Gianmaria Testa was an extraordinary Italian singer and songwriter. Born in a province of Cuneo in 1958 he was raised by an artistic family of agriculturists, with a strong passion for music. Gianmaria Testa died in Alba in 2016. His success and work is an example for cross-cultural and transnational art and thought: He was a singer songwriter and railway worker, discovered in France, with his passion and heart grown in Italy. Gianmaria Testa dedicated a fair amount of notion and words to refugees and the modern migration.
He left rhythms, melodies and words full of poetry and play behind, revealing a delicate and precise view of what life and humanity means to him. Many of his songs tell us listeners about migration and witness the importance of it. They tell us about escape, arrival, flee, adoption, hopes and delusions as well as nostalgia. These topics have been and still are of great relevance throughout human history.
His concept album ‘Da questa parte del mare’ – which translates into ‘On this side of the sea’ and was published in 2006, is committed to modern migration and its crisis implied, the human crisis of the story, not political and bureaucratic only. It describes personal challenges as well as social bias we as humans encounter facing the phenomenon of migration now-a-days and have probably always encountered during bigger population shifts.
Referring to this exact album in 2015 Falk Häfner, a journalist of ‘BR-Klassik’ asked Testa whether he thinks that the European reaction to modern migration and all the issues that come along with it happened to late. It is pretty unconceivable how ignorant most parts of Europe were about what was going on around Italian shores way back. It was only raff 10 years after Testas’ album was released, that the awareness among European leaders and responsible institutions has significantly increased.
The concept album ‘On this side of the sea’ describes people who take a boat for crossing the Mediterranean Sea hoping to recover from their past and start fresh on the other side of the sea. It is this other side of the sea the ‘teller of the story’, Gianmaria testa seems to be neither on nor off. Meanwhile the public discourse around refugees developed due to the increasing urgency. It was the augmented arrival of refugees in northern European states, that were almost ‘spared’ from ‘floods of refugees’ for geographical reasons in the preceding years, that woke the sleeping dogs. To be ‘spared’ from ‘floods of refugees’ is an expression common and frequently used all over European tabloids and broadsheets, as well as national TV-news reporting on modern migration. Such expressions attribute negative associations to asylum seekers and refugees and are far off hand. They compare those people to incontrollable forces of nature such as floods and implicitly suggest they are a ‘catastrophe’ a country which’s borders are not on the sea side can be spared of. Such associations and linguistic failures cause gross misinterpretation of a wholly different situation.
2) Concept album “Da questa parte del mare”
Contrasting this inappropriate conception given to us by mass media, Gianmaria Testas’ wording in his songs entails a human, deep and more just conception of issues regarding migration. He emphasises the vulnerability of the asylum seeking crowd rather than illustrating them as a ‘problem to be solved’, or ‘seeking’ people, trying to find access to ‘our’ Europe.
I grant this article to the art with which Testa enriched the music scene in 2006: The discographic work and album ‘Da questa parte del mare’ or ‘On this side of the sea’ by taking a closer look to the lyrics and possible perceptions of some lines.
One of musics’ many amenities is its rhythmic and semantic structure which often contains messages that can be analised restrospectively. Those messages involve crucial aspects and aim a deeper understanding of the tenor processed within the music. I asked myself why Gianmaria Testa sang about modern migration the way he did. Probably for giving a voice, his voice, to people who for various reasons do not have either voices to speak nor legal rights to act the way he does in the world he grew up in and lived in when he composed the lyrics and those persons were entering it in a struggle. With his music Testa contributed to fight the absent-mindedness regarding refugees in Europe and all over the world and it is therefor especially worthwhile listening to.
In addition to this motivation singing about migration and escape can remind everyone of us the deep need that ignites both actions in the heart of anyone who desires to start over in search of a reality that is congruent with a ‘decent living’. The pursuit of less than happiness, just the basic needs and instruments needed to create life.
Referring to his 2006 album Gianmaria Testa stated: ‘I talk about intuitive racism even inherent in children, that is racism toward any diversity. This notion needs to be combated with intelligence and reasoning. I understand the (racism) of Italians, including my very own sense of irritation coming up some time. I understand it and can explain it to myself, but I do not accept it. Those are approaches that differ greatly: I understand it thinking it is not just to have it (the racism) and that it is ought to be contrasted and combated somehow.’ (translated after Antonio Piccolo 2007). For contrasting this distinct racism Testa composed and sang:
‘In the depth of the profound sea I leave my chant that doesn’t console, for who has departed and lost himself to the world in the profound sea’ (translated from Gianmaria Testa ‘Infondo al mare’). He sings addressing all people lost to the sea and the world. Ultimately those lines involve a broader understanding that goes beyond literal perception only. They can be read regarding the derogatory labelled ‘illegal immigrants’ as well as referring to any other person who feels lost. For Gianmaria Testa being part of the planet Earth was a resemblance of peace and quiet. A peace and quiet very distinct from the dispersion represented in his lyrics. Digging your hands deep into the earth, something Testa often did while growing up in a family of agriculturists, gave him a sense of home and belonging (Häfner 2015). It is this sense of sinking your very own hands into the earth and feeling its roots naturally, that has nothing to do with national and artificial categories.
In the song entitled ‘Ritals’- ‘Rituals’, Gianmaria Testas conveys the phenomenon of loss, pursuit and return to consciousness in a more concrete manner: ‘And yet we too knew the smell of the cargo hold, the bitter smell of leaving We too knew [there’d be] a language to unlearn and a new language to acquire in a haste, before [learning to ride] a bicycle’ ( translated from Gianmaria Testa,’Ritals’). This musical expression reminds on who was obliged to leave a place in bitterness and reluctantly, in pursuit of something better. The song recounts the initial obstacles this anonymous group of people encounters after having reached the other side of the sea: learning a new language, unlearning their first language possibly. The first moves of integration. Singing ‘Yet we knew’ Testa experiments empathy including himself in this state of transition. For people who have never had to escape and adopt to a new environment leaving behind everything that was once called ‘home’ to them, it is hard to imagine this transitional state of mind. Words and thus language is an aid for putting us in contact to conceptions out of the ordinary.
Such Lyrics demonstrates the innate potential that lies in music, of transmitting ostensibly alien conceptions to anyone who listens to them. Music is a form of power, an act of communication that can deliver atmospheres sometimes filling the void of words in newspapers, television or other media of communication, censured or confined by other means.
There are countless grounds to which musicians dedicate their voices. A point in case is described in an article published by ‘The Guardian’ in 2015: ‘When rap raged against racism- 2015 and the black protest anthem’ . This article is about rap music used as means for protest giving space to the dissent toward the ongoing and everlasting racism in the United States of America in particular. Rap music thereby enforces the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement- a movement created to reinforce and acknowledge the value of black peoples’ lives, a movement toward justice. Hip hop and rap plays a fundamental role as an instrument of participation and political rebellion on an artistic level. Musically charged revolts are treasurable and discerning new genres like Maria Testas’ song writing illustrates the versatile outcomes of musics’ potential. The political being of arts.
Musictory.it, Gianmaria Testa , testi e canzoni
Br Klassik, Falk Häfner : Gianmaria Teta gestorben(2015)
Antiwarsongs.org, Antonio Piccolo (2007)
Angolotesti.it ; testo “Una barca scura”, testo “Ritals”
Thanks to Monica Cavaliere, my cousin for having a look over myoriginal Italian article.