In spite of still being young, Etta Scolla (Catania 1958) is an authentic encyclopaedia of traditional Sicilian music. Genes, love of her homeland and an insatiable curiosity have conspired to keep this rich legacy alive: alive, that is, not as an archaeological reconstruction, but as a breathing phenomenon, which continues to be enriched in the light of new times without losing its essence. Records like Canta Ro’ (2005), dedicated to the great Rosa Balisteri, il fiore splendente (2008), based on Siculo-Arabic poetry, or Lunaria (2012), about the self-same work by Vincenzo Consolo, make Scollo a key figure in the island’s culture. She actually divides her time between Catania and Berlin, but agreed to talk to M’Sur on a fleeting visit to Seville.
Sicilian music is still widely unknown in Spain. How would you explain it to the uninitiated?
My opinion, given that I can’t give a scientific and historic answer, comes from Sicily always being a place of passage and dominion for many peoples who have then continued their journey northwards. This has meant that our musical tradition has been enriched with many elements.
It is often confused with Neapolitan music, what do you think distinguishes it?
Naples also has its Arab and Spanish tradition, but a central geographical location and is, therefore, different. Their character is more extrovert, to the extent that Neapolitan song has for a long time been the Italian song par excellence, ever since the start of the 20th century, yet it hasn’t stopped every other region from preserving its traditional song. In contrast to the Neapolitans, the Sicilian people are more introverted, they avoid the sun, looking for the shade, they are closed. They mark the ritual of death with laments. They are also a people who love a party…
But the former carries more weight…
Yes, in the end, although the island seems to accept its condition and absorb everything, it always maintains its own connotations, its essence. In spite of the fact that its music has moments of communication that are very different, what emerges in Sicily is the modal song of the peasant, of the women, of the mother with the child in her arms. And it’s an individual song. Only on the odd occasion, like harvest time, do they sing together, but almost always with the soloist first and the bass string.
Could we talk of the music of suffering?
There is a lot of pain, yes, but don’t you also think, irony, jokes… More than pain, I would say it’s a rather introverted music, and as I said, individualistic. Even the music of the cunti, which tells the history of the island, of the paladins of France, is sung by one person for the rest. In order to discover choral music one has to look to the religious festivals, the pagan ones, to the harvesting of the olive, of the wheat, or to the cartwrights who communicated over distance with their voice. When they met up together, they would improvise. However, these are only isolated moments.
What is the role of women in these songs?
Well, you have to think that many things from the past are sung about which have nothing to do with the situation today. The Sicilian tradition is often marked by folklore in its pejorative sense: tourism, goliardismo. It isn’t the true tradition, but a distortion of it, its kitsch version. The true Sicilian tradition has been very little cared for. Groups have come out, singers, who have rediscovered our musical heritage, but nothing has been done like they did for Fado in Portugal, or with Flamenco here…
But I asked about women in your tradition…
Yes, the woman’s song was very important in the past, above all with the ninna nanna, the cradle-side songs… Then there are some very beautiful songs which were directed towards men, as a kind of provocation: I’m talking about love but I’m scorning you, I’m telling you no, get out of here…! It’s all a bit ironic. However, love songs are mostly by men. My father, who had a lovely voice, was a singer of serenades; the lads called him to go and sing under the balconies. Funeral songs, in contrast, are the prerogative of women.
There are also many in which the woman acts as an astute mocker of the man, aren’t there?
Yes, she appears as more intelligent, more astute than the man. And then there are the songs of the mennulare, of the olive and almond harvest, which are typical of women who worked in a group: a song for the others which would make their work more productive.
In Spain they have taken commercial advantage of so-called underworld (malavita) music, mafia songs. Do they form part of the tradition?
Well, I once bumped into the producer, let’s call him that, of those discs, Francesco Sbano, who towards the end of the 90s was living in Hamburg. We had an animated discussion about the content of these works and about the so-called music of the mafia. They are records made ad-hoc, with a commercial objective, in order to give a lustre to the musical aspect of the mafia phenomenon, the ‘Ndrangheta, etc: to give publicity and a positive image to a phenomenon as negative as the malavita. Later on I read in a magazine that this man was investigated by the public prosecutor’s office in Reggio Calabria for having burst into an anti-cosche lab in the city’s Museo de la ‘Ndrangheta demanding royalty payments. This gives you an idea of the authenticity of such a project.
All invented then?
I think the only sound document about the role and theme of the mafia is the truly sober one gathered together by Antonino Uccello. I don’t believe in a culture of the mafia, rather the exploitation of works belonging to the Sicilian traditional repertoire, the texts of which certain mafiosi, investigated and/or held prisoner, have adapted by way of parody. The music of the mafia, in reality, is better represented by the neo-melodic Neapolitan genre which one hears in certain run-down streets in Palermo and Sicily as a whole.
