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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

Midnight Express (Akash Kapur, Romania, January 5, 2000).

The Price of Devotion (Jeffrey Tayler, India, December 22, 1999).

Israeli Forms of Identity (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, December 1, 1999).

New Year's and Nothingness (William Tyree, Indonesia, October 27, 1999).

Searching for El Chapareke (Jeff Biggers, Mexico, September 29, 1999).

Opium in the Naga Hills (Rahul Goswami, India, September 1, 1999).

A Saturday at the Auction (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, August 4, 1999).

The Bulls of Goa (Rahul Goswami, India, June 16, 1999).

The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo (Jeffrey Tayler, Nigeria, May 26, 1999).

Hotel Alf (Akash Kapur, Poland, May 12, 1999).

Strolling Moscow's Broadway (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 28, 1999).

Uygur Luncheon (Jeffrey Tayler, China, April 14, 1999).

Onion Logic (Akash Kapur, India, March 31, 1999).

Dreamcasting Japan (Trevor Corson, Japan, March 17, 1999).

Talmud in a Taxi (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, March 3, 1999).

A Place of Healing (Jeffrey Tayler, China, February 17, 1999).

The Tiger Queen (Akash Kapur, India, February 3, 1999).

Holiday Moscow (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, January 6, 1999).

The Long Arm of the Chinese Law (Jeffrey Tayler, China, December 16, 1998).

For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad Index.

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Rank Strangers
February 9, 2000

We loaded up Chris's 1964 Amazon Volvo -- a dashing berline that would have been at home in a Visconti film -- with our guitars, banjos, and accordions (we even strapped on a string bass when the bassman was in town) and rolled. Our country band was on tour in Italy. When Glenn, our accordionist, said we would be taking country music where it had never gone before, he wasn't referring to our playing style.

Our journey through Italy bypassed the pre-Jubilee scaffolding in Rome and the renovated Uffizi museum in Florence. We didn't need our dog-eared copies of Frances Mayes's Under the Tuscan Sun. Heading north across the Padana plains, we crossed the Mason-Dixon line claimed by the northern Italian separatist league and entered the Po River Valley -- the country of country in Italy, the land of liscio swing, swine festivals, and Parmigiano. We called it our World Tour. When the shouting was over, we had found our musical niche in the most unlikely of spots; we became stars on the Italian mental-ward circuit.

Rank Strangers

Jeff Biggers (banjo), Mike Windsor (bass), Glenn Alessi (accordion), Chris Rundle (guitar)

The bookings had become progressively odder for our band, Mas Tequila (I preferred our original name, Rank Strangers, which was how we were received at most of our gigs). Being a country band in Italy is like being a klezmer band in Mississippi; we found ourselves classified into that "other" category of ethnic or folkloric music in the last tent to the left, over by the porta-potties. People would come up to me after a concert, pluck my banjo, and without fail ask me to play "quella song" from "quel film," which meant "Dueling Banjos" from Deliverance. Then they would walk away, chatting about violent inbred communities in the States, casting me suspicious looks.

Not that our gigs were total fiascoes. We did earn some applause for our eclectic repertoire of Hank Williams, Irish ballads, Tex-Mex, and bluegrass at an occasional theater performance, Irish pub, or folk club in cultural centers like Bologna. More often than not, though, our gigs turned out like scenes from Fellini's Amarcord. We played at a stiff poetry reading for the Dutch Consulate, at a chic karaoke dinner club where everyone had a microphone on their table (and used it), at an "Old West" saloon where people came for Italian pop sing-alongs, and at a squatter's punk-rock club in Ravenna. In this land of fashion trends and a cell phone on every vespa, our down home music was more of a novelty than a listening experience. Only the punks danced our jigs, and they were bouncing off the walls before we arrived.

Glenn said one of our last gigs would be a "benefit" for a community group. We were going to be paid in local wine, Parmigiano, and slabs of bread. He didn't give us any other details.

The last week of concerts had gone reasonably well. In the thermal bath resort of Salsomaggiore, we were booked for a "Tex Willer" festival, the namesake of a famous Italian cartoon figure (a bizarre combination of a Wild West ranger and an Indian chief). It started to rain just as we took the outdoor stage. The soundman didn't even wait for the thunder and lightning; he absconded with the equipment. We ended up playing acoustically, screaming out our lungs, standing atop tables, while people huddled under the porticos. At a wedding outside of Fidenza, during which innumerable plates of pasta and regional dishes were consumed for over six hours, everyone acted happy for the couple as we played one peppy bluegrass dirge of betrayal after another. "Don't worry," Chris, our British guitar player, had said. "They don't understand English."

Our benefit concert was held at a villa surrounded by farmland. As we set up, I realized that a large part of our audience was already in their seats, grinning and clapping in advance. A bear of a man, chain-smoking cigarettes, sat in front of our speakers with a boom box in his lap, recording every note and test of the mike. He replayed the tape as we adjusted our tunings, as if he were a DJ.

During the first set everyone clapped on cue and howled. Some even danced. When I launched into a series of "yeehaws," a couple of men looked owl-faced and then burst out laughing and yeehawed for the rest of the day. The bearish man in the front replayed every song on his boom box.

At one break, I sat down and started to consume our payment. I was joined by a man who introduced himself as an electrician.

"This place was abandoned in the 1970s," he said. "Then the movement for freedom and dignity started, and we all came and helped renovate the place."

Back in the 1970s, he explained, a group of activists had become fed up with the detestable conditions of the insane asylums in Italy. They literally charged the gates and released people who had been tucked out of sight for years. Many of them were taken from the asylums to farms and villas in the countryside. The farm where we were playing had blossomed with the help of community activists. The residents worked at will and roamed the fields. Drugs were minimized. Many eventually returned to their families. The experiment had been a great success. Now the local government, seeking to cut back funds and embroiled in a fight over the control of the land, was closing the home and looking to return to the old chainlink institutions.

Like the Po River Valley itself, this was an Italy I had never expected to see; Italy, for me, was the preservation of heritage, the mecca of close families and the eternal support of la mamma and social welfare programs that took care of everyone.

A white-haired man, Mario Tommasini, took the microphone and stirred the crowd. His voice reminded me of the southern preachers on a Stanley Brothers bluegrass gospel album. Tommasini, we were told, had been a legendary activist on behalf of the mentally ill, and now was announcing the formation of his own political party. He called us back to the stage: we all felt like converts.

We played another set. One of my standard duties was to drop my banjo and jump into the crowd during the polkas, and encourage couples onto the floor. I didn't need to this time. The outdoor patio was packed with dancing couples.

At the end of the concert we were approached by a woman who was surrounded by a grinning entourage. She said her clients, visiting from a mental institution in Parma, loved our music, and wanted to know if we would play at their home. We hesitated, and then we saw the bearish man to her side, holding up his boom box. We could hear Chris singing "Man of Constant Sorrow." I felt a lump in my throat, and it wasn't because our harmonies were off-key. We agreed.

In Parma we didn't see any of the great paintings by Carracci or the homeboy Parmigianino. We drove the Volvo to the town mental institution and set up our equipment. Rows of chairs were already filled with our crowd. The bearish man was again in the front row. We didn't bother to tune up. By the second song everyone was clapping and cheering and dancing. There was no standing off to the side with cocked cigarettes and confounded expressions; there was no obsession with the bella figura, as Italians tended to display. Nor did we take ourselves so seriously; we were caught up in the joy of the music, as if we really were at a hoe-down.

Then a strange thing happened. A man rose and asked if he could sing a song. After a moment of indecision, Chris handed over his guitar. The man, somewhere in his forties, looking haggard and shaggy, strapped on the guitar and strummed away, singing a song from Pink Floyd. In English. Then an older woman, who had been one of the wilder dancers, rose and requested a chance at the mike. She sang a Neapolitan folk song with a gusty aplomb. By then, the line was forming on both sides of the aisles.

We realized we were no longer the performers. It didn't matter, of course. For the first time, we felt like our music had found a home in this unseen part of Italy.

Jeff Biggers is a writer based in Arizona and Italy. He is currently at work on a travelogue-memoir, Traveling Lessons.

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Photograph by Gino Delledonne.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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