Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Troubadour's Journey, Part 1

This is a transcript of the podcast appearing on our Podcast page.

Carolyn: John T. LaBarbera is an Italian-American who has been playing traditional Italian music for over 30 years. He has recorded numerous CDs and composed many film soundtracks, including the critically acclaimed documentary Sacco and Vanzetti. His theater credits include several off-Broadway productions, most notably Souls of Naples with John Turturro, and productions by the Italian Music and Theater Company, I Giullari di Piazza, which he co-founded with world renowned percussionist, Alessandra Belloni.

For JLB, the vision of someday going to Italy was planted in his mind as a child, listening to his grandfather's stories of his own boyhood in Italy. His grandfather died without returning to his homeland, but the dream stayed with John as he grew.

John's Italian journeys brought him into contact with amazing people, unexpected twists and turns, and experiences that spanned the sublime to the ridiculous. Little did he know he would play an integral role in the 1970's revival of Southern Italian folk music, including the Tarantella Pizzica. John would team with Alessandra Belloni and bring this music to America, laying the groundwork for its continued performance.

But that's the end of our story. Let's start at the beginning. John loved music and had his own band at 13. He continued studying classical guitar at Connecticut's Hart School of Music and met a professor who would change the course of John's life.

John: I got a degree in classical guitar and my last year in college, a friend of my mine who was also teaching there, he was a professor, he said, "you know, you belong in Italy". His name was del Principe. And he said, "you know, I've been going to Siena and I want to start a school there. I want to take students from the college." So, Del Principe kind of like gave me a scholarship to go to Italy and to help him out, you know, it was kind of like he was teaching me a lot of stuff so he made me like his assistant.

Carolyn: Did you have any sense at this point how long you would be in Italy?

John: No. Actually, my real plan, because you know I was fascinated by Italy but somehow, I knew that when I graduated from college I was thinking of going to London, because I had a teacher who had invited me. He said I could try to help you get some work in London at the Guitar Center. Del Principe said, "You know, come to Italy. Come for the summer and at the end of the summer, go to England."

Carolyn: John had no idea what his friend, Joseph Del Principe, had in store for him.

John: He was a student at the Accademia Chigiana, where he studied composition and there was this Principessa Segardi who has the Piccolo Teatro and she's giving us a space in Siena. It's a palace, a 17th century palace and we could have the school there. So, my entrance way to Italy I wound up living in a palace. So the room I was in had a chandelier, this Venetian glass chandelier, with all these secret passageways, canopy bed, I was living in a dream world. It's still there. And the Baronessa also had a dance school there. She loved music and she was a sponsor for Del Principe to bring his school to Siena.

Carolyn: John's journey as a troubadour was about to begin.

John: We would rehearse and, at that time I really loved Renaissance music. With Del Prindipe, he was a composer but he also was very close to the early music. At the school we had some very fine musicians with us there who were Renaissance musicians who were among the first groups from the '50s that started the whole revival in the U.S. So I felt like, OK, here I am in this medieval city playing this Renaissance music, living in a palace. And we would go to the towns in Tuscany and play concerts in the towns, San Sepulcro, San Gimignano, Monteriggioni.

He wanted us to not only just to work on our music, performing our music, but also, realize that you're in Italy, and it's a very special place. And that you have to know the people, hang out in the piazza, spend time knowing the culture. Now I feel like I'm at home, you know. This place is amazing. Here I am in a foreign country and I felt like this is my home. Everything just seemed very natural to me. And it was Siena, you know, and my family was from Southern Italy. But there was something about Siena, you know, still to this day I'm so attached to Siena.

The main concert that we did at the end of the summer was in the duomo of Siena. And then we went to Assisi. We'd take a choral group and we had a full orchestra as well. We were traveling with a full orchestra, a choir, and chamber ensembles. I would always lead the Renaissance and Medieval music.

While I was in Siena that first summer, '73, we went to Florence, my first tour to Florence. And one of the students said, "You know, there's a music school, a graduate school in Florence and they teach guitar there." So then I said, maybe I should go find out about it. So then I went to audition and they said, "You know, we could give you a scholarship to study here and our teacher was supposed to have Segovia come and do a method class in the fall."

