The Pickin's Good
When Armando Zuppa's wife suggested it was time for her Italian-born husband to get out of Rome, he agreed that it was a good idea.
"She came into our apartment one day," he recalls, "and I was standing in front of my stereo with my cowboy hat and boots on, playing the banjo, and she said, 'You don't belong here. Come with me.'"
After that, Zuppa and his wife picked up and moved to her hometown of Denver, Colorado, U.S.A. -- a place that may have lacked the romance of the Old World but that understood the music that had so enchanted Armando and his band, New Country Kitchen: good old-fashioned bluegrass. The move, says Zuppa, allowed for the refreshing likelihood that "if people see me with my banjo, they don't say, 'Hey, nice mandolin.'"
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"In Italy," Zuppa says, "you play bluegrass and people kind of laugh at you and think, 'Oh, you play that music from The Dukes of Hazzard.' They have no idea."
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In this age of global communication, maybe it shouldn't be a surprise to find that one culture's indigenous music has been picked up and performed by players thousands of miles away. Still, New Country Kitchen's choice of sound is somewhat unexpected. Bluegrass is about as obscure in the band's home country as Latin is to most Americans; additionally, the band's location and a language barrier have always been obstacles to its pursuit of an authentic bluegrass education. Like his fellow players in New Country Kitchen, Zuppa learned about the style through a fragmented, long-distance study of American-rooted music and culture -- sometimes with unlikely source material.
"When I saw that movie Deliverance," Zuppa says, "I was like, 'Whoa! What the hell is that?' About the only bluegrass record you can find in Italy is the soundtrack to Deliverance." (Though the film may have soured the Italian perception of the sexual practices of Appalachian men, the string-heavy soundtrack inspired Zuppa to buy his first banjo several years ago. "I don't think in America people have a very good impression of people in West Virginia, either," he adds.)
Kitchen bassist Andrea Moneta makes it clear that he and his peers -- three of whom speak no English -- can appreciate their chosen music, even if they have trouble speaking its native tongue. The beauty of bluegrass music, he notes, is that it is "an emotional thing. You listen to this music and you like it. But we also discovered immediately that the beautiful side of bluegrass is the playing time. When you join your friends and listen to what you play, with no effects, no wires, no shits. And you can do it at your home or in the streets.
"What a fun," Moneta adds, "being carried away by police while hundreds of street listeners were screaming against them!"
New Country Kitchen got its unofficial start in Rome in the late '70s. As teenagers, founding members Marco Pandolfi (five-string banjo/ vocals) and Edoardo Martinez (guitar/vocals) shared an addiction to American bands like Hot Tuna, The Band, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Eagles. While embracing these acts, they both also discovered the artists who had influenced their new heroes -- players like Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson.
"At that time, very few bluegrass records were available in Italy," Moneta points out, "and finding a banjo in a music shop was quite impossible." In 1980, Moneta, then a student of classical violin, met Martinez and Pandolfi and formed the Old Time String Band. The band went through a series of personnel changes before becoming New Country Kitchen in 1981. (The name is a tribute to New Grass Revival, a modern-day American influence on the group.)
Today the band's official lineup consists of Pandolfi, Martinez, Moneta, Marco Rosini (mandolin/vocals) and Anchise Bolchi (fiddle/vocals). Zuppa, who joined forces with New Country Kitchen after seeing the band perform in a bar in Rome about five years ago, remains a transcontinental member and acts as the band's American agent; when Zuppa lines up Kitchen gigs in Colorado, he also joins the band on stage.
While New Country Kitchen's playing gives weight to the theory that music is an international language, the band is guilty of misappropriating an American musical term: Its current CD is titled Jamgrass. But the disc's contents are a long way from the extended songs many Coloradans associate with the J-word. Instead, the band uses "jam" as a symbol of its myriad influences; it uses bits and pieces of musical forms in its musical marmalade. New Country Kitchen weaves tunes by Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley with songs by Italian folk heroes and American pop artists. The players keep these excursions to the point, opting for standard-length tunes that are heavy on traditional touches.
Jamgrass opens with Townes Van Zandt's "White Freightliner Blues," which the band delivers in a lively, flat-footing fashion. Acoustic-guitar finger picking, high-lonesome harmonies and dead-on breaks on banjo, fiddle and mandolin give the disc an impressive, all-American sound. "Through the Gates" is a new-agey instrumental with Celtic touches, while "Mountain Girls" is a traditional bluegrass stomper with Grateful Dead-ish harmonies that should fill tie-dyed wrigglers with polyethnic glee. "You're the Best Friend" fits a similar bill, while "Swing Minor," a Django Reinhardt cover, is a nice slice of red-white-and-green acoustic jazz. The real highlights on Jamgrass, though, are the group's Appalachia-via-Italy reworkings of contemporary music. An inspired, banjo-powered cover of the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" features just-right cowboy harmonies and the unique, and thoroughly charming, combination of Italian singers attempting Dixie accents: Miss Rigby "peeks up the rice in the church where the wedding has been." Meanwhile, Bolchi's flashy fiddling recalls a classical violinist rather than a Kentucky string scraper. The band stretches the melody of Greg Allman's "Midnight Rider" several feet, giving it a blue-mountain feel that's heightened by Pandolfi's virtuoso banjo playing. It's hilarious and tastefully done, and it reveals both the band's sense of humor and its internationalism.
"We don't use Italian artists because of the language," Moneta says of New Country Kitchen's song choices. "You can't sing the musica lirica in English, nor bluegrass in Italian." According to Zuppa, "Bluegrass is not very big there, so you have to sing tunes that everybody knows. We try to imitate the accent and the voice [of original bluegrass singers], and we get this weird combination of Italian people singing with kind of southern accents. It is funny." But, Moneta notes, there is a common thread between his country's folk music and America's: "The wish to make festa together," he says, "to make noise and let people dance. This is the same spirit among two different cultures."
That connection has kept New Country Kitchen busy. The band plays about 150 shows per year in Italy, most of them in the northern part of the country, where Moneta says a large population of American transplants crave homespun music. Some Italians have also embraced bluegrass, Moneta says, thanks in part to a bluegrass revival that took place in the '80s. A number of festivals around the country during that time helped expose Italians to bluegrass, and New Country Kitchen appeared at many of these events. Sometimes the band ended up jamming with American players. "With our tents in the campground," he notes, "like the American way!"
Over the next few weeks, Coloradans will have a chance to witness Moneta and his pals' bluegrass enthusiasm. (They'll be joined by acoustic guitarist Ross Martin, a member of Tony Furtado's group, mandolinist Charlie Provenza and others.) Zuppa, who has been sitting in with some of the area's best new-grass players, is excited about the reunion. "I have never had as much fun playing bluegrass with bands here as I have playing with these Italian guys," he says. "Everything Italians do, we do with so much love and so much passion."
Moneta says his tour of Colorado and America will be a stirring musical homecoming. "Playing in the USA is like making a dream come true," Moneta enthuses. "We'll have an audience that can truly appreciate our music and comprehend what we're singing, in the place where this music was born. We're closing a circle opened when we were just teens dreaming with open eyes, in our rooms with the classwork, waiting and waiting and waiting."
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