In another life I put together a short-lived newsletter on harmonica playing. Around then, harmonica genius Brendan Power was kind enough to let me interview him sitting on the side of the stage at Whelan’s in Dublin. It might be interesting.
IHN I suppose the first question is why did you start playing harmonica?
BP I went to a gig, in 1976 I think, and I heard Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and I was blown away by Sonny Terry’s harmonica style. Went out and bought a harmonica the next day. Got right into blues for about three years or so. A blues fanatic you know, this blues purist. Went out and bought blues albums and Sonny Boy Williamson II, Rice Miller, was someone who really, I loved his sound. Listened to that a lot. So, it was really the blues.
IHN And then you started going into jazz-blues-trad-fusion-psychedelic …
If a man were looking for a musical niche in which to contend for hegemony, starting an Italian communist Pogues tribute band might seem like a smart way to limit the competition, especially in Emilia Romagna. The Modena City Ramblers, however, have lasted twenty years on the strength of their music, long ago transcending their starting point, and turned out a string of fine albums featuring top-notch collaborators, including Bob Geldof and Billy Bragg. They also put on the kind of show where people jump up and down with their fists in the air. That kind of fist.
The band started in Modena, one of those quietly prosperous Italian cities where skilled workers produce the engineering that makes Italy famous to petrolheads everywhere, factory farmers find a use for every bit of a pig, and everybody, but everybody, voted communist. A friend of mine from the area was an electoral scrutineer in 1992, after the Communist Party had split. One breakaway group was running in an electoral alliance whose logo featured a tiny hammer and sickle. I am told that of the four hundred or so people who voted at that polling station, all voted left, and almost all put their X precisely on the hammer and sickle.
Around the same time, the Ramblers were learning to play Irish music and picking up a taste for the more raucous side of it, though not at the expense of musicianship. They began writing leftie lyrics to Irish tunes, so that anyone acquainted with rebel songs or ballads will be able to sing along, and adding elements from Italian left-wing singer-songwriters such as Francesco Guccini. The result is dynamite.
Their first album, Riportando Tutto a Casa (Bringing It All Back Home, check out the cover) was released in 1994 and included a Pogues-inspired epic about a bunch of Modenese Communists going to Rome for the funeral of Enrico Berlinguer, a rewrite of The Great Song of Indifference, a cranked-up raucous Bicchiere dell’Addio (Parting Glass) featuring Geldof, and their now-definitive version of Bella Ciao. The tone was set, and Combat Folk, as they soon began to call it, was launched.
The next album, La Grande Famiglia (The Big Family), was more of the same, Italian left-wing rebel songs set to Irish tunes, mixed with work dealing with more local politics. The band made a nod to the local singer-songwriter Francesco Guccini, covering La Locomotiva (The Locomotive), an epic about an anarchist railwayman who loses the head and tries to ram the first class special to Bologna. Sicily, a recurring theme in the band’s work, makes an appearance in La Banda del Sogno Interotto (The Band of Broken Dreams) about a group of Palermitans who try to maintain some dignity in a culture that conspires against it.
Around this time I saw them for the first time, at a centro sociale (big politically-conscious squat) in Rome, where they played a benefit for, as I discovered after getting in, The Committee for the Self-Determination of the People of Ireland. They had not long released their third album Terra e Libertà (Land and Freedom) and the final element of their sound, the non-European and especially South American, was in place. The tracks included Cent’anni di Solitudine (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Transamerika (Che Guevara’s road trip), a couple of Balkan inspired songs, Marcia Balcania (Balkan March) and Danza Infernale (Infernal Dance), and Radio Tindouf showcasing an increasing interest in North Africa.
After a live album, Raccolti (Collection), the band released three studio albums similar to Terra e Libertà: a developing `world music’ sound based on global, and Italian, political concerns. The songs are never worthy but usually jump-up-and-downable with a punk attitude integrated with a serious interest in the music and cultures. The next major turn was Appunti Partigiani (Partisan Notes), a collection of songs rooted in the partisan and anti-fascist traditions, including Billy Bragg on Woody Guthrie’s All You Fascists.
The next album, Dopo il Lungo Inverno (After the Long Winter), recorded after changes in the line-up, is one of their weaker efforts, and the next, Bella Ciao Combat Folk for the Masses, was an attempt to reach an international market, with a number of songs in English. Unfortunately, like many bands who have tried to reach an English-speaking audience, they are simply not at home in the language, the songs sound wrong, and the album cannot be counted a success.
