The Summer I Discovered Italian Music


Fun fact about me: I once spent an entire summer speaking only Italian…in the middle of Vermont. During the summer of 2012, I enrolled in Middlebury College’s Italian language school, La Scuola Italiana. Offering a wide variety of courses in Italian culture, art, cinema, cuisine, literature and linguistics, La Scuola Italiana provides an exciting combination of learning and summer fun, but what makes the school truly unique is its Language Pledge. In order to truly immerse themselves in the intensive language program and the cultural environment of the school, all students must sign the Pledge: a formal commitment to only speak, hear, read, and write the Italian language for the entire summer. All of my classes, extracurricular activities, conversations with friends on and off campus, and email correspondences with my family were in Italian.

While this was all certainly challenging, the most difficult aspect of the Language Pledge for me was the restriction it placed on the music I could listen to; my options were a) Italian or b) instrumental. Like many of my fellow Millennials, I consider myself to be a bit of a music freak: My iTunes library takes up more space on my computer than anything else, I walk around with my ear buds perpetually glued to my head, and I often feel anxious in silent, music-less spaces. Cutting music out of my life was simply not an option. So, I began the summer with a pretty substantial repository of instrumental songs, from classical music to string quartet tributes to modern pop covers. But the lack of lyrics soon started to bother me; one of my favorite parts of any song is the story, the pure poetry of the singer’s words. Thus, I was finally forced to turn to the world of Italian music. And what an eclectic world it is.

Internationally, the most famous form of Italian music is opera. Italian composers Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, and Puccini wrote some of the world’s best-known operas, and even non-Italians like Mozart and Handel composed operas in the language. Italy’s strong cultural ties to classical music were evident even at La Scuola Italiana, as several of my classmates were aspiring opera singers. Throughout my summer, I explored the wealth of Pavarotti and Bocelli recordings on Spotify, and while I love “Con Te Partirò” as much as the next Step Brothers fan, I craved other musical options. More specifically, I wanted to listen to music that hadn’t appeared on Looney Tunes.

Through my Italian classes at Brown, I had come to learn about a few famous Italian singers from the 60’s, a period of time in the country known as “il boom” (because of the rapid economic growth, though I’d like to think that it also refers to the explosion of catchy pop/rock tunes). With my new musical restrictions, I compiled a groovy playlist boasting the likes of Lucio Battisti, Luigi Tenco, Gino Paoli, and, my personal favorite, Mina. Their music shared many common characteristics with American music of the same time period (protest song themes, violin-driven background sounds, etc.), but there was always something distinctly Italian about each song, even beyond the language. This distinct Italian-ness sometimes lay in the song’s references to food, family, regional pride, or even mafia violence; at other times, it was a little more intangible, but it was always there. In the aftermath of WWII, while the country rebuilt itself from the rubble of its Fascist era, these songs played an integral part of the new Italian identity—one of diversity, creativity, and personal expression.

Beyond my forays into classical music, I developed a real affinity for contemporary Italian pop. In my prior travels across Italy, I found that English language pop music tends to dominate radio airwaves, but that doesn’t mean the country doesn’t have its own hit-makers. Indeed, at Middlebury, I found no shortage of Italian pop music to fill my summer playlist, from the hip-hop dance beats of Fabbri Fibra to the powerful ballads of Laura Pausini to the endless #1 hits of superstar Jovanotti. I even discovered Italy’s equivalent of the Jonas Brothers, a duo of baby-faced brothers who perform under the name Sonohra. With every weekend dance “festa” put on by La Scuola Italiana came a slew of new songs to Shazaam.

My exploration of Italian pop music also opened my eyes to the world of Italian covers of English language hits. Back in the 60s and 70s, Italian folk singers translated Bob Dylan songs into their native language, transforming “It Ain’t Me Babe” into “Bambina, non sono io.” This translation trend still manifests itself in the present day, most notably in an Italian music program called Fakemen. Fakemen is a group of music professionals who translate the lyrics of popular English language songs into Italian and then produce full covers with virtually identical background music and Italian singers with somewhat similar voices to the original artists. Discovering Fakemen truly revolutionized my summer; I felt like I was listening to my beloved Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and even the Red Hot Chili Peppers, just singing their hits in Italian.

The Fakemen listening experience can be admittedly strange, especially considering that words in the Italian language tends to have more syllables than their English counterparts. Case in point: the phrase “We found love in a hopeless place” doubles from 8 to 16 syllables to become “troviamo l’amore in un posto senza speranza.” Still, I can’t help but admire Fakemen’s commitment to literal translations. Indeed, hearing the Italian renditions of familiar songs whose lyrics I know by heart provided a highly effective and also incredibly fun way to improve my language skills. Now that I’m away from my little Italian world, my music options are endless, and I continue to expand my song repository into new genres and all directions. I relish in the thrill of hearing a new St. Vincent album or dancing around my room to good old American oldies, but day after day, I still find myself returning to the sweet summer sounds of Mina, Fakemen, and my entire Middlebury Italian playlist.

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