Monday, July 14, 2008

Italy in the Key of Si

As we have been writing for years, the Italian experience is an incredibly powerful and multifaceted one. It is simply impossible to identify one single experience or image that completely sums up this country – the food, the warm, friendly people, the art, its history as a worldwide empire and as a leader in a political, artistic and cultural renaissance that transformed the western world, Italian design and style, the passion of its artisans. When we set out to design a logo for our Italian import company
, Bella Italia, we found it impossible to find a single image that captured the many facets of the Italian experience. If you use a hodgepodge of architectural icons – the coliseum, the leaning tower, the duomo – then you miss the beauty of the countryside or the food. Focus your image on olives or grapes and you miss out on pastas and cheeses or beaches or the Romans and Etruscans.

No, no one single image captures the entire sweep of this fascinating country and its way of life. At Bella Italia we finally settled on the emblematic cypress trees and a meandering road, the trees designed to trigger a flood of memories for those who have spent time in their own villa here and the road symbolizing the journey of discovery that makes visiting this country such a pleasant adventure, its windiness symbolic of the joy of the unstructured, unforced itinerary.

Throughout our many visits here over the years, we have supped at the enormous table that is Italy, trying a little bite here, a few morsels there, trying a little of that unusual dish tucked back there. More often than not we have overindulged rather than grazed, and while there is still much to see and experience, we have seen a lot, from traditional festivals with grown men dressed in colorful medieval costumes engaged in activities from jousting to horse and donkey racing to hauling enormous wooden logs up a mountain path. We have dined in fancy restaurants, tourist traps, humble trattorias and at the family table of friends of ours. We have sampled cheeses from goats, sheep and cows, watched donkeys being milked and have eaten meatballs made from the same. We’ve travelled by car, bus, train, bicycle, funiculare, aliscafo and vaporetto. I think it is safe to say that our experiences in Italy have been nearly as varied as what this country has to offer.

Until Saturday.

Saturday marked the opening of the thirty fifth annual Umbria Jazz Festival, held in, or more accurately, overrunning Perugia each summer in July. Quite simply, it has been the most amazing experience we have had in Italy.

Perugia is a great city. It is important historically and artistically and remains today an important tourist town, but at the same time it is a living, breathing city with one foot as firmly leading it into the future as its other is anchored to the past. At any time of year its main street, the Corso Vannucci, named after its favorite son, the painter il Perugino, is alive with young people who fill the enrollments of the many faculties of this university town, smoking, drinking a beer on the sidewalk, talking, arguing, kissing and smiling, all in large groups (except the kissing). They share this city respectfully and courteously with their older counterparts, many of whom look like they came from central casting, strolling down the Corso with a tweed cap and stylish jacket, hands clasped behind them as they not quite saunter but slowly glide down the street during their traditional nightly passagiata. Tourists, too, scurry by, followed by businessmen and women, lawyers and accountants, two by two as if on their way to some professional arc, deep in discussion about the problem of the day.

Once a year Perugia hosts a great international chocolate exhibition, thanks to its position as a leader in the confectionary business boasting a number of the world’s preeminent chocolatiers, none as well known as the world famous Perugina. Our very first overnight visit to Perugia was unknowingly booked during Eurochocolate, which made our arrival into the historic center of town, where both our hotel and the ourdoor exhibition take place, a real ordeal. But oh how it was worth it. The excitement of stumbling upon something as joyous and delectable as Eurochocolate guaranteed our lifelong love affair with this city.

* * *

Our first exposure to Umbria Jazz is a jazz brunch held at the Ristorante la Taverna (Via delle Streghe, 8, tel. 075 5724128), an elegant restaurant just off the Corso Vannucci in the historic center of Perugia. This year’s international festival is featuring such household names as Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Gary Burton, Cassandra Wilson, Pat Metheny and Alicia Keys, but our first event is brunch, not exactly an Italian tradition, featuring Rockin’ Dopsie and the Zydeco Twisters, not exactly household names.

