Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Troubadour's Journey, Part 2

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

Carolyn: In Part 1, John made his way from America to Italy to London and back to Italy again. With his guitars and mandolins, he met other street musicians in Florence and they formed the group, 'Pupi e Fresedde' which means Puppets and Bread. Together they became an integral part of the 1970's revival of Southern Italian folk music.

In 1977, Pupi e Fresedde toured in the United States with the Domestic Resurrection Circus of the famous Bread & Puppet Theater, based in Vermont. It's astonishing but, despite the similar name, Bread & Puppet was not affiliated with Pupi e Fresedde.

Bread and Puppet was a politically radical puppet theater, founded in the 1960s. It's signature was 10 to 15 foot high puppets that they used in anti-war and other political demonstrations.

Stefan Brecht, the son of poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, devoted much of his life to documenting the events of Bread & Puppet Theater. John and Stefan's paths would soon cross in a small New York cafe.

John: So then in '76 when we were doing the show at the Washington square church at 4th street. First he wanted me to go to the Chelsea hotel, and I said no, I'm not going there.

Carolyn: (laughter) Are you nuts?

John: I'm busy, I'm going to be down at the cafe. across from the church, come and visit me there. So then he said, "OK, OK, I'll be there." So we sit at a table at Caffe Vittorio, La Lanterna on McDougal Street and he starts asking me, so what about this music, what does it mean? I didn't know what he was doing. He said he was doing research.

Fast forward to 1986 when John, now living in New York, visits his old friends at the Bread & Puppet Theater.

John: So about 10 years later I was up in Vermont at the Bread and Puppet Theater and there were all these books out. And Stefan Brecht, had been writting an anthology, he's got 2 thick volumes of almost every single day in the life of Bread and Puppet. It's his lifelong work. So I see this book and I start looking thru it. Then I start seeing photographs of when we were in Vermont.

Carolyn: Not only were John's photos in the book, but an entire chapter was devoted to the conversation he had with Stefan 10 years earlier, at Cafe Vittorio, about Southern Italian folk music.

Rewind to 1977. After the U.S. tour, John, along with Pupi e Fresedde, returned to Italy. As they performed throughout Northern Italy, the rhythms and lyrics of Southern Italian Folk Music were heard in many places, for the very first time. John lived this dream for years, but then things started to get complicated.

John: from the early 70's to 79. I would come back to NY and as soon as I came back to NY they would call me, to do like the Biennale in Venice, or something. And I was so torn. I wanted to go back but at the same time my father had a heart attack and then I felt, you know, I wanted to be close my family, it was hard, it was getting hard. Now I had met Alessandra. I met her one of the occasions when I came back to visit my family, I met her in 1975-76.

Carolyn: Alessandra is Alessandra Belloni, who would become a singer, composer, and world renowned percussionist. But no one knew that at the time.

John: She came to visit me in Italy and met me and the group, Pupi e Fresedde.

Carolyn: So she got to see what you guys were doing?

John: And by that time the revival was really pretty strong.

Carolyn: Had the two of you been talking about this revival of Southern Italian music?

John: No, we just liked it and then she wound up writing to me and said you know, if you come back to NY, I want to start a group and I think we can do something like this in NY. and I said well, I don't know. I didn't think it was going to be the same because I was used to being in Italy, playing in the piazzas and playing these beautiful places and how could I recreate that again? So she kind of like convinced me. She said she met this actor, Claudio Saponi, and he does all these different characters. He does Arlechinno, he does Pulchinello. So then when I came back I met with him. So this is around 1980. So I decided to stay in New York.

I would supply all the music, I had guitar and mandolin. In italy we had violins, frame drums, and then all these different voices, and all we had was just me playing the music and Alessandra singing and I said, this is not enough. But we started to do some stuff, and we would go to the Italian communities like in Brooklyn, out to LI. The older people, they remembered this kind of stuff, but the younger people didn't know what we were doing. They never heard this kind of music before.

Carolyn: And they weren't part of the revival, certainly.

John: No, that never touched them, because American-Italian immigration was totally on a different path. Unless someone's grandparents remembered it, from before they left Italy, maybe 50-60 years ago. So we had a lot to do. We have to teach these people about their culture, about this music because it got lost and they're not going to know about it. And I really loved it. So we felt like we wanted to bring it into the Italian communities and maybe the younger people would start listening to it and liking it and let it grow. Because for me, I didn't know it existed. I went there and had to learn it and be exposed to it and fell in love with it and I felt like I need to bring it back here. At that time after playing with Pupi E Fresedde all those years, I had started to transcribe all the music.

Carolyn: So it was written down?

John: I wrote it down.

