By Scott Kapuscinski (Queens College CUNY)
Born October 17, 1958 in Cavallermaggiore, in the Cuneo province of the Piedmont region, Gianmaria Testa died March 30, 2016 in Alba (another town in the Cuneo province). Gianmaria’s family supported his musical growth, and he chose to teach himself to play guitar, while he maintained his position as Station Master of the Cuneo Train Station.
Testa began his musical career as a rock guitarist, but he continued to experiment musically and developed his own voice as a singer/songwriter. As a soloist, Testa was awarded the Musicultura Award in 1993 and 1994 for emerging singer/songwriters. This brought him into contact with the French producer Nicole Courtois, who saw the expressive power of Testa’s music.
Initially, Gianmaria Testa enjoyed greater success in France than in Italy (his native Piedmont region shares a border with France). While his debut album is the French word Montgolfières (1995; Label Bleu), the songs are sung in Italian and reflect the stylistic influence of Paolo Conte in their “half-sung, half-spoken” style. Testa collaborated with fellow Piedmont musician and friend Piero Ponzo (of the group Trelilu), who also curated the arrangements for the album. Performances with well-regarded French musicians contributed to his success with audiences in France. His second album Extra-Muros (1996; Warner) marked the inaugural release Warner Music’s French label: Tôt ou Tard. Testa’s subsequent performance at Paris’ Olympia theater earned him the recognition of Italian labels and propelled him into locales throughout Europe and North America. Gianmaria Testa was well on his way.
Testa’s sound draws on influences that include folk, jazz, bossa nova, tango, and rock, yet a consistent element of almost hypnotic rhythm characterizes nearly every one of his songs. Either through the cadence of Testa’s own poetry, which uses simple language to tell nuanced stories of love and everyday life, or through the backbeat that Testa and his musicians create, each song transports the scenes depicted in Testa’s sultry Italian into something accessible to all listeners. One of his most notable early works “Le traiettorie delle mongolfiere” (the trajectories of hot-air balloons), speaks of the untraceable journey hot-air balloons chart across the sky, their immensity and slow pace leading the poet to wonder “if they ever lifted off / or if they’ve always been there.” The wistful lines are draped over a pulsating rhythm that lets the listener’s mind wander to a field of its own choosing, immersed in the shadows of passing balloons. While “hot-air balloons” is the translated title of Testa’s first album, his thematic range goes beyond flying machines, offering melancholy commentary on many aspects of life, love, and music.
Testa’s third album Lampo (1999; Warner) continued largely in the style cultivated throughout Testa’s previous two albums: sophisticated yet generally sparse instrumentation, always in support of Testa’s rhythmic poetry. Testa’s fourth album Il valzer di un giorno (2000; EGEA) revisited many previously recorded songs in a new, pared-down style featuring only the two guitars of Gianmaria Testa and Pier Mario Giovannone. The album featured several new songs as well as some of Giovannone’s original work. Il valzer marked a turning point in Testa’s career as a sort of induction into the Italian mainstream- this was Testa’s first record entirely written and produced in Italy, and it sold over 200,000 copies.
Altre latitudine (2003; EGEA), the fifth album, returned to more varied instrumental arrangements of Testa’s earlier work. Some of the songs are less melancholy and more tongue-in-cheek, as Testa in “Dentro al cinema” slyly attests, “for now we’re here, packed in this corner // but when you’re around / it’s the best.” The release was supported by strong touring through Europe and North America, including major festivals and events.
Testa’s 2006 album Da questa parte del mare (EGEA) was his concept album thematically centered around the experiences of modern migration: “on the reasons for it, the struggles, the leaving, the decisions, suffering, of crossing seas and deserts, on the significance of words like ‘land’ or ‘homeland’ and the sense of uprooting and of loss that the transition imbues in you forever” (gianmariatesta.com).
Testa’s recording career had already spanned over a decade, during which he consistently produced studio albums and toured, yet throughout this entire period Testa never gave up his job as the Station Master at Cuneo Station. As a poet whose main focus was daily life, Testa never parted with what kept him most connected to “il popolo.” Testa released a live album Solo dal vivo in 2009, and in 2011 he broadened his artistic range by acting in and providing the music for Andrea Bajani’s play 18 mila giorni – il pitone ( 18,000 days- the python); in the same year he also starred in the play Italy, with Giuseppe Battiston, which explored the theme of Italy as a place of immigration -not emigration, as it had been for so many millions in the previous centuries. On October 17, 2011, Testa’s birthday, the album Vitamia (EGEA) was released. This was a collection of songs that had grown out of his recent experiences in the world of playwrights.
Testa then entered a more literary phase, during which he released three books for children: Ninna nanna dei sogni- “Dream lullaby”(Gallucci; 2011), 20 mila Leghe (in fondo al mare)- “20,000 leagues under the sea” (Gallucci; 2013), and Biancaluna- “Whitemoon” (Gallucci; 2014). Each one was illustrated and some were even translated to other languages, including French. Testa also released a second live album Men at Work in 2013.
In 2016, “without making a sound,” according to his Facebook page, Gianmaria Testa passed away. Throughout his broadly artistic life as an actor, writer, musician, composer, and poet, Testa never gave up his position as Station Master and thus always remained a true voice of the people. In 2019, an unedited collection of Testa’s unfinished work Preziosa (Incipit) was released as a posthumous homage to the masterful, humble poet.