Piccola Banda Ikona’s Stefano Saletti calls for Mediterranean reinvention

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      Stefano Saletti believes that all of the Mediterranean countries share a common culture, and at last weekend’s Vancouver Folk Music Festival his theory was given glorious proof.

      Early on Saturday morning, in the shade of Jericho Beach Park, the Italian musician’s Piccola Banda Ikona shared a stage with the Egyptian singer Fatma Zidan and her own ensemble. The workshop started slowly, but midway through the boundaries of language and religion collapsed, with all 11 musicians joining forces in a sound that encompassed everything from Spanish flamenco to Turkish taksim.

      A one-time-only collaboration? Maybe. But Saletti thinks that in pre-industrial times such cross-cultural fusions were not only possible, but commonplace.

      “With the south and the north of the Mediterranean, in the past, there was a lot more interplay,” he explains in careful but heavily accented English, on the line from Rome. “For instance, some Turkish instruments came to Italy, to Naples. Or the oud, from the Middle East, came to Spain, because the Arabic people stayed in Spain for eight centuries.

      “Now Italy—to use the example of my own country—looks to what happens in the north of Europe or the USA or Britain,” the oud and bouzouki virtuoso continues. “But I think that’s a mistake, what we’ve been doing for the last 30, 40 years. In music it is important to bring back our roots, our Mediterranean roots.”

      Saletti’s research indicates that up until the rise of the modern nation-state, the Mediterranean basin shared a common language, Sabir, that facilitated trade as well as intercultural understanding. Piccola Banda Ikona does much the same thing with music, teasing out the threads that link, say, a song of the Sephardic diaspora to the contemporary protest music of Palestine. Implicit in the project is the notion that hierarchical structures such as the church and the state stand in the way of peace—a thesis made explicit on the group’s extraordinary new LP, Folkpolitik.

      An incandescent collection of leftist anthems from around the Mediterranean, with particularly vivid singing from the fiery Barbara Eramo and the sultry Ramya, the record is perhaps most notable for making revolution feel more like an act of joy than one of anger.

      Asked why he chose to send such a pointed message, Saletti says that the Mediterranean region needs to reinvent itself.

      “For five years we’ve been in crisis,” he explains, “and the political choices that are being made in Brussels are not good for Mediterranean countries. Our strength is not just to be a financial people: we are countries of philosophy, of the sun, of the sea.

      “We have to invest in the culture: in the art and the music,” he continues. “But we’ve cut everything about culture in Italy. The Berlusconi government has been really terrible for Italy in the last 15 years, and the same problem has happened in Spain and in Greece. But a lot of people now want to change this situation. What happened in the USA with Occupy Wall Street is happening in Spain with the indignados, and in Greece—and I think there is a link with what happened in Libya and Tunisia and other countries.”

      Saletti’s not so naive as to think that a single band or a single record can bring about a new and better society. “Music never changes anything,” he says, with just a hint of resignation. “But it can make the world a better place to live.”

      Based on what we heard last weekend, he’s right about that, too.