Peppe Voltarelli: True Blue Bohemian

Peppe is a wonderful man?a true bohemian! He goes wherever his guitar takes him.?

Daniela Nardi, in an interview with Wanda Waterman

Peppe Voltarelli is an Italian singer-songwriter and accordion player noted as much for his searing social commentary as for his tender tributes to the people of his region, winning his songs the label ?tarantella punk.? Singing in his native Calabrian dialect, he creates delightfully engaging songs that are somehow universally understood. Peppe will be performing at the Montreal International Jazz Festival on July 3 and 4 at the Savoy du M├ętropolis. Recently he took the time to share his history and personal aesthetic with Wanda Waterman.

What does it mean to be a true bohemian? The outer trappings are always changing? from gypsy garb to love beads to cross-dressing?and sadly, today’s true bohemian breeds tomorrow’s hordes of craven poseurs. That’s why It’s so refreshing to discover an entertainer who is so sure of himself and so creatively independent that his public persona seems absolutely natural, oozing bravado, pointing out hypocrisy while remaining somehow immune to it himself. Like Tom Waits, Voltarelli possesses the genius of being perfectly ironic without being arrogant, deeply emotional without bearing a trace of the maudlin.

Working Class Autodidact

Born in Cosenza, a city of about 100,000 people in the Calabria region of Italy, Peppe soon moved with his family to Mirto-Crosia, a small seaside town on the North Calabrian Jonio coast, where Peppe remained for almost 18 years.

?I came from a normal worker’s family,? he says.?My mother was a teacher and my dad a sports coach. It was a pretty happy childhood; I always had a passion for reading and there were a lot of books in the house.?

Getting into Music

When he was 11, Peppe started playing the guitar. He and a school friend got together to play music, soon creating. ?I always loved the performances in school at Christmas,? he says.

?My family loved Italian music. One day my parents came home with a bag full of Peppino Di Capri and Fred Bongusto’s albums [Italian crooners from the ?60s]; Dad asked me, ?Please, can you learn to play these songs?? I was 12 or 13 years old but, at that time my favourite songs were by Lucio Dalla, Edoardo Bennato, and Francesco De Gregori, that kind of stuff.?

At 18, Peppe moved to Bologna to attend university. ?In the ?80s, Bologna was a very important place for arts experimentation in Italy,? he says. ?I took DAMS [Discipline delle Arti della Musica e dello Spettacolo], an undergraduate degree in music and theatre arts disciplines.?

In Bologna he had the opportunity to meet many musicians playing different genres, including folk, punk, jazz, and pop. This is also where he was introduced to the idea of mixing genres, a concept that led him to begin blending his own peculiar folk traditions, sung in the Calabrian dialect, with punk. His sensibility owed much to the punk stance of minimalism, reckless gusto, and social criticism, and just as much to his love for his culture and language: ?I’m very proud of my language and its extraordinary strength of expression.?

Peppe has also acted in theatre and films (most recently The True Legend of Tony Vilar, by Giuseppe Gagliardi), exemplifying the same type of performance and persona he shows on the music stage. ?My rhythm of acting is very spontaneous and direct,? he quite rightly discerns.?I try to work in this direction also with the music, creating a character That’s unique and original.?

He remains actively attached to the musical traditions of his country. ?I love to sing in the little villages? historical centres,? he says. ?When I perform in these locations, I feel like my music and my voice descend from older generations of popular singers and performers. It’s a way of being at peace with my history and my people and of paying back what I owe them.?

Roots of a Social Conscience

Peppe’s father was active in the Socialist party and sometimes Peppe would accompany him to events and meetings. Peppe retained a devotion to social concerns, one that only grew stronger over time.

?Italy 1990 there was a great student movement in the University called ?La Pantera.? That was when my way of thinking about art and music changed. Music is not just entertainment?It’s one path to freedom and social emancipation. I believe that music can help change the future of humanity, but we have to work on it.?

Peppe’s joining of art with activism is truly seamless. He even sees activism and social concern as catalysts for the creative impulse: ?Seeking social justice is a great motivator for nonstop singing and writing.?

One of his most poignant and passionate songs, for example is ?Marinai.? What inspired it? ?Fishermen in my village,? says Peppe, ?and their mystical relationship with the sea. I like the depth of their language, the secular sense of their work, and their ancient faith.?

On Canada

?Canada was one of the first countries outside of Italy where I had my album distributed (by the Casanostra label). I’m really fascinated by Quebec. On my last album I did a song called “Coup de Coeur in Montreal,” with a special guest, my friend Marco Calliari. I admire your great ability to blend together peoples and cultures of different origins and for your great attention to art and artists.?

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