(Born in Cuggiono, 1950)
By Massimo Lajolo
It is difficult to consider Angelo Branduardi a typical Italian singer of popular music in light of the classical training that culminated in a degree in violin from the Conservatory of Genoa. Indeed, violin is not a typical instrument of pop and rock music, especially not when played by the writer and performer of such songs. When, as a young man, Branduardi felt the need to express himself through voice and words, he gravitated toward the music of great singers/songwriters such as Brassens, Donovan, Dylan, Cat Stevens e Baez, and even began to play the guitar. In an interview, he declared that these two instruments actually complement one another: the violin as male and the guitar as female.
Over the years, both in live and recorded performances, he played many other instruments as well: dulcimer, piano, flute, panpipes, saxophone, harmonica. He is truly a multi-instrumentalist.
With regards to his lyrics, Branduardi always counted on the inspiration of his wife, Luisa Zappa, a quiet but constant presence in his personal and artistic life. Other lyricists crossed his path, helping create original texts (like Pasquale Panella or Giorgio Faletti), and translations for international albums (Pete Sinfield, lyricist of King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, or Graham Nash). In fact, Branduardi released many of his works in various languages, for instance Highdown fair (1979, translation of Alla fiera dell’est) or Life is the only teacher (1986). This last one, being an English version with completely different words from the original, was the work of Sinfield, from Cogli la prima mela, from an album of the same name: “Opportunity is lost/ To those who sit weighing the cost/ Everything is there to reach for/ Life is the only teacher.” In most cases the translations are not very faithful to the originals, even if they maintain the same themes and tone; in certain cases, they constitute texts that are completely autonomous and unrelated.
The international scale of his works (certainly not attributable to the melodic style considered by many to be the typical byproduct of Italian pop) helped him garner fame in many European countries.
To this day the so-called “minstrel” has long and successful tours abroad, but the most famous were the ones undertaken during his most successful period, namely during the decade from the 70s into the 80s, when the Carovana del Mediterraneo filled stadiums and theatres as well and garnered invitations from international hosts such as Richie Havens and Stephen Stills.
Alla fiera dell’est (1976), La pulce d’acqua (1977), and Cogli la prima mela (1979) are the three most notable works from this period – and probably of his entire career – that have served to define and render his style recognizable. Later on, however, one cannot forget worthwhile albums and true gems, like Branduardi canta Yeats (1986), whose lyrics are the poems of the great Irish poet, translated by Luisa Zappa and set to music by Branduardi. There was indeed always a connection between his music and high poetry, thanks to the inspiration he received from the poet Franco Fortini, his teacher for a brief time during high school; these include adolescent attempts to set to music the poetry of Dante and Neruda (which he admits often had disastrous results), Yesenin, Garcia Lorca, Lorenzo the Magnificent, and Sappho.
The Italian he utilizes in some compositions is definitely unusual in the sphere of songwriting, with a lexicon and linguistic register more on par with poetry, without concessions to youthful slang or fashionable speech. These lines of “Confessioni di un malandrino” are borrowed directly from Yesenin’s “Confessions of a Hooligan”:
O Pegaso decrepito e bonario
il tuo galoppo è ora senza scopo
e giunsi come un maestro solitario
e non canto e non celebro che i topi.
Dalla mia testa come uva matura
gocciola il folle vino delle chiome
voglio essere una gialla velatura
gonfia verso un paese senza nome.
Old, kind, ridden off Pegasus
Should I need your soft trot?
I have come, like a stern maestro,
And glorified and praised the rats.
This noddle of mine, as with August,
Rains with the wine of stormy hair.
I desire to be the yellow sail
To that country, we are sailing to. (Translated by Lyuba Coffey)
This literary trait of Branduardi aligns him somewhat with other protagonists of Italian songwriting, like Battiato and De Andrè, but he is also ultimately dissimilar from them in that he does not use the usual linguistic loans from other languages or dialects. The one exception would be “Fou de love”, where he mixes words from various languages (ranging from Spanish to Neapolitan to Provençal): “Tiranna mia/ tu non vivi per me/ I fou de love/ appriess’ a tte/ Amor che a me me fas le feu, la glace, plaisir, dolor/ co ch’el vols” (“My tyrant / you do not live for me / I am crazy for love / after you / Love makes feel fire, ice, pleasure, pain, and whatever He wants”).
Even the themes he often treats are unlike the work of many Italian contemporaries, and include a great love for nature (especially for animals, who are the protagonists of dozens of songs and depicted in a manner similar to fables). They often show Eastern influences and are inspired by other cultures, as evidenced by his interest in Native American tales, wonderfully collected by Jaime de Angulo in his Indian Tales. One also does not find the concessions to emotional autobiography that are so common in the world of Italian song, where love is often depicted in such banal ways and with pseudo-teenaged tones. Even death, a topic nowadays considered taboo, appears in his lyrics, almost always inscribed with a delicate metaphorical veil rather than direct realism. Themes from fables are notable (“L’uomo e la nuvola”, and “Gulliver”, his version of a song by Alan Stivell), from dance and its symbolic value (“Ballo in Fa diesis minore”, where the traditional theme of the “Schiarazula Marazula” lends itself to the evocation of the Middle Ages through macabre dance), not to mention the references to characters from other ages and contexts (“Casanova”, and “April 1st, ‘65”, which comes from Che Guevara’s last letter to his father).
Similarly varied are his musical sources: upon one (essentially folk) matrix are grafted ethnic elements like reggae, Latin, pop, electronic, and rock, to render his music an extremely complex kaleidoscope – and always arranged with class and performed by top-tier Italian and foreign musicians. This multicolored sampling is also often comprised of re-elaborations of popular themes or unknown authors: his greatest success, Highdown Fair, is based on a Jewish text, “Cogli la prima mela” picks up an ancient Hungarian melody, and songs “Il ciliegio”, “Gli alberi sono alti”, and “Piano piano”, all of Anglo Saxon origins, are taken from the extraordinary collection of Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.
Thus the path of Branduardi is decisively personal; there are no concessions to the world of pop songs and its dressed up windows, like the Festival of Italian Music at Sanremo, no treatment of political themes when these were widely addressed by his contemporaries, no particular connection with the so-called “songwriter schools” (of Genova, Milan, or Rome), but instead an artistic and human profile of great success that (even with its highs and lows), has been maintained since 1974, the year of his first album’s debut.
Beyond songs, Branduardi has experimented in other parallel and complementary directions as well: film soundtracks, like State buoni se potete, directed by Luigi Magni, or Momo, based on the novel by Michael Ende, and a long cycle of albums (Futuro antico, vol. I-VIII, released between 1996 and 2014) created together with various instrumental ensembles and comprised of a repertoire of sacred and profane songs from the Middle Ages to the 17th century. Finally, he released L’infinitamente piccolo (2007), an album inspired by the figure of St. Francis, which was then made into a theatrical-musical production with the title, La lode di Francesco.