01-04-2012 - Traces, n. 4

cl life
Our singing

The Notes
that Speak of Me

We continue on our path of discovery of song and its importance in the life of the Movement today. Here are the stories of some (among many) who express themselves through singing. They are budding singer-songwriters and well-known professionals. We went to Italy, the U.S., Paraguay... to see where a text on the stave is born and what it tells us.

by Paola Ronconi

In the last issue, we spoke about choirs and their importance with regard to their service to the life of CL communities. This time, our approach is different and focuses on personal experience. The purpose of this roundup is to see where the desire to write songs is born, but above all to understand how this is a road that some travel (by grace) in order to get to the bottom of the meaning of their lives. For this reason, we placed budding singer-songwriters alongside experienced professionals who are already known to the CL audience.
It would be obvious to say that songwriters like Adriana Mascagni or Claudio Chieffo have marked the steps in the history of the Movement, and we would need an entire book to talk about each of them. But we don’t think it would be mistaken to say that in our day we seem to have glimpsed, especially in the young people, a new blossoming of this type of expressivity–something that, in any case, is worthwhile to examine, even if only briefly.

“It’s not yours.” At the age of 10, Riro learned to write songs “the way you learn to eat and drink.” He needed to fill, through his songs, that “bottomless pit” of sadness and nostalgia for something unknown. The blues were the fantastic discovery of his younger years, and a faithful companion in much guitar strumming. But when the notes flow through a person’s veins the way they flow through his, sooner or later the so-called “musical moment” arrives: it was Christmas 1974, and in Pesaro, Italy, the CL community (“idiots, clerics, Christian Democrats, and sheep,” as he defined them at the time) was putting on a recital in the cathedral. They were singing “Senza te Sacra Regina” (“Without You, Holy Queen”), a polyphonic song from the 1400s, when a bored and listless Riro wandered in and started listening to “that boring stuff.” “I listened. It was as if that song carried all of the fullness and the tenderness for which I was hungering and thirsting,” he says in one of his books. Since that evening, he has never left the “idiots, clerics, Christian Democrats, and sheep.” And his music? “The encounter with the Movement planted a seed of consciousness in a fake musician. Of what? Of what this sadness was that is expressed in music.”
From the cathedral of Pesaro to Milan, and then to America, the home of rock and blues, he continues to write songs (together with Father Rich, his “lyricist”), “only because of that infinite need for good that is never enough,” also because “there I discovered that, whatever the value was of what I had received, it had to be given back.” Just as he had once intuited, as a child, in front of the snow that had blanketed Pesaro: “I was contemplating it. I understood that there are some things that you can’t possess, or better, that you have to learn to possess without possessing them. For me, real music, especially when you write it, is like that snow when I was little. It fell from the sky; it’s beautiful, and it’s not yours.” And when you realize that a song of yours–like “The Things that I See” or “My Father Sings To Me”–touches a profound chord in the listener? “I say to myself: ‘There, I said something in music that is in your heart, too. We don’t know each other, but we are friends.’”

A stubborn question. “At first I was a great ‘listener,’ and I sang from morning to night. Then I started to write, and now I can’t help it.” What does this “then” hide in the life of Manuel, 37 years old, from Modena, Italy, married with one daughter? It is his life’s turning point, which transformed the existence of “what the world would call a loser” into “a story that I would never change.” Let’s take a step back. Manuel left home in 5th grade and began a continual coming and going in many families, foster home after foster home. “Music had a therapeutic role; I closed myself inside it, so as not to see what was around me.” Next came the discovery of an incurable disease. And then came those new friends, “a place where I could always return,” that home that he had yearned for: Christ. “I heard Chieffo’s songs, and I thought to myself: if he can say these things, maybe I can say mine. Each time I write, it is a way to tell myself seriously what is happening to me; I don’t write for anyone if not for me. The questions that I have transform themselves into songs.” It is the attempt to express a relationship: “On the one hand, writing helps me; on the other, it grills me, it doesn’t leave me in peace.” After his last concert, “I was going home in my car, and I had this sadness inside... It was a beautiful evening, and yet it was the powerful expression of something that was missing, I thought. But it’s a blessed sadness, because the question that it expresses is ‘tough,’ stubborn.” After that evening, another song comes spilling out: “It’s like that with the songs; I have to bow to them. I don’t like a lot of them, but they say more about me than what I have in mind.” The song is “Everything is Nothing”: “It’s so hard to be without you / it’s impossible for me / it’s so hard to be without you / stay here beside me, always. / Everything is nothing, insufficient / it’s not enough, it’s never enough for me / everything is nothing, fortunately / otherwise, do you know what a disaster it would be?”

A friendship in music. Their name is 4the84. They are four high school students, and 84 is the number of the bus that they take to go to the Center, in the heart of Colle Oppio (the Oppian Hill, Rome), where they eat, study, play soccer, and do School of Community. They are growing up together. Marta and Anna are twins who moved to Rome from Washington, DC, in 2009. Francesca and Andrea are classmates. What they have in common is a passion for music. “I had been writing poems since I was little,” says Francesca. “Then I stopped, but when I met the others, the song route started to take shape. Or rather, it became a need.” “Unseen Mystery” is their first song. “On the way back from the Easter Triduum, on the bus, we wrote a prayer to give thanks for those friends and those days.” It was an explosion of the heart. Then Andrea picked up the guitar, in his room. “The passage from prayer to song was spontaneous.” Why is it in English? Because for Marta and Anna it was more immediate, and because it is the language of songs. “It talks about a love that turns your life upside down; it makes you want to live everything intensely, and then everything makes sense. You are no longer afraid, and you have to tell everyone.” And so their friendship grows, and more songs come along, to share with the others at the Center. Anna and Marta’s house becomes a suitable place to compose, out on the balcony until evening, where they look at the stars in silence and give thanks to God. After a few months, the news comes: Marta and Anna have to move again, this time to Turin. It is a blow to the heart. And the songs record everything: the nostalgia, the most urgent questions, the certainty that their friendship will withstand the distance, the need to meet “that gaze” again. Now that they see each other every two months, more or less, the songs are born at a distance, one piece at a time, but they continue incessantly. “Not even time, which destroys and kills things, not even all of these kilometers define our friendship and the gift that we have, thanks to our music,” says Andrea. Today on the 84 bus there is nostalgia for those trips when all four of them talked about the day they had lived, about the Beauty with a capital B they had glimpsed at the Center, and about how they would put a whirlwind of thoughts into music, but, as the latest song says, “The heart is changed, the voice is only one. / I want something that is always new. / My friend is far away, but love is near. / I want to stay on this road. / Friendship grows, / silence is fuller, / big eyes are crying / because this is a gift.”

In the alleyways. And then there are those who have been public singer-songwriters for awhile–until, at a certain point, life takes an unexpected turn and everything changes, even making music. This is what happened to Alfredo. His voice is already in the ears of many, especially after the Rimini Meeting in 2009, thanks to his irresistible Neapolitan rhythm. “I’ve always written; for me it was the most natural way to talk about myself. My songs spoke of an uneasiness and of the eternal contradictions of Naples and Rione Santità, my neighborhood. Now it’s garbage and unemployment... But, as my grandmother used to say, ‘times are tough.’ Naples has always had its troubles.” And then the turning point: Alfredo met some people involved in social work, right in his neighborhood. “I want to run away from this place, and these people, all professionals, decide to live here... So I said to myself, let’s go and see, as the song that I wrote then says.” Alfredo went, and he saw someone give a caress to Anna, who was drinking, and Gaetano, who was on drugs. Nanduccio the barman is happy now, because his eyes have found a new light and thus they no longer cry. “I wrote a song about it, but I understood it later, when one day my new friend Tonino said to me, ‘Alfré, this song is the Christian method.’”
Rione Santità did not become a nice residential neighborhood, but “in my songs, there is no more desire to escape, because I found a place, inside me. The language is always dialect–I write for the people, as I did before. But those who know me understand that something changed.” And, like a ray of sunlight that comes from behind the clouds and shines on the alleyways, Christ entered Alfredo’s heart.

Never an orphan. They affectionately called him “the saddest poet in Latin America” to tease him, because at one time it was true–but not anymore. Not since Fr. Ettore inspired him, years ago: “Daniel, stop licking your wounds like a dog. Look up.” We are in Asunción, Paraguay. Today, Daniel uses everything, from reggae rhythm to rock, from polka to guarania to follow a path, to further discover, in the twists and turns of the heart, that newness he encountered with Fr. Aldo, Ettore, Paolino, and the parish of Saint Raphael. “If music is not a window opened onto the mystery, it’s just noise, as the artist Bill Congdon said to songwriter Claudio Chieffo. This is the purpose of my songs, that they speak of beloved women, nature, a friend who is far away...” “Mombyry” (“Far Away”), was written in guaraní (an indigenous South American language) in February 2009: “I composed it to cope with the pain of Fr. Ettore’s departure. He was a father who saved my life. In writing and singing, I discovered that I hadn’t lost anything, because he left me some friends and our friendship in Christ will never die.” “You are far away, my friend,” says the song, “But in life, whoever believes in the Father is never an orphan.” Daniel accompanies the choir at the Saint Pampuri Clinic in Asunción, where Carlos, shortly before dying, sings a song. He spent his life in wandering, music, and little fear of God, before falling ill. He found himself facing death alone. Miraculously, someone brought him to the clinic, where he feels truly loved. “I went back to saying Christ, the one with the kind eyes,” says the song that he wrote in that period. “I felt a different love, which I embraced, crying, after the night. I want to die singing. Don’t flee from death, don’t be afraid of its nails. Fear only to lose yourselves alone, without Christ. I want to die singing.”