the musician who is Sudtirolean by birth, and Sicilian by adoption

Luca Chiappara is a young and promising musician, ready to take his talent to Nashville, Tennessee, where dreams come true!

Born in 1992, he grew up in Sudtirol, where, aged 9, he started playing the electric bass. “I started stealing my sister’s tapes so I could listen to them,” he tells us. “There was some rock, punk, grunge, some 90s metal, a CD by Daft Punk and some boy bands (after all, those were the years of the Backstreet Boys and the Boyzone). I bought my first CD at 10, with the pocket money I saved. It was a record by Metallica, and to this day, it’s one of the CDs in my collection that I cherish the most.”

Upon graduation, he decided to go to Palermo on vacation, which is the hometown of his family. Entranced by Sicily and the Sicilians, he decided to stay, and supported himself with a wide variety of gigs and manual labor. “Sicily would be perfect were it no so geographically detached. Yet, I admit that this, after all, is also one of its strengths. I think that what I like the most is Sicily’s penchant for outdoor living: the days spent at the local bar or cafés, which bring about the most haphazard encounters, the hours spent playing on the street, and the most intense friendships blossoming and developing so rapidly. I lived in the historical center for the majority of the time. It was like a big family: I knew where to go even when I had nobody to hang out with. This tendency to form a network also emerges in musical professional settings. I think I will really miss that human component a lot.”

As Luca points out, Sicily evokes a pretty neat imagery among laypeople, and it would be a pity not to exploit that. Also, we cannot help it: whoever feels Sicilian takes very little time to openly flaunt that. That’s how the country version of [popular local tunes] “Vitti ‘na Crozza” or the rumba arrangement of “Parla più piano” were born. They’re not Sicilian melodies strictly speaking, but they surely evoke the atmosphere.

“Then, there is a lot of Sicilianhood in showmanship: we’re gregarious and with an innate penchant for entertainment. This plays in our favor wherever we go.”

Italians and, particularly, Sicilians always had great contributions in early 20th-century American music: the first Jazz recording starred a Sicilian band, Nick LaRocca’s band, back in 1917. Then there were Luis Prima, Sam Butera, Frank Sinatra. Briefly told, some of the best performers of Swing music were Italian. Plus, we had a number of relevant productions in Italy too.  Natalino Otto, the Cetra quartet, the Kramer orchestra. In 1945, it became forbidden, in Italy, to play anything that had an even vaguely American sound, but that has been one of the most interesting and prolific years. While Rome was getting bombed, great productions of jazz were being recorded.

“I was always lucky, experience-wise: nobody ever asked me the standard question so, you’re a musician, but what do you do for a living? Actually, I think that the idea of a metaphorically self-harming musician is a stereotype that’s becoming trite. Sure, it’s us against the cogs of bureaucracy, and, finance-wise, it’s not easy to put us in boxes.

“As far as common beliefs are concerned, I have to admit that the average Sicilian is more eager to show respect to an artist or a musician. There’s some sort of halo of respect and inside knowledge surrounding you when you walk dragging your upright bass along.Maybe I just look funny, though. Imagine a dwarf dragging a upright bass in an avenue like corso Vittorio Emanuele. I have to say that, elsewhere in Italy, I did not feel this aura of respect as much as I did here. From this point of view, we’re very Northern-European. They hold musicians in the highest regard too.”

We asked Luca about the hardships he faced when he started this job. “Great financial and bureaucratic hurdles; you never stop investing. The upright bass itself is expensive and upkeep is quite challenging. What’s more, it’s a very fragile instrument and the life of a musician on the road puts a lot of strain on it: loading it, unloading it, heat, cold, dryness, humidity… Then there are days spent in the van. We spend an average of five-six hours a day in the car of a show that lasts two hours. Every day, you travel from town to town without even having the chance to visit it. I like traveling, but sometimes I feel that we really spend too much time in a car. It might be superfluous to add that relationships are highly penalized too, but this is a whole other chapter. ”

It’s hard to understand the position of underground musicians who support themselves, much like Luca does. Most of the time it’s impossible to declare how much they’re making, with all the problems that arise from it: they can’t obtain credit cards, subsidies, support, pensions and unemployment money. It’s a really challenging business venture. Some succeed, but it’s quite rare.

After a series of unfortunate events, Luca finds himself unemployed and without a roof over his head, but thanks to a friend, he buys his first upright bass and starts playing it with his rockabilly band, the Tartamella and Melody Makers.

“Initially, it was a choice driven by convenience,” the talented Luca tells us. “It became a maddening type of love later on. A band of friends were looking for a upright bass player. At the time, I could only play the electric bass, but they were already booked for a couple of nights a week. That was a great occasion to learn how to play the instrument of my dreams and make some money”

Luca finds out that it’s possible to live by making music in Sicily, albeit at a more underground level, more than in other parts of Italy, and he remains struck by this genre, to the point that he starts educating himself on it as time goes on.

In 2014 he is called by Don Diego Geraci, the leader of the famed Sicilian neo-rockabilly band Adels to be part of his solo project, the Don Diego Trio. The band is an explosive blend of American Country music, 50s-style rock’n’roll and swing. In parallel to the live activities of the Trio, he always cultivate a passion for other similar genres, playing in other formations and specializing in what is known as American Roots music: classical jazz, blues, folk, and country. This specialization allows him to be one of the most in-demand Roots upright bass players of Europe, to the point that internationally famous American artists requested his participation: among these, Slim Jim Phantom, the drummer of Stray Cats, Bill Kirchen, Dale Watson, Chris Casello, Deke Dickerson, James Intveld.

“Roots music is a collection of genre that are the foundation of American music. If you listen to Bruce Stpringsteen, you can find early-20th-century string bands (Cats and the Fiddle), the Blues performers from Mississippi (Robert Johnson) and Hank Williams’s brand of country music, and Jerry Roll Morton’s ragtime. All those genres from the early 1900s constitute what is usually known as Roots music. I love this music because it’s visceral, you can dance to it and it tells simple and timeless stories. It started as an entertainment genre, in order to amuse and entrance people with the power of storytelling,” Luca tells us.

Luca is largely inspired by 50s and 60s musicians who worked behind the scenes in American’s big recording studios. Bass players like Rob Moore at RCA, Bill Black at Sun, Donal Duck Dunn at Stax, James Jamerson at Motown. They’re mostly unknown, and were only well versed in one genre, but they had an immense musical vocabulary within that genre. “That’s what I like in a musician: he doesn’t need to be versatile, but he needs to master his own genre and aware of what he is doing. IT’s like speaking a language while minding its grammar and the finesse of the vocabulary. I like people who respect the cultural baggage we all carry with us.”

We ask Luca what advice he would give to someone who wanted to undertake a similar career. “I’d tell them to buy and listen to a lot of music, to respect their instrument and the audio support: you need to listen to music from a high-quality appliance and keep the instrument in good conditions. The difference is shocking. Music is all a matter of vibration that create emotions. You have to respect the source of those vibrations. Oh, one more thing that I think is fundamental: learn how to get along with people. That is, listen, learn different languages, don’t fiddle with your phone while waiting to go onstage, or out of shyness. Music is communication.”

Francesco Militello Mirto

Originally published in Italian on SiciliaNews24 on January 30, 2020

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