March 1, 2011

Reclaiming a Tradition: An Interview with Michela Musolino

By Olivia Kate Cerrone

Music often provides an immediate accessibility to garnering an initial understanding, or at least an appreciation, of a people and their culture. I first came into consciousness of my ethnic roots during my mid-twenties, thanks in part to the brilliant work of a very talented fellow Sicilian American. Michela Musolino (Left, photo courtesy of Nino DiMaio) is an internationally-acclaimed folk singer specializing in traditional and contemporary Sicilian music. Selections from her first CD, Songs of the Trinacria have been widely broadcast on radio stations throughout the US and Europe, including NPR’s All Songs Considered Open Mic, and the BBC’s Paul Sherratt’s Global Jukebox. Her music has been featured in Anthony Fragola’s Un Bellissimo Ricordo, a film documenting the anti-Mafia work of Felicia Impastato and her son, the legendary Peppino Impastato, and served as the musical backdrop for the 2009 FringeNYC Festival run of Terranova, a moving theater production depicting the controversial murder trial of sixteen-year old Sicilian immigrant, Josefina Terranova. She has performed live in such venues as the Rainbow Room of Rockefeller Center and as a frequent participant in the “L’Evento in Memoria di Pino Veneziano” summer music festival in Selinunte, Sicily. I recently had the privilege of speaking with Ms. Musolino, to gain a greater understanding of how language, history and desire serve as essential components of the classic Sicilian folk music tradition.

Photo courtesy of Nino DiMaio

Olivia Kate Cerrone: When did you begin singing professionally? Why Sicilian folk music? As an American, how were you able to access the language and musical traditions of a culture historically different and divided from mainland Italy?

Michela Musolino: I began singing professionally just before the birth of my daughter. It was the time when I began to perform on stage, both acting and singing. For some reason, I felt pushed or nudged toward the stage.

The language of Sicily was one of the first sounds I had ever heard. My family emigrated from Sicily to the US and my grandparents spoke the language to my parents, aunts and uncles. Even out in public, it seemed as if we were always amidst people who spoke Sicilian. In my adulthood, the sounds were familiar, like the sounds one hears at a gathering of relatives; though the years may pass, it is as if time has stood still and one can communicate with the same ease as in years before.

The culture, too, was familiar to me because so many traditions and so much history were maintained in my family. Many Sicilian and Italian immigrant populations held onto tradition and mores that most people living in Italy and Sicily today have left behind. It was perhaps a way of holding onto an identity and passing it along to future generations. To me, the language and culture seemed like a second nature; it always felt as if there was a “belonging.” It is a history and culture vastly different from the mainland due to its separateness as an island and the ongoing invasions, which formed a unique culture. It has so much depth that there is always more to discover and uncover. Each new revelation gives a keener understanding to the psyche of Sicily, Sicilians and those around the globe who share those roots.

When I first started to sing on my own, apart from groups, a friend of mine was working on an anthology of Southern Italian folk music, so when I asked her about a song, she sent me numerous charts and recordings of many songs. It’s been that way ever since. I am fortunate to have many friends who love this music as much as I do, who perform it too. When we get together, we trade songs, each of us offering a song we’ve “discovered” through our research.

Always, I must reveal that I didn’t pick this music; it picked me! I was working with a theatrical group in NYC, where they performed Southern Italian folk music. Yet there was little to no Sicilian music in their repertoire. I couldn't understand why such a vast patrimony was being overlooked. I began to research this music, and as soon as people knew , they began to send me their own research. I left the theater company because I wanted to learn more and to focus on the music of Sicily. I began to work with a commedia dell’arte company, and although we were performing a Goldoni play, the director asked me to sing as part of my role. I suddenly burst onto an old Sicilian song and he laughed, asking, “when did you learn that ‘canzone all’antica?” From that day forward, the producer began to work on a one-woman show for me and asked [that I] gather my best loved songs from my repertoire--they were all Sicilian! I eventually did more work for that producer, but [the one-woman] show didn’t materialize. Instead, people began asking me to give concerts of Sicilian music.

Photo courtesy of Karen LaRosa

OKC: Folk music has long functioned as an aide to social rituals, from the nurturing of children to ensuring the successful courtship between adults and mourning the dead. Specific types, such as the filastrocca, a traditional Sicilian lullaby, and the more liturgical chant of the alla carrettiera, maintain a presence in your work (such as in the songs “Beddu Stu Carusu” and “A Santu”). What leads you to choosing a particular work? What could be learned about Sicilian culture through listening to music that embodies the desires of a people?

MM: Just as the music picked me, so too did the songs. Some songs just insist on being sung. They have such a beautiful story to tell that I just can’t leave them be. Other songs, though I may love them and try to fit them in, aren’t ready or want to wait. When the time is right to perform them, they reveal themselves. Sometimes, I may work on a song and then “put it away” for a while. Out of the blue, a friend may ask, “why don’t you sing---?” and they ask me to sing the very song I had shelved. That’s when I know, it’s time to bring it to the public! I pick the songs which stir my heart because I know that the strong emotions they evoke will be felt by the audience.

