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Melancholic, melodic bittersweet journey

Italian singer Zucchero has come full circle with his recent introspective album. In the run-up to his Malta concert, he tells Fiona Galea Debono he no longer fits in and relates to today’s world... even if his music definitely does.

The rain is pouring down, but the Arena di Verona in Italy is packed and the wave of umbrellas swells to the sound of music.

No one in the evocative, open-air theatre is deterred from watching the show. Awkwardly armed with plastic coverings, when the drum roll builds up, they flow to the stage like a tide, sucked in by the magnetic, husky voice of Zucchero Fornaciari and the liberating sensation of singing in the rain.

“Perché tu sei l’acqua, l’acqua del peccato! Il mare impetuouso al tramonto salì sulla luna e dietro una tendina di stelle,” he chants, in tune with the atmosphere and the sea of fans at his feet, spotlights illuminating the raindrops as they splash on to the stage.

Rain is unlikely to cloud the weather forecast on July 30, when the Italian singer/songwriter stages a concert in the open grounds of the Malta Fairs and Convention Centre, Ta’ Qali – his third in Malta over almost three decades of success. But Zucchero does not need to resort to nature – or challenge it – to lure the crowds...

Malta has been included on his Chocabeck World Tour, which is promoting his latest album by the same curious name and which, he admits, is probably the compilation he is most attached to “because it is about my roots”.

Zucchero is preparing for the Verona concert in a room in the ancient Roman amphitheatre that has been transformed into a backstage haven of colourful drapes.

A selection of his trademark long jackets hangs on rails, slippers are lined up and cushions are strewn about in a makeshift and homely lounge area, protected from the untimely downpour that is seeping through the thick walls of the magnificent monument.

Dishevelled as ever, he is not your standard rock star, concerned with image and playing the diva. And his decrepit, yet long-standing surroundings are in a sense a projection of the artiste himself, who is deeply in touch with his past and harking back to it through his music.

It’s been four years since he last performed locally, so what can his Maltese audience, which may not be too familiar with his most recent album Chocabeck, expect – the Zucchero they know, or a reinvented version?

“Chocabeck does not necessarily follow the trends, or the music business and the charts.

“It is more introspective,” he says of what he terms an “album concept” that departs from the bassa Padana village he was born in, and depicts a Sunday from dawn to dusk.

In it, through his music, he recounts “the faces, the emotions and the sensations that, unfortunately, have been lost”.

At 55, and having accumulated a three-decade career in music under his belt, Zucchero has gone back to his origins.

And he is compelled to thank the critics, who cottoned on to the fact that Chocabeck is a return to the time of Blue’s (1987), the biggest-selling album in Italian history, and Oro, Incenso e Birra (1989), recorded in Memphis, marking the inception of his musical journey, thus closing the circle.

“At almost 56 years old, I have finally allowed myself to do what I really feel inside of me,” he admits.

But despite the direct link to his past, Chocabeck is not a “nostalgic” album – “not an Amarcord” (a reference to Federico Fellini’s warmly melancholic memory piece).

More than anything, “it is a consideration of the fact that, unfortunately, the world has changed and I cannot fit in and relate to it any more – this world without solidarity, hard and arrogant”.

Ironically, the world-famous singer may not be able to find his place in today’s society, but his songs have secured a spot. The explanation of the paradox lies in the fact that art and music travel alone, along their own routes. What troubles Zucchero personally – not artistically – are the bloody wars, politics and power.

“So, I am distancing myself by embarking on this two-year-long tour, carrying inside me, on my own journey, my imaginary – because even that has changed – village, where my communist uncle argued daily with the priest, who had his own ideology, but on Sunday, would ask me to call him to lunch because he was alone.”

Chocabeck paints these vivid and endearing pictures of Zucchero’s childhood. It is a return to the values of the past – “to the simple things; the sound of Sunday, which should be a stupendous, special and easy day, where children play because they don’t have school and people rest... all those things that, unfortunately, don’t exist anymore. Today, Sundays are spent closed up in front of a computer...”

As to whether his audience can perceive his melancholic message through the sound of his album alone, Zucchero believes “music speaks its own language”.

He is confident they can enter the world of Chocabeck, a curious title, again connected to his history: it’s a word he extracted from the dialect of his birthplace, meaning the sound of the bird’s beak as it closes, and implying a lack of food, he explains.

So the story goes: “When I was a little boy, my parents were extremely poor farmers – they didn’t even own the land they worked. And I was always hungry, like most kids. Especially on Sundays, I expected a dessert, but nothing ever landed on the table.

“To avoid saying he had nothing to offer, my father would tell me, with a touch of sarcasm, not to worry because the chocabeck was on the way.

“And I would expect something enormous and good, covered in chocolate... But it never arrived... because there was nothing.”

So, many years later, what does the chocabeck that “never arrived” stand for? “Apart from its almost Anglo-Saxon sound, I chose the word because it has a deep meaning to me – it signifies something amazing that I am still waiting for. It is the curiosity to move on and see if something good will finally arrive,” says the man whose existence has hardly been devoid of satisfaction.

