CASTELLAMMARE DEL GOLFO, Sicily – I had reached such a bursting point of frustration and desire in wanting to play some music on stage somewhere, anywhere, last night, that before we went out to dinner I said to Ornella: “I want to bring my Gibson J200 with me just in case I find a place to play!” It being very hot, and the likelihood of finding a place to play being very small in this dream of a fantastic seaside town on the coast of Sicily near Palermo, in the end I chose not to take my guitar. Then the miracle happened.
We ate in a wonderful, cheap, heart-warming restaurant – the town is full of them! – and then headed off to one of our two favourite pubs in Castellammare. I am speaking of the Picolit pub, which I have written about in the past, and which features live music at least four nights per week in its outdoor terrace, with the natural amphitheatre of a public staircase. (Our other favorite joint is Cantina Aurelia, which does not feature live music.) As soon as I heard and saw that it was guy on an acoustic guitar – occasionally joined by a bass player – I thought we had to go an listen.
There was something very attractive in his sound, and demeanour: I immediately felt something a little Brazilian in it, but it was manifestly more African, Jamaican, and reggae-related. His performance is very intimate, warm, and he has a great way of communicating with the spectators both through the music and its stories, as well as directly involving them – for instance in using them to create harmony for a chorus to one of his songs. The musician’s name was Francesco Riotta, and while he comes from Palermo, where he was raised in the tangle of culturally mixed streets in the central part of the city, he has also travelled all around playing his music, and learning more sounds, and mixing his culture and language with that of the countries he visits: English, French, African, Spanish, German, etc.
I was intrigued by his guitar, which was steel-stringed but sounded more like a nylon-string guitare, and I could not read the brand name. So when he took a break, I decided to go to ask him if I could look at the guitar, which he had placed in its case. We got into a conversation immediately, and we switched from English to French, as he said he had lived in Paris for a while, and had even written and performed a song in French, and done a video with an African musician, who he met in the Goutte d’Or part of Paris. (He had gone there to seek out African musicians.)
He asked about me, and when he learned that I played guitar and sang, he asked if I wanted to do a song at the end of his set. Hey presto! That need to get up and do a song on stage that I had felt overpowering me before dinner was about to be calmed! Unbelievable! I did two songs, and I was joined by his bass player, Daniele Ferrantelli. This thanks to a generous, human musician who knows what it means to create a great vibe during a gig and give something to a fellow musician. In fact, Francesco knew it very well, because I turned out not to be the only one he lent the stage to. There were a couple of guys who go up from the Picolit clients and did a kind of rap competition – in Italian – and then another singer, a woman named Kristen Palmera, took the mic and she did a couple of songs, for which Francesco played the guitar – one was Hit the Road Jack….
But in the magic way in which these things almost always happen in the life of the musical troubadour, after the “open mic” ended and the instruments were put away, several of us joined together for a drink, and one of the rappers approached me and he too spoke in French. He informed me that in a neighbouring town, called Scopello (which is actually part of Castellammare, but a 15-minute drive from here), every Wednesday night there is an open jam session in a bar, and I should attend. Wow! It was only the day before that Ornella and I were saying that Castellammare is a perfect place for us, with the exception that I cannot satiate my need to play music by dropping into an open mic in the way I can at home. Hey presto, now I can! I will report on that here once I do it….
PS, lest I give a wrong impression about this place, it is absolutely full of music, and there are several bars with live music several times per week. But they book acts long in advance, so I’ve never had a chance to play in one.
PPS, and for those who noticed the hole in my storytelling…the guitar was a Crafter!!! (The hole was there on purpose, but against my wishes, because I had gone blank while writing this on what the name of the guitar was!!!)