FOR BEING A NICHE MUSIC, old-time sure seems to pop up in some unexpected places.

Of all the gigs I’ve played this year, one of my favorites turned out to be a small festival that my old-time trio headlined in Northern Italy.  ‘Back to the Farm’ was the first festival in Italy dedicated purely to old-time music. When I first saw posts about it in some of the online old-time communities, the idea was pretty surprising to me.  I remember thinking, “Who are these guys and how did they get the idea in their heads to throw an old-time festival together? In rural Northern Italy of all places!” Even though I was skeptical, in the months leading up to the festival I was excited to see what it would be like and who would come to it.  

In the end, Back to the Farm ended up blowing all of my expectations out of the water.

The Organizers

The festival, which took place on July 14th in a small town near Brescia, was organized by two Italians from Lombardy.  Alioscia Ferrara, a banjo builder and fiddler, and Andrea Zampatti, a photographer and banjoist, shared a longstanding passion for a branch of American folk music that was relatively obscure in their neck of the woods.  When asked by a local publication what old-time music meant to them, Alioscia and Andrea said that old-time was, “fun made to rhythm. The beauty of this music is that it does not seek refined virtuosity, but the soul of Old-Time Music is found in the reproduction of archaic sounds that make distant memories resurface.  It is a simple music, both to listen to and to play.  It’s a music of instinct, of gut feeling, that allows you to let go with the people you meet on the road.” Their perception of the music, though pretty different than mine, inspired them enough that they decided to dedicate their free time to listening to and practicing the tunes from all the old-time albums they could get their hands on.  One of Alioscia’s early favorites was Bob Carlin’s Banging and Sawing, which he describes as “very enlightening.”

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Alioscia Ferrara Photo: Matteo Mazzoli, 2018

Alioscia and Andrea had been playing together fairly regularly and wanted to be able to share their love of old-time music with other people without having to go to America. There were several folk festivals in Italy that represented a mixture of blues, jazz, bluegrass, and country music, but Andrea and Alioscia wanted something different.  They felt that in order to build an old-time music community in Italy they would first have to show other people the difference between old-time and other kinds of American music. In their words they, “wanted to spread old-time music as much as possible, helping new ears to recognize it [and differentiate it from other areas of American folk music] while at the same time creating a meeting place” for the burgeoning Italian old-time community.  

In the end, Back to the Farm was a Brescian Field of Dreams.  The organizers had the will to create a space for old-time music to grow and happened to have a couple of friends who owned an old farmhouse in the small town of Rodengo-Saiano.  With a location and an objective, they set out advertising the festival by word-of-mouth locally and eventually began establishing an internet presence to attract out-of-town enthusiasts.  I found out about the event over Facebook, so I guess the internet advertising must have been pretty good.  Ultimately their efforts were were well-rewarded; the festival attracted mostly locals, but was also attended by a good number of Italians from further south as well as others from Germany and America.

The Festival

Back to the Farm took place over a whole day, with visitors arriving in the early afternoon and staying until well past midnight.  Andrea and Alioscia were ambitious in their planning. In addition to concerts, the festival included all-day jamming, instrumental and dance workshops, and a proper square dance.  There were woodworkers and basketweavers, beer brewed specially for the festival, homemade food, and a showcase of the works of several local instrument builders. It was a lot to try and fit into the first year, but the organizers didn’t shrink from the challenge and ended up delivering in a big way.

Back to the Farm was a hoot!

Jamming Photo: Matteo Mazzoli, 2018

I loved being able to move from one interesting thing to another.  I watched a man weave a basket, had a face-melting jam, taught a fiddle workshop, and played for a square dance all in the space of just a few hours.  The festival did a great job of supporting and showcasing their region, with craftsmen and musicians coming in mostly from the surrounding area. The callers for the dances were professional and enthusiastic, and they ran better than a lot of beginners’ dances that I’ve seen in the US.  As an added bonus, hearing square dances called in Italian was something I just hadn’t imagined myself experiencing before, and so I got to add something to my bucket list and cross it off at the same time!

Even though there was a lot to do, the festival still managed to have a personal and relaxed feel.  The old farmhouse where it took place – Alberodonte – had a certain old-fashioned charm about it that, according to Alioscia and Andrea, “recalls the atmosphere described in the songs of Old-Time Music.” The weather was just about what you’d expect in Italy in the middle of summer: hot and sunny.  There was plenty of space for visitors to sit and chat, have a beer, take a nap in the sun, or practice what they’d learned in their workshops.  I definitely took advantage of all of these opportunities throughout the course of the afternoon. In the early evening, everyone was invited to take part in the square dance, which ended up being a big hit.

The highlight of the festival was, of course, the music.  The concerts started in the afternoon and included a couple of Andrea and Alioscia’s projects, the San Brulli String Band from Milan, and several local bands.  My trio – The Three Cent String Band – was the last to play, and the audience was one of the best we’d had. They not only watched attentively, but participated in the shows, dancing and hooting along to the music.  Several spontaneous square dances even broke out among the people who had participated in the workshops. It was definitely a rewarding environment to play in. Even though we had to shut the PA off at midnight, the jams continued until we couldn’t keep our heads up anymore – basically the seal of a great old-time event.

Matteo Mazzoli, 2018

The Back to the Farm Festival was a real surprise and an instant classic.  In the coming years, Alioscia and Andrea hope to extend the festival to a weekend-long event and expand their advertising reach to bring in an even more international crowd.  If that sounds ambitious, I can only say that daunting tasks haven’t seemed to stop these two from sharing their passion, and that they’ve done a killer job so far. If you find yourself anywhere near Brescia next summer I can highly recommend heading over and checking it out.  You definitely won’t regret it!

For more information about the Back to the Farm Festival, visit their Facebook page at

https://www.facebook.com/backtothefarmfest/

For the original interview (in Italian) with Alioscia and Andrea, visit http://www.pequodrivista.com/2018/07/09/ritornare-in-fattoria-storia-di-un-festival-di-altri-tempi/?fbclid=IwAR3UI_gTIMl6hhW_ElauoAEESBLSEwZXCdLsQBYopozg6kVVpPXTNJ2iM7U

For more information on Alioscia’s Banjos, visit
http://www.alesabanjos.com/index.htm

 

Documentary short by Daniele Chiari Photography

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