So now, here I am, I auditioned, I got accepted into this school, and I had this job offer in London. So I was like really torn. What am I going to do now? So when the Siena program finished, which was the end of August, the school in Florence wasn't supposed to start until October. So I had like, a month. I had to go to London to find out about this Guitar Center where I could teach.

Carolyn: At this point, John left for London in true troubadour fashion.

John: So I leave Italy and at that time I didn't have a backpack or anything like that. All I had was my guitar, heavy guitar case, and like heavy suitcases with handles. I was loaded with books. So the thing like weighed a ton, getting on the train, schlepping everything. So many trains in the middle of the night, with no seat. so I would sleep on the floor. I would lay on the floor and go to sleep. I would sit on my suitcase, that was my seat, for like hours, up to London. When I got there the suitcase broke, the handle.

Carolyn: Oh, no! So now you have to hold it with both hands?

John: Well, I rigged up a thing with my belt.

Carolyn: OK, McGyver lives!

John: And you know, I had to schlep it with, you know, my guitar. At the same time I'm carrying this bottle of really good Chianti which they said, "this is a very special Chianti" and I wanted to bring it as a present, to my friends. So, I was like holding onto that bottle of Chianti, all throughout that train trip.

Carolyn: Sleeping with it.

John: Ah, everything! I wouldn't let it out of my sight. And it was in one of those old fashioned Chianti bottles, remember?

Carolyn: With the basket? The raffia?

John: Yeah. I wanted to give it as a gift to my friends. And I started hitchhiking up to Manchester. So then I wound up hitchhiking all over England. I went to that Guitar Center but it seemed like, they really didn't have any work for me. They said, "Well, we can't really promise you how many students you'll have" and I was like, you know, this is very strange. I was like walking around London and you know what was very strange for me, I was born in New York City, I'm used to a big city. But after being a Siena for a month or two, I'm used that walled city. And the security, that small, I know everybody in the piazza, I see the same people up and down. I got so used to that, that closeness, that when I went to London I felt, this city's too big for me, I don't know what I'm doing here. I've got to get back to Italy.

Carolyn: So John returned to Italy, the country that never really let him go. But as usual, things didn't go as expected.

John: So I'm going to go to the school in Florence. They have a student meeting introducing the new students and the faculty and everything. So when I get back there, they tell me, "Oh, we have some bad news for you." "Oh, now what?" So he's like, "Well, your guitar teacher quit, so there's not going to be a guitar program". I was looking for that for my graduate studies. So now I said, now what?

So they said, "Well, we can, you could study music history" and I was like, music history? I didn't really want to study music history, but I said, OK I'll try it out. It was a graduate school for the arts, so they had fine arts, too. They had painters and lot of art restoration. There were people there working on the restoration from the flood.

Carolyn: In the '60's?

John: Yes, at the Suboratu (sp?) Studio they had, they were incredible. And they taught that, they taught art restoration.

Carolyn: What an atmosphere that must have been!

John: It was a beautiful villa. Actually, it was called Villa Schifanoia. Believe it or not! And it was run by the nuns from Rosary College in Indiana.

Carolyn: In Indiana? All right, that took a second to get it into my head!

John: I know! Believe it or not, they had this villa outside of Florence on the way to Fiesole, in this small little burb called San Domenico. And that was a beautiful villa. And they had the art studios there, the music studios there. I was like in heaven. But I was kind of disappointed because I was gonna study guitar. But I met some of the people there and they were like, "Whatss the matter with you?" and I said I'm not gonna have guitar lessons, I'm gonna have to study music history. And this guy, Rob Saunders, he was an art major. He said, "Well, you need a place to stay?" I said "Yeah, I'm like, staying in this youth hostel, I don't have any money" and he said, "I'm looking for a roommate, but you can stay at my place until I find a roommate."

So I wound up staying with him. So the, while I was staying with him I needed to make some money so I used to play by the Uffizi museum

Carolyn: Just like it is today, the space outside of the Uffizi museum in the 1970's was filled with musicians, singers and acrobats. While John was playing his music, one of his fellow street performers was none other than Roberto Benigni, who honed his comedic skills in a clown and comedy troupe. Years later Benigni would win an Oscar for La Vita e' Bella or Life is Beautiful. But of course, no one knew that then. Just like no one knew that this is where John's journey would intersect with the folk music of Southern Italy.