The moment we arrive at La Taverna we know that this festival is going to be special. We arrive a few minutes before the scheduled 1:00pm start and the restaurant is already filling. We are greeted by the manager, with whom we had booked a table months ago in order to get a good seat. We are not disappointed as one of the pretty waitresses escorts us to our front row table, my seat actually partly at our table, partly on the stage area. Within minutes wine is being served, this being Italy, and a few minutes later an unmistakable group of monolingual (English only, please) musicians sets up less than a foot away. When the first note explodes from their instruments and the speakers it is as though some sort of high tech wave has been unleashed, immediately transforming the entire audience into a joyous mass. Dopsie’s energy and enthusiasm, their love for their music and their audience and their impressive talent wins over the audience by the end of the first measure. They certainly won over the women at our table even before they started performing!

The lead singer, a chiseled black man from New Orleans, wearing all black and sporting a mane of impossibly long flowing hair immediately sings and dances his way into the audience’s heart, picking out diners to sing to and dance with. A mixture of classic rock, sock hop and zydeco, Dopsie has the place pumping.

All the while the waitresses are delivering and clearing plates of food as only the Italians can. The first plate, which we all assume to be the complete brunch, looks like an Italian version of an American breakfast, the centerpiece of which is a pile of scrambled eggs served with prosciutto and pancetta that are about as close to a strip of bacon as we have come across in this country. Flanking the eggs are some less traditional offerings, something akin to egg salad, potato salad and a bread salad. It is an American-type meal with American-sized portions.

Our plates are cleared and the music thumps on. The lead singer is dancing with every woman (and man) he can pry away from their food and the energy level is growing. Now he dons what looks like a cross between a gladiator’s armor and a trash can lid, the metal breastplate hanging over his shoulders and covering his chest. He attaches some metal objects to his hands and begins playing himself, literally, raking the styluses in his hands over the washboard, becoming a human noisemaker. And what a noise it makes. The up tempo scraping and scratching, together with his brother’s virtuoso accordion playing and solid guitar, bass and drums is quickening everyone’s heartbeat and the room is beginning to rock. But not before the waitresses bring us a bowl of pasta al pesto Genovese. It’s New Orleans meets Genoa.

A short while later a large plate of meat and potatoes is served, aromatic slices of roast pork and gravy along with slices of roast turkey. This hybrid meal, not quite of America but not quite of Italy either, is a perfect compliment to this concert, quintessentially American music and musicians in a place that couldn’t not be New Orleans any better. Music is all about dissonances and consonances and this is a delicious combination of the two.

What a sight, as Dopsie comes to close, seeing this audience largely made up of Italians, standing on their chairs in one of Perugia’s nicest restaurants, waving their napkins in the air as a black American donning a trashcan lid on his torso hollers “when the saints go marching in,” the crowd singing along in their best English and forming an enormous marching line that snakes its way through the restaurant, between tables and back to the stage. Rockin’ Dopsie and the Zydeco Twisters may not be household names, but for today in Perugia, they are king.

Grazie, Perugia. Grazie y’all.

* * *

As we emerge from La Taverna to the mid afternoon sun, we have been infected. Infected with music, with joy, with Dopsie. With the Umbria Jazz Festival. The ten day festival is only a few hours old and we are already hooked. We fight our way back to the Corso Vannucci, fighting against the crowd that has grown sizably since we had entered la Taverna. The crowd, too, although not as fortunate as we to have kicked off the festival with Dopsie, are feeling it. Small groups and bands are performing in alleyways and doorways, ad hoc bars having sprung up at these venues, the spectators sipping a beer or wine, listening and appreciating and clearly enjoying life. Several official stages are set up on the street and are acting as magnets, drawing more and more people. The game is on.

* * *

The evening program is a doubleheader concert at the Arena Santa Giuliana, the main venue for the festival, which is located a ten minute walk from the center of Perugia. You get to Santa Giuliana by taking an escalator through the subterranean Rocca Paolina, a military garrison that was built by the Pope in the 1500s to keep the uppity Perugians, who had a history of disrespecting the Pope, in line. After conquering the city, the Pope confiscated the properties in this area, which consisted of a number of upper class medieval towers, cut off the tops of the towers, and built the garrison on top of this whole mess. What survived below are the bottoms of the towers and the original streets, a sort of medieval museum in a basement. Today you can enter or exit the historic center of Perugia by walking through these old streets (which are indoors thanks to the Pope) and riding an escalator down through this complex, emerging from a tunnel that leads to the main bus station. On the other side of the bus station is Santa Guiliana, an area that houses a monastery, a park and a sports complex where the outdoor arena is assembled annually for Umbria Jazz.