Recent recordings have seen a return to form and the latest double CD Niente di Nuovo Sul Fronte Occidentale (All Quiet on the Western Front) is a triumph. The basic elements that made them a great band are all present and correct: bouncy rockers (Occupy Wall Street), immigration (Fiori D’arancio e Baci di Caffè; Orange Flowers and Coffee Kisses), the South (Tarantella di Tarantò) the dirtier episodes of Italy’s past, in Il Giorno Che il Cielo Cadde su Bologna (The Day the Sky Fell on Bologna, about the 1980 Fascist bombing of the train station) and the legends of the left, Due Magliette Rosse (Two Shirts of Red, the Italian tennis team’s act of defiance playing in Chile in 1976).
The live act is as solid as ever. Check their website and make a trip to see them if you’re in Italy. Best, if you can manage it, is to see them at a Festa, organized by one of the political parties. You pay less to get in, and the audience isn’t shy about hopping around with a fist up.
Most of the band’s work is worth hearing, but these are some personal favorites.
From their first album, Un Giorno Di Pioggia (A Rainy Day), a love song to Ireland, and its might in deeds of precipitation:
È in un giorno di pioggia che ti ho conosciuta,
il vento dell’ovest rideva gentile
e in un giorno di pioggia ho imparato ad amarti
mi hai preso per mano portandomi via.
It was one rainy day that I first came to know you
The wind from the West softly smiled
On a soft rainy day I learned to love you
You took my hand and you led me away.
Also from their first album, the story of a group of Modenese communists taking the train to Rome for the funeral of Compagno Berlinguer, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, killed by a stroke while he gave a speech during the 1984 European election campaign. A million people attended his funeral, and in the elections the PCI, for the only time in its history, took the largest share of the vote. (Somebody had been listening to The Death Bed of Cu Chulainn.)
From the second album, La Locomotiva tells the story of a railwayman who, inspired by the anarchist movement of the late nineteenth century, decides to ram the train full of bosses on the way to Bologna.
The band have always had an interest in southern Italy, and especially in Sicily. I Cento Passi (The Hundred Steps) is based on the story of Peppino Impastato, the son of a mafioso, who became a radical left anti-Mafia campaigner in his home town, until he was murdered by them. The `hundred steps’ of the title refers to the distance from the family home to the house of a man murdered by the mob. The start of the video is a scene from the film of the same name where Peppino walks his brother down the street.
“Sei andato a scuola, sai contare?”
“si so contare”
“E sai camminare?”
“E contare e camminare insieme lo sai fare?”
“credo di sì”
“Allora forza, conta e cammina.. 1,2,3,4..”
“You’ve been to school, can you count?”
“I can count.”
“And can you walk?”
“I can walk.”
“Can you walk and count at the same time?”
“I reckon so.”
“Right so, count and walk … 1,2,3,4”
Another great crowd pleaser, Transamerika, from the album Terra e Libertà. The song is about Che Guevara setting off with his mate for a boys’ road trip on a dubious motorcycle.
Sei partito alla grande con Alberto e con la moto
siam venuti tutti quanti a salutarvi
con un augurio, un abbraccio, una risata e una bottiglia
e le ragazze una lacrima ed un bacio
You left us all in style with Alberto and the bike
We came one and all to wave you off
With a `good luck’, and a hug, with a bottle and a smile,
And all the girls with a tear and a kiss.
From the most recent album, Due Magliette Rosse, is the story of Adriano Panatta and Paolo Bertolucci who played for Italy in the 1976 Davis Cup final against Chile. The final was held in Santiago, and the Italian left asked that the team boycott the Pinochet regime. Enrico Berlinguer made contact with the players and told them to go, and deny the Fascists their victory. In their doubles match, Panatta and Bertolucci played in red shirts.
Due magliette rosse nello stadio della morte,
Due magliette rosse come sangue nelle fosse,
Per le donne di Santiago, e la loro libertà,
Sfidavano il potere con grande dignità.
Two shirts of red in the stadium of death,
Two shirts of red for when the ditches bled.
For the women of Santiago, and for their liberty,
They stood up to power with pride and dignity.
Bella Ciao is the great song of the Italian left, and the Modena City Ramblers have made it their own. They end each gig with it, to a sea of bouncing fists.