Sicilian bard Pippo Pollina sings of hope and justice
An exciting live performer, poet, and one of the music world’s great humanists, Italy's Pippo Pollina recently played four dates in France. RFI met him at Les Trois Baudets in Paris where he talked about finding inspiration in French chansonnier Leo Ferré and how song proved the most effective way of oppposing the Mafia.
In his 30 year career, Pippo Pollina has performed an average of 100 concerts a year, and has just released his 22nd album. He’s a star in Italy, Germany and Switzerland - where he now lives - and there’s growing interest here in France. He deserves to be better known in the English-speaking world.
It’s impossible to define Pollina’s music, although there’s plenty of pared-down guitar and vocals in the true protest song tradition.
“I take my inspiration from the classical singer-songwriters from all over the world,” he told RFI at the concert where he gave a string of rousing performances including a feisty cover of Jacques Brel’s Amsterdam.
France’s anarchist poet singer-songwriter Léo Ferré “has [also] had a big influence” he says. After Ferré died in 1994, Pollina wrote the song Léo along with Georges Moustaki, much appreciated by lovers of French chanson.
But he can equally veer into jazz or take off on Latin American rhythms.
“I like very much the music of Brazil, of singer-songwriters who made political music in Chile, Cuba, Argentina,” he says. “This kind of music is influencing my music, for sure.”
In 2009 he toured with 80 musicians from the Zurich Conservatory Symphonic Orchestra with a show called Fra due isole (between two islands) based on some of his best work. What began as a disastrous clash of two very different musical planets, ended up bringing the orchestra to tears. That's the kind of thing Pollina can do.
His latest album Il sole che verrà (the sun is coming) provides hope in what seems like an increasingly confrontational world.
“It’s an album of hope songs because I think we need to feel this feeling of hope today... we have to do something to cultivate this feeling. I think music has a great responsibility, the artist has a big responsibility [towards] the young generation."
The Mafia years
Pollina’s commitment to youth began in the 1980s when Sicily was in the grip of Cosa Nostra.
“It was a very dangerous time in Palermo, and very sad, because I remember after eight at night there was nobody in the streets,” he says.
Mafia families were fighting for control of drugs and guns and he "personally saw three people murdered".
He studied law and planned to be a political journalist, believing the pen was the best way to fight the mafia.
In the early 80s he worked on the youth section at “I Siciliani”, one of the main magazines to defy Cosa Nostra. In 1984, its editor, Guiseppe Fava, was assassinated.
Pollina gradually turned to writing songs rather than articles.
“With the music you can touch the heart of the people, [something you] don’t do with politics and journalism. For this reason sometimes I told myself ‘well if you are able to live with the music it’s better, because with music you can be the best journalist’.”
One of Pollina’s most famous songs is Cento Passi, dedicated to a Sicilian journalist, Peppino Impastato, killed by the Mafia in 1978.
“It’s an example for many Sicilians that want a different Italy,” he says. Pollina performs it regularly in Sicily at the annual festival held in Impastato’s memory.
Outside of the highly popular Italian Communist Party, Europe’s biggest at the time (34%) it was “impossible to get work, [even] in music if you'd made political music”.
Pollina packed his bags and left.
“I didn’t see any possibilities for Italy to go out of this situation because political [life] was so corrupt and people were resigned to it. I knew if I remained in Sicily all my energy would go down.”
He embarked on a three month trip around Europe. It turned into a three year busking trip, taking in North America and Africa.
He got to know the most important people of his life. One was Linard Bardill, a pacifist singer and ardent ecologist. He invited Pollina to play on his album. That chance meeting launched the Sicilian’s music career.
Pollina's been making music ever since, and his commitment to social justice, human rights and opposition to war is as strong as ever.
The new song A mani basse (with low hands) is a swinging tribute to boxer Muhammed Ali, crediting his powerful right hook, but also his refusal to fight in Vietnam which earned him a three year ban and a five year prison sentence.
No yono paura (I’m not afraid) is a powerful slow-burning ballad, something of a road map for Pollina’s own life.
“I’m not afraid of anything,” he says. “We have to conduct our life with courage, and everything that happens, even negative things, has something positive. And for this reason I’m not afraid to live, to love, not afraid also to take a risk.”
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