Several years ago I revisited my place of birth in Italy. From the train station I walked past the Community Hall and followed a hill downwards to a very tiny and narrow road with potholes and dilapidated houses towering over each other. The station master had directed me this way. Elderly women watched me from their windows as I passed their semi broken-down houses. I could hear a piano accordion playing familiar folk songs that we sang in my childhood. I came to a tiny block of land with a very dilapidated house, roof caved in, fig tree and cactus growing inside and weeds as high as the front door, which was boarded up. I stared in astonishment – could this be the place where I was born!
Then I heard my mother calling out to me, ‘Ciccio!’ My mum’s in Melbourne, she can’t be here. ‘Are you Ciccio Sofo?’ shouted the old woman. ‘Yes’, I replied. ‘Come here son, come here’ she motioned with her arm. ‘How is your mother? I am her godmother and I remember the day you left on the ship for Australia in June 1955 and you were just a baby’. Another woman about my age walked boldly up the tiny footpath and punched me in the chest: ‘Do you recognize me?’ ‘I’ve never seen you in my life!’
She kept punching me with the same question until finally she took off her glasses and insisted that I look carefully at her! Revelation! She was the spitting image of my Aunty, her mother who’d been living in Australia for many years. ‘We are first cousins, idiot!’ she said to me. All of this was spoken in dialect; luckily my parents insisted that I speak dialect throughout my childhood. My cousin had never been to Australia.
It wasn’t long before everyone in town knew I was there and they all had requests that they thought I would grant. Littera, a well-preserved 96-year old woman, tottered with her walking stick, stopped and stared at me: ‘You’re a Sofo, aren’t you! Which one?’ ‘Francesco’, I replied. ‘How’s your mum, I remember her so well as I was her godmother you know. Say hello to her for me’. After a long chat I asked about her husband and if I could visit for a coffee. ‘Zitto (shh)!’ She motioned emphatically and then whispered in my ear, ‘The mafia shot my husband in the head; never say that word mafia here to anyone, not even to your family’. I reflected on my own mother’s life and how she would also plead ignorance when asked about things. She told me it’s best to say you know nothing about it and no one has spoken to you about that and not to waver from that stance, that I should never be saying what another person said to me but leave it to them to say for themselves if they want to. My mother always insisted that our focus should be on the family, the necessities of life and doing our daily duties rather than gossiping. This very strong culture hasn’t really changed. My cousins both in Australia and Italy are the same as their parents. Am I really any different? Acqua in bocca (mum’s the word). Don’t engage in idle chatter. It is something cherished, yet has its disappointments as well. On that day I was immersed, with little chance of escape. Any migrant to Australia lives and reconciles across at least two major cultures.
This visit immersed me in my original culture and music and made me appreciate how important music was. On my return to Australia I realized more the nature of living across cultures and how important it was for me to share the original folk music of my childhood, unknown to most in Canberra.
Soon after, I took my mandolin and guitar to Italian conversation classes and we sang famous Italian songs to help us learn the language. Other class members (all ‘multi-cultural’ Australians) insisted I continue to take my instruments every week to sing Italian songs as an aid to our learning Italian and for the sheer enjoyment of singing. Many times we were asked to sing at an Italian function and refused until one day we entered the world of ‘yes’. And so began the Dante Musica Viva Italian Choir of Canberra.
All 60 members of the choir are a multicultural group, many Australians, and all others living across at least two cultures including Italians and others from Europe, Russia, China, Thailand, etc… We all have varying motivations for being part of the choir. We love to promote Italian languages (each dialect is a language in its own right) and culture through our singing. What unites us is the joy of singing Italian songs and the overwhelming joyful and tearful reactions of our audiences. We are a multicultural group but the joy of performing and belonging has united us for 15 years. Louise, one of our mandolinists, as Aussie as you get, proudly plays the mandolin her father purchased in Italy during the war.
An ensemble, not just a single instrument accompanies our choir: mandolins, guitars, double bass, violin, piano accordion and piano including some percussion (eg the anvil and tambourine). The unique quality of our sound adds considerably to the authenticity and enjoyment of the choir’s singing.
I couldn’t stay in my home town beyond three days. Everyone soon knew me thoroughly as one of them who had certain powers to open doors and give some required access. I felt a bond as strong as my family bond but soon appreciated my father for his initiative in migrating to Australia, a land of opportunity and great diversity. It occurred to me strongly that had we not migrated I probably would have long since been dead, having lived a life of unique ethics.
The cultural bond I could feel was durable and all consuming. What you will not do for your father or mother you will not do for your neighbour.
I was embroiled unwittingly in something bigger than myself and outside my control. The snake charmers played their own supernatural tunes transfixing desired targets. I escaped in the middle of the night. My colleagues in one of the Italian universities I visited advised me unequivocally never to return there.
This was indeed a horrible disappointing reality of life, which I later came to appreciate emanated from locally lived insight. Sadly, to date I’ve followed that advice.
The etchings on our brains from early childhood shape us to become what we are not intimately aware of during those early years. It takes a lifetime to come to realize more deeply who you are and the importance of place and early influences and how the sounds of childhood beckon us throughout life.