May 22, 2014

Me and the Mafia

I have performed and toured in a lot of places. Much of my travels have been in the United States. They have involved hopping into our trusty fifteen-passenger van (which hasn't always been so trusty); dodging bottles thrown by crazy people; accidentally hitting a turkey, hydro planing and fearing for our lives on our way into Denver during recent floods, and many more near misses that have left us feeling thankful for our lives and thinking, "I just want to play music!" I have also traveled to Asia and the UK and Europe for my music. Out of all the mishaps that could make for an interesting road story, nothing compares to the show where I met the mafia.

I lived in Italy for a while. I learned the language. I ate the food, walked the streets, rode the trains, loved its people. Connections I made there are still strong and to this day it is the second home of my heart. I met several musicians while I was there, and they invite me back from time to time to tour and perform with them. Having lived in Milan and visited a majority of northern Italy but never having gone much father south than Rome, I was thrilled to learn, on one such tour, that we would be performing in Naples. I knew all the horror stories of pickpockets and liars, but I also knew of the rich history, the best pizza in the land of pizza, and I was looking forward to seeing yet another new city in this country I adored.

I wasn't really told much about the venue before we arrived, other than that it was a "family owned business." I knew that could mean something vastly different in Italy than it does in the states, but I have never felt unsafe in Italy, despite knowing full well that while some people may think the mafia is no longer thriving in Italy, it very much so is. Upon our arrival, there was a huge table laid out for us before we even sound-checked. White linen, amazing pasta, flowing wine, and lots of jolly conversation - the kind of sudden intimacy to which I was accustomed. Italians absolutely adore a foreigner that takes the time to learn and use their language. I will admit, I wasn't quite so used to such "royal" treatment, especially as a working musician, but I was soon to find out why I was being treated so well.

The "family" explained to me that people had paid good money and were coming from far and near to see the "American artist"! They complimented my Italian speaking skills, but then proceeded to "request," (in retrospect, there was definitely an implied warning) that I speak no Italian from the stage or people may think the venue had lied about me being from America. I couldn't imagine that people would look at me and hear my accent and confuse me as being a native Italian or even from somewhere other than America, and speaking Italian in Italy was second nature to me. But I promised to do my best, even though I already had an uneasy feeling about being asked to do something that seemed so false and strange.

We had three sets to perform that night, and I was already fighting vocal fatigue due to having come down with a virus of some kind earlier in the week. My voice sounded great during the first two sets, and held up until nearly the end of the third. But strangely, when we had only two songs left, it completely vanished. I could only get out a croak. I felt so horrible, and also so foolish trying to let the audience know what had happened, that I immediately did what felt most natural: I apologized to them in Italian. You see, I am fluent in Italian, I dream in Italian, it actually feels very unnatural to me to speak English while I am there. My brain didn't recall what the venue owners had said, I just reacted instinctively.

Suddenly, my friends were yanking me off the stage, throwing instruments into cases, and hustling me out to the car. As we sped away, I tried to get some information as to what was happening. Despite being promised a nice paycheck that night, apparently the venue was not only withholding our money, but they had landed our manager in the nearest hospital by "roughing him up," let's just say.  I admit I was scared, never quite having believed it would go that far, and never having intended to make the mistake I quite naturally made.

I will never forget that night. My love of Italy and everything about it has not diminished one iota. It makes for a good story. But everyone loves a story with a happy ending. The happy ending to this story is that a few years after this incident, I entered one of my songs into the Festival Degli Autori songwriter competition that took place in Sanremo. They had an international section with songwriters represented from several different countries. I flew to Italy to perform my song live in several rounds of the competition, and ended up winning the International section. My prize was having my song produced by Euro Ferrari, who has worked with some amazing artists. Even better ending to the story? They let me speak Italian when I accepted my award.

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