Zucchero does not deny a hint of discontent in life. “After all, I sing blues because I am melancholic, or I am melancholic, so I sing blues... It’s obvious,” he continues, referring to the element of dissatisfaction.

“I am a sensitive person – at times excessively so,” he admits. “I’ll never be completely... Some days, I am high up in the stars; others, I am down; then I go back up again... It’s all part of it... If it is not depression, melancholy can be quite warm, enveloping and creative.”

Zucchero’s latest album has been inspired by his childhood not just in terms of its feeling, but also as regards its musical style.

“It’s more a move towards the folklore of my roots, although the soul and rhythm and blues influences, which have always characterised my music, are present too. Beyond the voice, which remains fundamental and always occupies centre stage, are several acoustic guitars and instruments like the bassoon that have not been used in rock music since the time of The Beatles.”

But more than anything, Chocabeck is about “great collaborations” – something Zucchero is known for. The album is, in fact, produced by top names Don Was and Brendan O’Brien, who have worked with the likes of the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Bob Dylan and other legends.

Zucchero’s duets with Sting, U2’s Bono, Luciano Pavarotti, among others, were “born in spontaneous ways”, he insists. “They were neither wanted, nor managed by a record label. When that happens, the music business enters into play and we are never interested. We do these things together because we first get to know each other.”

His music partnerships have always been based on personal relationships, with an underlying artistic motivation: “Sting (Mad About You), for example, had a home next to mine in Tuscany and, one evening, knowing I was a famous Italian singer, he invited me to dinner.

“We were struck by each other, started hanging out and became friends. In fact, he became such an intimate friend that I am his daughter’s godfather – as I am also (that) to the child of Paul Young (Without a Woman).

“These duets were never a matter of asking for a favour, or because they needed something from me, or me from them.”

In the case of the late tenor, Pavarotti had never sung with a rock star until Zucchero asked him to. “I had the idea for a song that mixed pop with opera (Miserere), because I was listening to a lot of Puccini at the time.

“I asked him (Pavarotti) if he wanted to sing it. He heard it and told me he had never sung with a rock singer and didn’t know how to go about it. I told him not to worry and that I would tell him how. He went for it, almost for fun, because he liked the song.”

And that was how the first crossover between rock and opera came to be. Their collaboration went on to create the Pavarotti and Friends charity gala, which spread into 12 editions.

But among the major feathers in Zucchero’s trademark top hat is his discovery of Andrea Bocelli, who was brought to his record label Sugar “because nobody in Italy wanted him”.

To convince the owner, he says he had to “lock her in a room, where I begged her and promised her that I would have written and produced his first album... which I did and with which he won Sanremo.” The rest is history.

And next in line? “I’ve been hanging out with Peter Gabriel for two years and we’ve established a deeply genuine relationship. I’ve known him for years, but now we’ve reached the point of going on holiday together... and something creative and artistically important could also be born from this family tie. We’ll make it work.”

But back to the here and now, Zucchero plans to dedicate the first part of the two-hour-plus set in Malta to Chocabeck, and the rest of the repertoire should include “the most famous songs in the world”.

And that’s no exaggeration. Indeed, one can safely refer to world fame, the artist being one of the few Italian singers to manage to infiltrate the international music scene and gain popularity overseas.

But it does not just boil down to hooking up with the leading players, or translating lyrics – “I’ve done that with loads of songs, but in the end, only around four are really known worldwide,” he admits.

As for the key to international success: “I believe it has got to do with my voice and the fact that I do not make music that is typically Italian. Instead, I draw on black music, beat, soul and rock and sing in my language, which assumes a relatively personal feel, while also overcoming confines.

“It’s an international base, mixed with a Mediterranean melody because, after all, I am Italianissimo.”

Zucchero’s affinity with American soul and blues dates back to when he was around eight years old and the fair would come to town. With it arrived the first songs of the Rolling Stones and The Beatles, Otis Redding, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.

“I just wasn’t too interested in the Italian music of the time. Instinctively, I moved towards that, and when I started playing in bands at school, those were the songs I sang. I tried to imitate them.”

Zucchero acknowledges that no one seems to have picked up on his idea and copied his unique and successful style, the reason being that “it is not about putting five grams of sugar, a kilo of flour and baking a cake...”

“It is something innate. From the very first song I wrote, I didn’t just stand there and think about the ingredients to throw in. It came natural to me to put one part black music, two parts rock and the Mediterranean melody for good measure.”

And as long as there’s Sugar in the mix...

Zucchero will be performing at the MFCC in a concert organised by Stand Out Events on July 30. Tickets are on sale from www.ticketline.com.mt, the MFCC and other outlets. For more information, call on 7722 1003 / 9948 7342 / 2745 0000.

Watch excerpts of the interview on www.timesofmalta.com.

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