I love that you used the phrase, “music that embodies the desires of a people”! It feels as if every song expresses some kind of desire. Whether it’s for love, justice, well-being, there is always a sense of a longing. It is that desire that gives a people an inner conviction, a force for moving forward. I’ve recently been collaborating with Argentine guitarist, Gabriel Hermida. After one of our first shows, he told me how moved he was by Sicilian music. He saw that in every song there was the idea of an inner strength; that no matter what the story or circumstances, no one could ever dominate or take away this inner power. Sicily is like that. No matter how many millennia of uprising and invasions, there is still Sicily, unique and strong and enduring.

Photo courtesy of Nino DiMaio

OKC: During the production of Songs of the Trinacria, you collaborated with the great Sicilian percussionist, Alfio Antico. How did this collaboration occur? What kind of teachings or influence did this musical partnership have on your work as an artist and your understanding of Sicilian folk traditions?

MM: It was serendipitous! I was trying to contact Alfio because I wanted to attend a drumming workshop of his. Somehow, I found the record label, Alfa Music, and [discovered that] they had just produced a CD for Alfio. The record label and I began to correspond and when they learned I was recording a CD, they asked to hear my demo tracks. They liked [what they heard, shared it with] Alfio, then invited me to record in their studios in Rome. Alfio wanted to be a part of the project. It was truly like living in a dream! Everything came about because of contact through the Internet, yet we were connected in our work through this ancient tradition. Alfio is more than a musician or an artist; he is a force of nature. He embodies this music; it pours forth from him naturally. He showed me that it is the connection to the emotions in this music that make it so loved and received. To perform it well, one has to be in the flow of the emotions expressed, aligning with the sentiments [that] the stories are conveying. It showed me that these traditions will live forever because they live on in the heart of people like Alfio.

Alfio is the perfect embodiment of tradition; he is a modern man, yet he is formed by the culture and history of Sicily. He is a great teacher of tradition, even his everyday conversations are peppered with historic and cultural references. This flows from him naturally. When he speaks about tradition, there is a sense of true pride and love for them. Alfio is a true Sicilian: generous and proud of his traditions. His love for this work is as big as his desire to share and to teach.

He taught me that even though I may want to see my life as an express train, moving in a straight line and rapidly, sometime life takes longer, making all kinds of twists and turns. We still arrive at the same destination!

More than the time we spent in the studio or the actual work, it’s the time we spent together as friends that I cherish. That time with our friends is the greatest teacher. It’s during those moments when we are all enjoying each other’s company, that spark spontaneity and joy: Alfio may pull out his guitar or a drum, another friend brings his accordion, we all sing and share music that we live the tradition.

Photo courtesy of Nino DiMaio

OKC: In an essay for i-Italy, Tom Verso explains that the Sicilian language is derived from “linguistic remnants” of former Arabic, Greek, French Norman, Berber and many other cultures that have colonized the island throughout centuries. Traces of these past influences can be found in the ways in which Sicilian words are pronounced, spelled and constructed into phrases. Verso notes a prime example of this when comparing the Sicilian word beddu with the Arabic badu. The former denotes beauty, while the later serves as an endearing term for a people with “a spiritual (almost mystic) connotation to the desert.” On this note, Verso points specifically to your music as leaning toward a more Arabic influence. How do you respond to this interpretation? In what ways does language play a role in how you as an artist process the meaning and emotion of a song? Does working from the context of a historical perspective help?

MM: I enjoyed reading Verso’s article and thought it was interesting, but I have a much different experience of the dialect than he does. When my daughter was a baby, my whole family and I taught her Italian. Her first words were in Italian, not English. I reasoned that it would be easier to plant the roots of language early, so even if she lost practice, the foundation would still be in place later in life. As she was learning to speak and learning to form words, she’d do so like all babies do, by repeating the sounds she heard. I noticed that many times, I would speak to her in Italian, and she would answer in dialect! I’d say, “Papa-nonno,” and she’d reply, “Tata-nonn,” and when I said, “bella,” she’d repeat, “bedda!” Often, she would substitute a double ‘d’ for a double sound. I wondered if that was a natural development of dialect? Is it a form of language much more natural to us physiologically?

As for the music having an Arabic influence, of course it does! When the Arabs invaded Sicily, they did exert considerable influence during the few centuries they ruled, and left a mark on all aspects of the culture, as did all the previous and later invasions and conquerors. The richness of the Sicilian language and its music is due to this amazing amalgam of cultures. Not only the language, but the rhythms and emotions evoked also reflect these influences. So many Sicilian songs are poems written in simple, yet elegant terms that are able to evoke deep emotions [and] stir the soul: “Suspiru quannu durmu ...e nun haiu abbentu” / I sigh when I sleep (thinking of you) and have no peace!

