Linda Barwick and Marcello Sorce Keller (eds.), Italy in Australia’s Musical Landscape

Melbourne, Lyrebird Press, 2012, ix+254 pp., $55.00 aud.

The music of the immigrants is one of their significant connections with the shared memory of their ancestry. Songs and ditties have the power to take people back to their childhood, to reconnect them with the lives they once led. I remember with astounding clarity a moment when the place of music in the lives of immigrant Italians bore into my consciousness. It was a Christmas break-up party put on by a pair of Italian brothers in their factory in Melbourne’s inner north, in December 1985. Despite the grimly grey surrounds, the party had been progressing well enough, with wine and cheese provided by the brothers. And then, at a certain moment, unannounced, an elderly Italian worker produced a tiny guitar and began to play. The mood changed immediately. The employees chorused songs of their past, and the guitarist smiled as he sensed the change he had evoked in the factory. Whatever their position in this factory’s hierarchy, these workers owned something else, a culture that was theirs alone. The two brothers were from another part of Italy and stood mute as their men sang out.

Nowhere near enough has been written about this topic, so a book on the place of music in the lives of Italo-Australians is by definition very welcome. It is early yet in the collection of the kinds of materials that would give rise to anything resembling a complete history, so it is not surprising that this book is somewhat episodic in its approach. We are taken from one Australian city to another fairly randomly. We learn of the performances at Flinders University led by Professor Antonio Comin, himself of an interesting immigrant background; we follow the Swiss-Italian musicologist Marcello Sorce Keller as he travels through Australia catching snatches of song here and there; and we are reminded of the piano accordion virtuoso, Lou Toppano, who became a household name in the 1940s and 1950s. Music is such an ephemeral aspect of the immigrant culture that it is hard to document. There are moments of insight here in this variegated history, glimpses of the secret history of musicality. Part of the problem is that, before 1943, there was really no such thing as an «Italian» music at all, merely a set of regional musical traditions. Among Australia’s post-war Italian immigrants there were really three «national» traditions in music and song – the anti-Fascist – the Fascist (quite strong and nostalgic) (p. 88), and the Neapolitan. The Neapolitan owed its popularity to the power of the mass media, as the music (and comedy) of Naples was communicated through Italo-American channels to a wide global audience. In 2008 Source Keller came across a random group of Italo-Australians in Canberra who knew Neapolitan songs (p. 92): this was not an unusual discovery, as Neapolitan music and other preforming arts have been privileged historically in both American and Italian mass media. In my view, the Fascist songs should not be dismissed as politically incorrect, but rather understood as the genuine remembrance of life in an Italy of fond memory for post-war emigrants to places like Australia and Canada.

Among the anti-Fascist songs, of course Bella Ciao stands out. It is not sufficient to say that this famous song has Yiddish roots (p. 79, n. 32), as the song of late nineteenth-century women rice-weeders in the Po Valley, Alla mattina appena alzata, must also have claims in the provenance of this song. The partisan songs entered the shared discourse of Italians after 1943, but of course many of Australia’s immigrants came from regions that were not touched by this experience.

It seems to me that the musical history of Italians in Australia must be linked to their social history. The first Italian sojourners were «scouts», like Raffaelo Carboni, exploring this wide and wonderful continent. These esploratori were as likely to be beguiled by the music they encountered as the music they carried in their hearts. We can infer Carboni’s musical taste from his rediscovered opera, Gilburnia. The opera singers and musicians who travelled the Australian colonies in the late 1900s were displaying an Italian musical tradition that found ready acceptance in antipodean audiences that respected the virtues of classical Italian opera. They were followed by communities of fisherfolk and farmers who established themselves in localities such as Fremantle and Port Pirie. Their musicality was somewhat more local.

During the 1950s the global phenomenon of the Little Italy arrived in Australia, in suburbs like Carlton in Melbourne and Leichhardt in Sydney. Music naturally accompanied this development, with popular singers performing for audiences in the regional clubs that sprouted in these localities. This music was nationally Italian, albeit anchored on the musical traditions prevalent in post-war Italy. There is a moment in the 1972 film Bello, onesto emigrato in Australia, sposerebbe compaesana illibata when it becomes clear that Italian music has moved ahead of where the immigrants are positioned (p. 215). Italo-Australian music arrived in 1980 with the famous spoof Shaddap You Face, by the Italo-American singer Joe Dolce, now living in Melbourne. Dolce was keenly aware of the potentially racist overtones of his song, but, reassured by his Italo-Australian friends that they felt no offence, recorded the song, which became a symbol of the arrival of popular Italo-Australian music.

There is a coda to this story, beyond the date of the research underpinning this book. With youth unemployment in Berlusconi’s Italy reaching 42 per cent, many young Italians are now living and working in Australia, revivifying some of the old districts. Their music is universal, and the Italo-Australian singers who contribute to this global mass culture, such as Gabriele Cilmi, should command our attention. What is the purpose of their music-making? What are they trying to say about their Italianness and their parents’ or grandparents’ choice in emigration? These are important questions, toward which the contributors to this book are pointing us.


Robert Pascoe (Victoria University, Melbourne)