John: I played classical guitar and then I met this violinist, this Dutch girl from Holland and we started to do duets. So when I was playing that's when I met these street performers. These 3 guys singing beautiful harmonies, and I became friends with them.

They played a little guitar, they all played the frame drum, they were masters of it. And they used to make their own tambourines. So when I first met them they would say, you know, we're looking for a guitarist and we'd go to someone's house and they'd start singing and then they'd start showing me how to play. They would tell me, this chord, that chord. None of the music was written out. They didn't write music and none of it was, it was just oral tradition. They were all from Puglia, all from Taranto.

Carolyn: So were they singing the tarantellas?

John: Yeah. Some of the stuff that we've recorded later, we still do as part of our repertoire.

Until that time I had not known of the Italian folk music. But the interesting thing was, in the '70's was when the first wave of the Italian folk revival started. And that's because before that, none of the folk music was really recorded, it was only sung in the fields. People didn't perform folk music. It was done outside, while people were working.

Then in the '50's, a musicologist named Alan Lomax. He was studying the folk music from different countries. And he teamed up with an Italian musicologist and together in the '50's they started to record people from the villages and towns and they put out an album in 1963.

In the '60's, very few people had record players. But some of these records were starting to become available. So the music started to become more accessible. Then by '68-'69, the music was there but you know nobody was really listening to it. In Italy they were listening tot the Beatles and Rolling Stones. By '71-'72, people began to see, you know, our folk music is dying out. People are just listening to American music. And the people weren't singing in the fields anymore like they used to. So a lot of the students, it was like a political movement to bring back the folk music, to revive it. We started out doing stuff in the piazzas.

Carolyn: So you had some costumes.

John: They would make these costumes and you know they had the masks, commedia dell'arte masks, and they would make their own instruments, the tambourines.

Carolyn: How did they know what kind of costumes to wear, the colors to wear?

John: They remembered that from their towns, from their growing up. They actually remembered from their parents and grandparents because they were all from these small towns. You know, a lot of those traditions were dying out. But then they started doing research also. But they knew a lot of these customs that were still done in the piazzas. because in the 50's, there were still, there were like storytellers used to come to town.
And so they were very connected to it. But no one was really doing it before this generation on a performance level.

Carolyn: What kind of a response were they getting for their performances?

John: People were, you could see, people would gather around in the streets of Florence. Of course this is a southern tradition, it wasn't very popular in Tuscany. And people were really interested with it, they never saw anything like this before.

Carolyn: Over time, this group was sponsored by the city of Florence and chose the name, Pupi e Fresedde. Pupi means puppets, and fresedde is a type of bread. Puppets and Bread toured throughout Italy and was sponsored by different facets of Italian Tourism. One of the most famous programs was called Arrivano del Mare, or They Arrive from the Sea.

John: That was actually sponsored by Teatro di Roma. It was our group and several other theater groups together that they had chosen. So, the Teatro di Roma organized it and they set it up in all the towns, they had posters. They would organize a tour of the different coastal towns of the Adriatic and Mediterranean coasts of Italy. We would go to the town, a location a little bit outside the main port and we would all get on a boat, and we would all assemble on the boat, all the theatrical troupes, and we would make a circle and go around the harbor and then come in thru the main port of the town. And then they'd open up the boat and we'd all come out. We'd all be in costume, with our instruments, and do a parade, una parata.

Carolyn: I assume then all the spectators are lined up at the port at the main piazza waiting for you?

John: Yeah and then they would follow us. Then we would go, in the town they would have different locations, like they actually had shows lined up for the rest of the day. That was our entranceway and then we would go and then say at 3:00, we have this troupe playing and then at 4:00 another group, and all thru the night at different times in the evening, It was really nice, it was like a festival, but it was a moving festival on the coast.

Carolyn: That's the end of Part 1 of A Troubadour's Journey, the story of John T. La Barbera's musical adventures. Please join us for Part 2, when John returns to New York with his love for Southern Italian folk music. As his unconventional story continues, unexpected people and events shape his experiences.

To learn more about John, go to his website, www.johntlabarbera.com.

To download some of John's music, go here.

To learn more about the musical program in Siena, founded by Joseph Del Principe, go to www.sienamusic.org.

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