These songs are really stories, glimpses of lives past. They convey strong emotion that are difficult not to carry listeners away with them! Perhaps artists are more sensitive to this, but there is an empathy involved through “putting oneself” in the place of the person whose story is being sung.

Beside the elegance of the Sicilian language, historical context does influence the emotions of song. For example, history tells us that Sicily had suffered throughout millennia at the hands of pirates. People lived in daily fear of pirates arriving. These songs all filled with a particular desperation and foreboding--a lamenting. Something that is constant, as it was a part of their everyday lives.

To understand what was really going on during the rites of courtship, as expressed through song, people really had no way of communicating other than song. Men and women didn’t freely mingle. If a beloved’s family didn’t accept your courtship, you were rejected. All they had to go on was a first glance filled with the desire and longing to be together, but restrained by the distance that must be maintained between them.

With the lullabies, the abundance of love that pours forth from the mother is palpable. Keep in mind that life was not like it is today; many children never survived infancy. Each time a mother looked at her child, it was a miracle-- a miracle that the child was still here, still thriving when so many did not.

Photo courtesy of Joe Zarba

OKC: As a musician who has traveled and performed widely through the United States and abroad, what have been some of the reactions to your music? How receptive have native Sicilians been to your work?

MM: There is a wonderful feeling of “connectedness” that this music evokes. Sometimes it’s a connectedness to one’s past or history, and sometimes it’s a connectedness of humanity. Even people who do not have roots in Sicily feel the emotional depth of this music. Regardless of background, anyone can understand the love that a mother feels for her child, the longing of separated lovers, the rage of jealousy and the desire for justice. These are desires that we all share and all experience.

The language of this music is concise and direct, yet words convey greater ideas and sentiments. Recently after a concert, one audience member remarked that this music recalls a time when there was more integrity, when we placed a greater value upon things that mattered, such as family, faith ,friendship, autonomy, justice, and weren’t caught up in the superficial. She said it made her wonder why we left these values behind. I’d like to think that this music is a reminder to us to focus on what is of value in our lives.

The response to my music in Sicily? Sicilians are so proud of their traditions, especially music. As much as I feel honored to sing this music there for them, the Sicilians are both delighted and honored to receive it. It is a tremendous pride for them to know that their music, their culture and traditions are being promoted through the world. It’s quite a validation of the importance of Sicily and her culture. Even though most Sicilians are aware of their musical patrimony, [my presence serves] as a reminder, and they appreciate and love this heritage even more.

Photo courtesy of Nino DiMaio

OKC: What are your plans or hopes for musical projects in the future?

MM: I have a new CD that is taking much longer than I could have wanted or expected! I do keep reminding myself that everything happens at the right moment. As I have been collecting songs along the way, there’s a group of them that are ready to be recorded! Each and every song has desire at its core (“la vita era sempre un desiderio”). What’s happened though is that I also have a collection of Sicilian folk songs that were written by friends. I wanted to include a few of these along with the traditional ones, but it appears that I have enough for another CD! Perhaps there will soon also be another CD of contemporary folk songs written by friends as a tribute to friendship. It’s also a way to promote those talented musicians whom I love: Moffo Schimmenti, Rocco Pollina & Toto` Lovecchio. It is my dream to have these friends as guests on the CD!

It would be fun to do a project of Sicilian music with women. I’m wondering how I could get the great Clara Salvo, the darling Laura Campisi and myself together in a studio! Last year, I performed at the Working Waterfront Festival in New Bedford MA. This was a beautiful festival of musicals from all ethnicity, many of them specializing in maritime music! I love the sea, especially Sicily’s and I noticed that many of the songs in my repertoire speak about the sea, so I’m currently researching maritime songs. Perhaps I’ll soon have to record a CD dedicated to the sea.

With each CD will come a specific staged show. Sometimes the setting for my concerts allows for some theater and spoken word. That is a project which is always being developed and recreated.

I’ve not yet made and released “official” videos, but with the next CD, there will definitely be videos. I’d like to work with Giuseppe Tumino on that. He’s an enormously talented director, who has a great respect for and often works with Sicilian traditions. I greatly admire his work.

OKC: Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us your experiences. Any last thoughts?

MM: I am always astonished that this is what I do! I feel like the luckiest woman in the world. I think of my grandmothers, who lived this tradition of music, but stored it away while they forged new lives in a new homeland. I always feel that it’s a great honor to participate in the maintenance of a tradition, and to share this music with others.

* Michela Musolino’s music can be downloaded on iTunes. Songs of the Trinacria is available for sampling or purchase at CD Baby:

Olivia Kate Cerrone: