried oregano and 2 tablespoons parsley

    Whole garlic, 1-2 cloves, to taste

    2 tablespoons chopped green Sicilian olives and 2 tablespoons chopped Pantelleria capers rinsed of their salt,

    OR 2 tablespoons chopped Gaeta olives, no capers

    4-6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

    Salt and pepper to taste

    1 lb Setaro penne rigate al nero (black penne)


    Put a large pot of salted water on to boil. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, sauté garlic in olive oil until lightly browned, pressing it into the oil, and discard. (If you like your sauce piccante, you can add some hot red pepper to the oil.) Add chopped swordfish and sauté. When the fish is lightly cooked, add the tomatoes. Stir, mashing the fish into the tomatoes until they are blended. Add herbs, salt and pepper. Stir together and let simmer 10-15 minutes. (NOTE: If you’re using capers and olives, go easy on the salt.) Add capers and olives, stir, and let cook another five minutes.


    Cook the pasta (about 11 minutes), and, when a little more than al dente, drain and add it to the pan with the sauce. Re-heat the sauce. If the pasta and sauce mixture is too dry, add some of the pasta water. Stir until sauce and pasta are blended, about 1-2 minutes. (This method is called in padella.) Serve, garnished with extra chopped parsley – and no cheese!


    Buon appetito!

    Visit Pastificio Fratelli Setaro online

  • Op-Eds

    Stonewall at 40


    Forty years ago, over the course of a late June weekend in New York’s Greenwich Village, history was made by people who were not supposed to have a history, or even a social presence. The young homosexual men, some of them cross-dressers, who violently resisted a police raid on the bar known as the Stonewall Inn, counted for little in the opinion of respectable society. They were regarded at best as pathetic deviants needing Jesus and/or psychiatry, at worst as dangerous perverts to be kept in line by cops and the courts.   

     

    Homosexual men and women were supposed to remain on the margins of society, silent and invisible. But when the patrons of the Stonewall Inn resisted yet another of the bar raids that were a depressingly commonplace fact of gay life, they refused silence and invisibility.  


    The event now known by the shorthand “Stonewall” was not the first time American homosexuals fought back. (The new and very good Off-Broadway play “The Temperamentals” depicts the founding of the first gay rights organization, the Mattachine Society, during the early 1950s.) But Stonewall was a watershed because it inaugurated a new era of political militancy and community building. “Out of the closets and into the streets!” “Gay Power!” “Gay is Good!” – the new era’s slogans signaled a sea change in the way gay people saw themselves and their place in the world.


    What the Stonewall rebels did, though they hardly were aware of it at the time, was to begin to re-write the social contract between the heterosexual majority and the homosexual, and gender-variant, minority, a project that continues today. The political battles for sexual freedom, for anti-discrimination legislation, for partner recognition laws and now same-sex marriage, all have their roots in the Stonewall rebellion.


    The “Pride” parades that now take place across the United States and even internationally also owe their existence to Stonewall. The first American gay pride march was held in New York City in 1970, one year after Stonewall.


    Today the New York parade is a massive event that attracts a million-plus participants and spectators. It receives support from government and businesses, including major corporations, and the media cover it much the same way they report New York’s various ethnic parades – as an exuberant, colorful celebration.


    But the city’s first such event was a march – a political event that mixed protest and celebration – and its leaders and participants mainly were countercultural, New Leftist radicals. And instead of commanding all of Fifth Avenue from midtown to Greenwich Village, as has been the case now for many years, the marchers were restricted to one traffic lane on Sixth Avenue.


    If the Stonewall Rebellion is the watershed event of the modern gay liberation/gay rights/LGBT movement, it also has a place in Italian American history. But it’s not a history likely to generate much in the way of pride. The Stonewall Inn was owned and run by Italian American gangsters, who were not, to use today’s parlance, especially “gay-friendly.”  Under their management, the Stonewall was a shabby dive that served its patrons overpriced, watered-down drinks and a lot of condescending to outright nasty attitude.


    Mobsters thrived on illicit enterprises such as gambling and prostitution, so it’s not surprising that, in the pre-liberation days, they owned gay bars and bathhouses. Nick Tosches, in his biography of Dean Martin, Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, reported that mobster Vito Genovese, “the most violent, most grasping, and most treacherous of his breed,” owned drag queen bars and was married to a lesbian.


    In its coverage of the rebellion, the Village Voice interviewed the Stonewall managers, all of whom, according to the reporter, offered variations on a theme: "We are just honest businessmen who are being harassed by the police because we cater to homosexuals, and because our names are Italian so they think we are part of something bigger."


    David Carter, in his 2004 book, Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, revealed that the Stonewall was owned by “Fat” Tony Lauria, a gangster whose father was also a mob figure. 


    But the intertwining of gay and Italian American histories hardly is limited to the Mafia’s control of gay bars and bathhouses. Historian George Chauncey, in his groundbreaking 1994 book, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, unearthed a thriving homosexual subculture among Italian immigrants in New York City.


     “Fairies,” the prevailing designation for homosexuals whose effeminacy was a public declaration of their orientation, constituted a colorful thread in the social fabric of Italian immigrant communities.  Chauncey noted that Italian sections of Manhattan’s Lower East Side had numerous saloons where fairies congregated.


    These “obvious” homosexuals generally sought sex partners not among their own ranks but among butch same-sexers, and heterosexual men. Italian men interacted with “fairies” more readily than did Jewish immigrants, and were more likely to respond to their sexual advances.  A 1921 study of men arrested for homosexual behavior stated that “the Italians lead” in the number of arrests. “At a time when the numbers of Italians and Jews in New York were roughly equal, almost twice as many Italians were arrested on homosexual charges,” Chauncey observed. “More significant is that turn-of-the-century investigators found a more institutionalized fairy subculture in Italian neighborhoods than in Jewish ones.”



    ****

    For my partner Rob and I, “Pride Weekend” means celebrating not only Stonewall and its legacy, but also Rob’s birthday and our anniversary. We began our relationship 28 years ago, on June 27, 1981, and every year since, the last weekend of June has been our own triple-header holiday.  As we stood outside Madison Park on Fifth Avenue watching this year’s parade go by, our friend Miguel reminded us about the event the three of us had attended nine years earlier, in Rome.    


    World Pride Roma 2000 brought hundreds of thousands of Italian and foreign same-sexers and transgenders into the streets of the Eternal City, along with a surprising number of supportive eterosessuali. Though the Vatican and its political allies – mainly but not solely right-wingers – strenuously tried to prevent World Pride Roma from occurring, it was a great success, a much-needed morale booster for Italy’s small and weak gay movement. When Rob, Miguel, and I met up with Salvo, a friend of ours from Sicily, he told us, with tears in his eyes, “You have no idea what this means to us.”


    Nine years later, Italy’s movement is more assertive and better organized; it has a somewhat higher profile in Italian society and has helped change public opinion to a more favorable view of same-sexers. But in terms of anti-discrimination law and same-sex partner rights, Italy lags far behind other Western European nations. Compared to France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavia, Italy is stuck in the 1950s. More distressingly, violent homophobic rhetoric and actual physical violence against gays, lesbians, and transgenders is all too common.


    Italy still awaits its Stonewall.  

       

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