Do they have much success?
The fact that certain records have sparked interest has much more to do with curiosity and the desire the public have for a chill down the spine, than with a sociocultural phenomenon. It’s the same attitude that sees someone go on a roller coaster or go to watch a violent thriller at the cinema.
Running through your discography, your homage to the great singer, Rosa Balisteri, stands out, whom you called the Sicilian Billy Holliday. Why?
It’s a strange comparison, I know, but I didn’t make it to put both in the same boat or to associate their music. Whoever knows Billy Holliday can get an idea of the pain of a woman like Rosa, alone, who managed by her own will to impose her talent. Like Billy Holliday, she lived a drama: Billy, as a girl, was shut up at home with her dead grandmother for two days; Rosa’s father killed himself, her sister died at the hands of her husband… Both had tragic destinies that they transformed into art. Rosa sang like a cuntista – a rare event, as cuntistas are always men – about her sister’s story.
Is it true that she was illiterate?
Many things have been said about her – that Rosa sang as a child, etc. – which aren’t certain, yet this is true. Rosa only had her voice as her inheritance, that and her vital energy. She sang well-known Neapolitan songs. When she left Sicily and went to work in Florence, to sell vegetables in the markets, she started to get to know some Sicilian and Florentine intellectuals… They enabled her to become familiar with Sicilian song. Isn’t it absurd? She discovered her own culture, the Sicilian songs collected by Alberto Favara in the 19th century, whilst in Florence. Giuseppe Ganduscio, a lyrical singer and ethnomusicologist, was her chief guide. And she had the talent to unite her natural fundamental instincts with such a search. In the end she was singing what the women of the 18th and 19th centuries were singing in Sicily. She didn’t transform Sicilian song into folklore, she united culture with tradition. That was her true genius.
At the time of preparing your record, how did you manage to avoid mimicry or kitsch?
I have sung traditional Sicilian music since I was a girl of 12 or 13, including the songs of Rosa Balisteri, but I took another route, I studied music, song, I segued into pop, everything, everything… And then 12 years ago my passion made me explore the tradition, but I told myself that I wouldn’t do copies, or remakes or parodies. The respect of an artist is expressed through his/her own sensibility, and so the homage to Rosa was also set out as a homage to Romantic music. Favara had the desire, and the battle, to harmonise traditional modal song, which is almost impossible. Frontini, Bellini, all the Sicilian Romantic composers, borrowed from popular tradition. They shared this desire for unity. I also wanted to pay tribute to this, so I worked with an orchestra. The risk of falling into stereotype is considerable, it’s a real challenge. Because we’re not peasants, it’s useless to pretend that we are.
On the other hand, you have worked on various projects with a literary flavour. For example, in homage to Ignazio Buttita, the great popular Sicilian poet. How did that arise?
Many of his poems were set to music before, but Antonio’s son, Antonino Buttita, asked me if I would form part of a project concerning his father. He presented me with an anthology of his and I set the verses to music. We are talking about a contemporary poet, who lived through the Second World War, who conserved the tradition and, at the same time, wrote poetry against the atomic bomb and the missiles, and who, like Rosa Balisteri, became politically active in the 60s and 70s.
Then there was the project of setting to music Sicily’s Arabic poetry. Did you find it more distant, more exotic?
On the contrary, I felt these poems to be very close. For me music is a means of learning, growing and knowing. And I hope not to impose one thing above another. It’s a way of translating to music an emotion that I have experienced, which is born through a process of learning. By chance, I came across an anthology of Arab poets in a library in Bologna. Fascinating texts, first translated by Michele Amari and others, then rewritten by contemporary poets. It formed part of a project undertaken by the linguist Francesca Corrao, and I asked her, where could I find a copy of the book? It was impossible. A little later, Ludovico Corrao came up with another project and, talking about the anthology, mentioned to me that a new edition had come out from a small publishing house. I studied it deeply for six months, and little by little I started to set the texts to music, trying to work on the musical imagery suggested by the poetic imagery.
How did you approach it?
I didn’t want to fall into an arabesque trap of The Thousand and One Nights kind, a la siciliana for German tourists. I contacted Fabio Tricomi, the polyinstrumentalist, who knows how to play the the Persian, Arab oud in taqsim style, he knows the technique… and then Nabil Salameh, a Lebanese singer who lives in Bari, who sings in classical Arabic. The text speaks of a story of love between men, of homosexuality. There are also European elements, contemporary, in order to avoid doing something imitative. I wanted it to be something modern. The poetry of Ibn Qalâquis makes me feel the same way I feel with Sicilian popular song.
