The tradition of a troubadour singing and telling stories has been with us for eons. Whether it’s griots in West Africa, bluesmen in Mississippi or Moroccan gnawa players, these traveling musicians inform and entertain with a mix of political and social satire, love songs, comedy, praise of a deity or whatever else inspires them.
Italian singer-songwriter Peppe Voltarelli comes out of this tradition, putting a distinctly modern and Italian twist on it. Hailing from Calabria (that’s the toe of Italy), Voltarelli sings his tales with a distinctly Calabrian point of view and dialect, pointing out the hypocrisy and deep political corruption in one of Italy’s most troubled regions, but balancing that with a dash of humor and catchy melodies often delivered on acoustic guitar.
“I think its kind of Mediterranean blues” Voltarelli says of his music. “I’m a modern songwriter looking at the culture that has dominated our land and then creating imaginary place where a tribal African rhythm meets the sweetness of Greek serenata.”
This restless soul brought his Mediterranean blues with a touch of babalu to Germany, Argentina, the U.S. and elsewhere, settling down for a while before moving along to the next country or returning home for another major concert, television appearance or collaboration with noted Calabrian film director Giuseppe Gagliardi.
“It is an escape,” Voltarelli says of his time away. “The people of other countries help me to understand life from different point of view. It’s a never-ending exodus and Italian emigrants are my mirror, my music is like blotting paper that preserves the memories of my peoples.”
While Voltarelli cites such Italian artists as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Roberto Saviano and particularly Domenico Modugno (composer of the standard “Volare”) as influences, his music moves well beyond its Italian roots.
This is a performer that transcends his bloodlines with a swagger that recalls fellow global pop iconoclasts like Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz, Billy Bragg, Manu Chao or Shane MacGowan, delivering his message with a dynamic intensity and singular style.
Voltarelli (now 43) got his start in music at the ripe old age of 11, eventually founding the popular alternative rock band Il Parto delle Nuvole Pesanti (The Birth of the Heavy Clouds). A band that mixed punk rock and Calabrian folk traditions, it became one of Italy's seminal bands of the 1990's. He eventually left that band in 2006 to pursue a solo career.
His first album “Distratto Ma Però” was released in 2007 and it was among the finalists for Italy’s prestigious "Tenco Prize". Distributed in Europe by Universal, Voltarelli’s second solo album, “Ultima Notte A Malà Strana,” came out in 2010 and won the Tenco Prize for the Best Album in Dialect. It is the first album in Calabrese to do so. Nonetheless, Voltarelli’s amazing run of New York City performances in late 2012 needed few if any subtitles. During four Saturday nights at the intimate but influential Barbes, his audience grew each week and eventually led to a fifth and final show at Drom in Manhattan’s East Village to accommodate the crowd and accompanying buzz.
Those who were there saw Voltarelli accompany himself on guitar and accordion in a tour de force performance called “Trip, Fathers, Belonging.” He performed Italian songs of other famous artists and his own compositions, interspersing personal stories that were both funny and poignant about his life on the road and what it means when Italian immigrants leave their homeland.
“The basis of my music is the Calabrian dialect and the place itself,” he explains. “Then I translate everything to the present, but not to succumb to the stereotypes (mafia, corruption, etc.) associated with it.