n a beautiful spring morning, I walk with six teachers and a 65-member children’s choir from our Milan elementary school to a nearby residence for the elderly. The children wear white shirts and dark trousers or skirts. Boys don neckties. Girls have colored ribbons in their hair. Some children carry guitars. They chatter and sing as they walk.
Once there, they take their places on stage. The hall fills with 50 residents in wheel chairs, who wave and call, “Ciao, che bei bimbi!” As the last chairs are pushed in, a microphone is passed, so children can state their name and home country. One old lady complains, “Couldn’t they find local children to sing? Did they have to go all the way to Japan?” Another lady, Signora Pia, changes her mind and asks to be pushed back outside. “I’m too tired,” she says. She lingers outside the door.
We start our program with traditional sea shanties and gospel tunes that have up to 15 verses. In this way, every child who wants to can sing solo. Even though these verses are in English, a language the audience doesn’t understand, they smile encouragingly and applaud.
One lady, however, complains about her teeth. A man tells her “Stai zitta! Quiet, we can’t hear.” She responds “Move over. You’re in my place.” They continue yelling and others urge them, loudly, to quiet down, until staff steps in to restore order.
The children eye each other nervously.
We finish the program with Milanese songs. In “Mamma Mia Dammi Cento Lire,” a son begs his mother for money to go to America. The mother, in a gesture typical of my Italian mother-in-law, gives the money but starts nagging, “In America no, no, no.” The boy’s brothers join the discussion, convincing their mother to “lasséla andà” (let him go). As usually happens in these songs, he who leaves home comes to a bad end. This boy’s ship sinks. The brothers are denounced as traitors and the mother, in spite of having given permission and funds, is lauded for speaking “la verità.”
The audience rocks in their chairs to the song’s lively rhythm; they sing the melancholy, minor tune.
There are many of these traditional songs in Italy, but they’re sung in fast-disappearing local dialects, not Italian. Most of them tell stories, rich in symbolism and earthy charm. The cantastorie (ballad singer) is a familiar figure in Italian folklore. Luigi Inzaghi’s “Canzoni Popolari Lombarde,” printed on old fashioned butcher’s paper with ink drawings and hand notated music, offers 80 of the cantastorie‘s tales and makes for delightful reading.
In our next song: “Senti Le Rane Che Cantano,” a young mondina (rice cleaner) leaves the rice fields and returns home to her parents. She sings, “Mamma, Papà don’t cry if I’m wasted away. It’s the rice field that ruined me.”
I’ve told the children about my friend, Giannina, who, at their own age of 10, left her mountain village to work in the Val Padana rice fields. She slept in a dormitory with other girls, in the care of a Signora Caterina, and spent long days standing, bent over, in knee deep water, her legs aching and covered in sores.
The children, who knew about the United Nations Rights of the Child, asked why Giannina had to do it. I answered that when families are poor, everyone works, even children, or there won’t be enough to eat. “Giannina went to school for a while,” I said, “but she can’t read or write as well as you can.”
The melody of this song is sadly beautiful. From personal experience, I know how moving it can be for a foreigner to hear music from his childhood. From my mother, I know that old people often feel like foreigners in their own country. I try to explain this to the children later when they ask why people cried during the song.
In “La Lena La Va Al Fosso,” Lena is washing her white handkerchief in the canal when her gold ring falls into the water. She offers a fisherman “cincento scudi e ‘na borsa di danar,”(a bag of money) to retrieve it but he will only accept a “bacin d’amore.” The story ends here. We don’t know if real love develops, as it does in similar Grimm’s fairy tales, or if Lena, bunga-bunga-like, has exchanged sexual favors for gold.
In the popular repertoire, these love songs range from Donizetti-like laments to bawdy celebrations of the local prostitute’s manual skills. This particular song is a favorite for its catchy tune and strong rhythm. The audience laughs and claps to the beat.
On their way out, the children, most of whose own grandparents live far away, greet the residents. Some of these, already detached from this life, stare into space, unresponsive. Most of them, eager and smiling, ask, “Do you know E Lee La Va In Filanda?”; “Do you know El Fiol Del Signor Conte?” They give the children sweets. They clasp their hands to bridge the generations, to bridge loneliness.
Outside the door, Signora Pia is waiting. I ask if she enjoyed the music. “No,” she says. “No I didn’t. Last time you sang La Bella Madonnina.”
“We’ll sing it next time,” I say.
She grins. “Then come back soon.”