We come to Lunaria. How did the collaboration with Vincenzo Consolo arise?
It arose from a meeting. I met Consolo in Selinunte, during a festival. Then I invited him to a literature festival in Switzerland, in a small Romansch canton. A year later he asked me to set Lunaria to music; he felt very bound to that tale and so I started to study. Unfortunately, Vincenzo left us before it was finished, but I periodically went to Milan and let him hear the recordings. I listened to his opinions and shared the work’s progress.
What do you think is Consolo’s charm, not as a novelist, but as a lyricist?
Consolo has a tension, a rhythm, a sonority with every word, so it isn’t at all difficult to write music for his texts. They are already musical in themselves. I have a great deal of respect for them, being almost fearful of wasting him with music. When you say “A ogni notte illune,/ nel nero più nero della notte,/ invocherò la Luna/ dall’alto della torre“, it’s already music, what can you do? I hope I have had the same delicacy as the elephant in a glassware factory who knows where to put his feet in order to avoid damaging anything. Like so many ignorant, novice readers of his work, which is how I feel before him, a pupil, I came to Consolo with Le pietre di Pantalica and Di qua dal faro with a wish for Sicilianità, an egotistical impulse to revive Sicily. And Consolo is the writer who, more than any other, has spoken to me of the Sicily I love, in its depth and its pain, without the typical adornments, without ciuri ciuri, without prettifying the reality. To be honest, I don’t understand everything I read in his books…
There may be many people who have the same experience…
…I don’t understand it all but I feel it, directly in the stomach. It’s as if the juices of his writing are filtered through you. The beautiful thing about reading him is that you return to him time and again, and he always gives you something more, new, different, he makes you grow. It’s writing that makes you grow inside, like a plant. You don’t realise it, but it changes your life inwardly.
You have also collaborated with Franco Battiato. What have you learnt from him?
We have a lovely friendly relationship. I involved him in the Arab poets’ project and we became friends. He’s a person who’s very drawn to the mystic, to the spiritual. Perhaps I’m more sober, or I haven’t reached his conclusions, but I like to discover how he has arrived at certain points, I feel curious, he discovers books for me. Our meetings are always over food: I go to his house, we eat together and talk about everything. He’s a real figure in Italy, but he’s a brother to me. It’s good for me to know that he’s well, that he’s happy. I made a journey with him, and everyone, everyone who wanted an autograph or a photo got one: not because he wanted to behave like a star, but because he was grateful. He loves his public in a straightforward, unemphatic manner.
Do you remember any of his book recommendations?
Yes, we have spoken a great deal about Gurdjieff, about Arab poets, San Juan de la Cruz, who he really rates. And then we went to Würzburg because he wanted to meet Willigis Jäger, a Benedictine monk who was promoted by Ratzinger because he made a connection between Christian and Buddhist mysticism. He wrote a book called The Meaning of Life which Battiato liked a lot.
Your collaboration on Bad Guy, the film by Kim Ki-duk, which has your interpretation of I tuoi fiori, how did that come about?
Well, I haven’t worked much for the cinema; this was purely by chance. The director came to Germany; he heard the song and got it for the film. I didn’t even know about it, perhaps the record company didn’t even know who Kim Ki-duk was. I discovered that my song was there because I started to receive letters from people in Japan, in Korea… Recently I have sung on a film that will appear on German television which is about Beirut. Perhaps because I live in Berlin these possibilities arise.
If you had remained in Sicily would you have been more isolated from the world, would it have been worse for your career?
I left Sicily because I fell in love at the age of 18 and married a Sicilian boy who lived in Turin. We parted after a year, then I studied in Vienna and moved to Hamburg. It’s a strange destiny mine, because whenever I fall in love my heart takes me to another place. It has been the motive behind all these little personal revolutions, which don’t consist of sacrificing oneself for the love of a man, but for the discovery of another world, a new language. Love ends, but one grows.
This article first appeared in M’Sur (22nd June 2015). Available here: http://msur.es/2015/06/22/etta-scollo/
Etta kindly allowed M’Sur to put three of her songs on their website. To listen to them, click the speaker below and scroll to the bottom of the page where you can find songs from Lunaria, Canta Ro’ and Tempo al tempo:
The interviewer, Alejandro Luque, is the author of a compilation of short stories set in Sicily, The Sicilian Defence. Diane Donovan in The Midwest Book Review called it ‘a magnificently crafted series of vignettes exposing the underbelly of choice and its consequences’. Click the cover to view on Amazon.