Carolyn: For the first time, maybe?

John: Yeah, I started collecting it. I had suitcases full of this music.

Carolyn: So this is music that even back in the 50's hadn't been written?

John: No. Nobody would write that down.

Carolyn: John, Alessandra and Claudio continued to try to get their music heard. It wasn't an easy road, and at times it was quite discouraging. Overall, John's experiences performing in America were not what he was accustomed to in Italy.

John: Coming back to New York, with me in my little Volkswagon, traveling to Brooklyn with costumes, props. We tried to recreate it with just the 3 of us. Here I was coming from a whole big troupe and traveling all over Europe and here we are my little Volkswagen trying to bring Italian music.

Carolyn: From the sublime to the ridiculous!

John: Yeah. But Alessandra had a vision to pursue. I couldn't feel that same enthusiasm because I was still nostalgic for being in Italy and doing it there on a grand scale and then starting all over again, playing in the small little school yard, or a school gym, I was like, oh, this is so depressing!

And you know, in Italy, we would go to the town and they would give us the town wine and the food, and it was like, where is this all? What's wrong? But then we kept pursuing it. One time we had to play for this agent, they didn't know where to place us. So one time they said, "Oh, we have a tour for you guys and we want you to play in the A&P in the Italian Deli department"

Carolyn: Where? In New York?

John: In Long Island. We would go from one A&P to the next, playing in front of the Italian Deli section.

Carolyn: Oh my gosh, here you're playing piazzas, palazzos and concert halls in Europe and you're here and you're playing the deli section!

John: And people would say, "Excuse me, I've got to get my rolls!"

Carolyn: In those moments, you had to have doubted, you had to have been thinking...

John: I know, what am I doing here? I felt like we were this tiny little melody trying to survive in the rash of noise.

Carolyn: So how did it develop? Was is just a series of small steps or was there..?

John: Yeah, a series of small steps. I got a job working in Brooklyn at a senior citizen's center, they were all retired Italian musicians there, that were like the string virtuosi from the '20's. I had to get them together to do a concert every Wednesday for the dance.

Carolyn: So there was a dance at the Center?

John: Yes, and they were all these mandolinists, retired mandolin players. And I would put together groups with them. So I got to know the people in the Italian community and there was a church there and this Irish priest, Fr. Kelly.

Carolyn: That's ironic.

John: I know. He loved us. He'd always bring us back, really be pushing us to do things in St. Finbar's in Brooklyn. So we wound up doing a lot of things in Brooklyn, for senior citizens. They thought, it was entertaining for them. They knew Pulchinella, so we'd do a lot of comedy skits and stuff.

Carolyn: So it sounds like in this phase you're rekindling these traditions with this group of people who knew them when they were children, and here it is again.

John: Yeah, that's how it all started. So I knew that the music needed to have more musicians and more arrangements to it. Then the people that I met from Bread and Puppet, they were living on 9th street. They loved the music because they remembered Pupi E Fresedde, and they loved the music and they wanted to be part of it somehow.

Carolyn: So how did you go from this to the more polished group that you have now with Alessandra? Were you calling yourselves Giulliari di Piazza at the time?

John: Yeah. And then I started to do more polished arrangements with the music, writing out parts, making it as easy for the musicians as possible and yet letting them hear the style. We've had so many musicians working with us over the years, people who never heard it before. Most of them weren't even Italian; they just liked the music. So then we started to get a grant. But what really helped us to really keep it going was the fact that we had a friend from New York University, who was the chairman of the Italian Department, Luigi Ballerini, who saw a lot of potential in us and he supported us a lot and gave us the space at NYU. Because where were we going to meet, in the cafe? We couldn't put anything together there. As we went on we tried to do more elaborate productions, and then I think our first opera was, we did the Cantata dei Pastori.

We stuck to it all these years. And then I wanted to write more for film and theater. I didn't know it was going to go from classical guitar to writing for theater and film, but how things evolve. But all thru this music, which is what kept leading me, throughout my whole life, in this direction.

Carolyn: The performance troupe that John founded with Alessandra Belloni, called I Giulliari di Piazza or the Jesters of the Square, is still performing the folk music of Southern Italy. John composed, arranged and performed this music with Alessandra and the troupe for theater productions of Dance of the Ancient Spider and Techno Tarantella, as well as various CDs they recorded together.

On his own, John arranges and composes music for stage and screen. From off Broadway productions with John Turturo to the soundtrack of the award winning documentary, Sacco and Vanzetti, to writing a book called Southern Italian Mandolin and Fiddle Tunes, published by Mel Bay, John continues his troubadour's journey. No one knows where he'll turn up next.

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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