The voice, especially the singing voice, is a vehicle of a complex variety of messages. Not all these messages are related to the languages itself, many of them relay a more articulated heritage. But what is this heritage? How does it work when a vocalist sing? How does s/he connect her/his voice to this cultural memory? How can a vocal tradition be used as an expression of new cultural identities and how do projections and perceptions of voices intersect with issues of race and definitions of blackness?
With these questions in mind I started out an ethnomusicological project based at the Center for Black Music Research. Thanks to a grant from the European Union, I had the fortune to live and work in Chicago for longer than two years. Once in Chicago I had to review the whole basis of my own project, as I was learning that the African-American vocal tradition I wanted to study was more articulate and nuanced than I could imagine while studying the topic from Italy.
I realized that, for me, a white researcher born and raised in Southern Italy, Black Music was a genre whereas for most of the people I was encountering that adjective, “Black,” had far more implications than I could imagine. Not only I had to incorporate a wider range of critical theory in order to understand the role of race in the United States, I had to listen – and listen carefully – to realize how African-American vocalists were using their vocal instruments to reshape narratives. They were singing in order to address the ways in which their blackness was defined and interpreted.
While learning to identify my own racial prejudice and my own privilege, I was blessed to encounter so many artists and scholars who were sharing with me their answers to the questions I listed above. At that point, I understood that my job, beyond the role assigned to me by the European Union, was to give those voices a space. Therefore, I curated and organized two symposia titled “Black Vocality. Cultural Memories, Identities, and Practices of African-American Singing Styles” (2013 and 2014). The symposia brought together singers, poets, actors, activists, scholars and community organizers who wanted to participate to a discussion around the ways in which the voices chronicled and molded the black experience in the United States.
Yet the question remained: how can an Italian help in the conversation about race and vocality? To provide a possible reply to the questions I embarked on a comparative investigation into the ways in which a voice is perceived as black within the successful pedagogical method created by the voice teacher Lena Mclin and the Italian school of “vocologia artistica” directed in Ravenna (Italy) by the renowned physician Franco Fussi (see more).
Once back in Italy on a permanent basis, I was called to transfer my experience among African-American vocalists into a Southern European context. Therefore, I used the scheme and the theoretical framework of black music studies to challenge perceptions of blackness in sounds and musics in Italy, using different case studies.
I was first interested in the sounds of blackness on the Apulian summer beaches. Calls of vendors from Senegal, Guinea, Burkina Faso and other West African countries were animating the soundscape of the tourists’ vacation. Through those calls, as emerged from interviews with individual involved in selling objects, they were negotiating their “invisible presence” and the need to sell their wares.
I then developed an interest in the work of diasporic vocal artists who have used their voices to open up spaces where the Italian colonial heritage and perceptions of African migrants can be discussed. Through several encounters, conversations and observations of performances, I have been particularly close to the works and the souls of Gabriella Ghermandi and Badara Seck. I am constantly reflecting upon our encounter and the multilayered meanings of their arts (read more).
The different segments of my work came together when I curated the performance of Napoleon Maddox’s show “Twice the First Time” within the South Tyrolean Festival Transart 2018. Together with Napoleon we organized a parallel and multilayered performance in the streets – as well as in a cloister and in the main plaza – of the alpine Village of Silandro. Many asylum seekers from different countries participated with their arts and personal narratives to the event titled “Sanctuary of Slavery”.
Since June 2019, I am conducting a new research project, titled “Ethiopian-Italian Relationships in Popular Music”, that aims at displaying the relevant role of transcultural and transnational connections in popular music. Drawing from my previous research, such investigation focuses on the colonial heritage and on the critical role of sounds in narrating, and keeping the memories of, entangled histories that are both personal and collective.