We arrive at Santa Giuliana a few minutes before the concert, which tonight features Italian pianist Stefano Bollani and Brazilian singer/guitarist/composer Caetano Veloso. The crowd outside the entrance is enormous, with hundreds of fans looking for tickets. We bump into our friend Adriano outside the gates (Adriano is one of the credentialed photographers for Umbria Jazz and is working tonight) and he tells us not to worry about rushing to our seats. “Tonight we hear an Italian and a Brazilian. Neither are much known for their punctuality.”

We make our way through security, which doesn’t even check my bag which holds a videocamera and a digital SLR. Things are pretty relaxed in Perugia. The evening is perfect. It is just after 9:00 and the sun is still in the sky, a few thin clouds can be seen as the stars shake off their sleep and strain to illuminate once again. Ahead of us is an enormous stage, its big rectangular opening framed with walls of speakers and stands of lights revealing inside a simple black floor and walls, a few chairs, some microphones and a big sign in yellow proclaiming “Umbria Jazz 2008. Welcome.”

After the organizers welcome the audience, which must be three or four thousand strong, the lights dim and in walk Stefano Bollani and his band. For the next hour and a half the audience, extremely knowledgeable, attentive and appreciative, follow his every note, trill and rest. I won’t pretend to be knowledgeable enough myself give a review of the performance but I have seen and listened to enough jazz enough to be mightily impressed by the three woodwind performers in his band. The three, on soprano sax, tenor sax and clarinet, alternate solos throughout the set, passing melodies from one to the next when not playing together. Under the moon and stars, with the belltower of Santa Guiliana behind us and the skyline of Perugia to our left, a cool evening breeze carrying the sound to the cheap seats and beyond, it is a truly memorable experience.

But Bollani is the star of this set and he holds the audience in rapt attention with his spare, clean style. He is delicate but not cutesy, his fingers moving a mile a minute but the sound that emerges is a soft, gentle sound. He favors the melody and the right hand, but at one point bangs the bass keys as far down the keyboard as I have ever seen, not sure if I can even hear notes that low. But as good as he is, the real treat is when he and his guitarist duet.

I imagine that the organizers paired Bollani with Brazilian Caetano Veloso because Bollani, despite being Italian, is inspired and trained in Brazilian music. I believe Bollani’s guitarist may be Brazilian and when the two of them, both so gentle and understated, play a couple of numbers together it is sheer magic. The notes do not blare from the speakers, but seem almost to float from the stage and settle into our laps. It is a few moments of tranquility and calm that is shared with four thousand complete strangers. What a feeling.

Caetano Veloso is hard to describe. Odd is too strong a word, but definitely untraditional. He scuffles slowly onto stage in a pair of jeans and a polo shirt, pulls up a chair, crosses his legs and rests his guitar on them, draws the microphone close to him and says a few high pitched words to the audience in Italian, the words coming agonizingly slowly and without any emotion or cadence. He seems uncomfortable and shy in front of the crowd. And then he begins to play. And to sing. His playing is gentle and soft. His singing is plain, without affect, as though he is singing to himself. And it is indescribable. It is so without pretention, so stripped of any affect that it enters you completely and finds your heart. Simple. Direct. Powerful.

For an hour and a half the only thing that moves in the entire stadium is Veloso’s hands and his lips. He never uncrosses his legs, shakes up and down, taps his feet. During that time the audience doesn’t move either. But it is moved. For an hour and a half Caetano Veloso gives four thousand private concerts to everyone in Santa Giuliana. He speaks to you directly. He plays for you alone. And he sings to you. What an amazing performance.

* * *

For many the highlight of the concert comes when Bollani and his group return to the stage to play Brazilian songs with Veloso. He has enormous respect for Bollani and his guitar player, as well as the rest of the band, and the audience goes crazy over some of the standards they play together. Here Veloso becomes more of a showman, performing to the crowd rather than to the individual and although it is more entertaining, it is not as powerful has his solo performance. The group finishes a little after midnight but returns for a couple encore numbers. By then the entire audience has left their assigned seats and are crowding the stage. Bollani and Veloso are called back for a second encore and then a third. As the mob exits Santa Giuliana and heads to the parking garages for their drives home or centro for some more music and drink they have clearly reached nirvana. And so have we, from the moment the first note exploded from Rockin’ Dopsie’s instruments until the last haunting Brazilian chord faded into the early morning dark. The festival has begun.

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