Friday 29 September 2017

other fires

Later that evening, a long, energising conversation in a café on via Notartbartolo near the Falcone tree, with Gianni Gebbia – the renowned Palermitan saxophonist, stalwart of a second generation of Freimusik improvisers in Europe and Japan, and the city of Palermo’s curator for music and dance over a three-year period towards the end of Leoluca Orlando’s Palermo Spring in the late 1990s (1). He groans audibly, and comically, when I tell him what I’ve been doing. “These are extraordinary people of course, and it’s essential to remember them; but a singular focus on the mafia creates a partial perspective that overlooks a great deal, and there’s a real risk of losing other memories, extinguishing other fires in this small city. We also have to look elsewhere and remember differently. Palermo may be sad and “third world”, but it is so much more. We have to give other things their rightful place too”.

Gebbia is at pains to stress Palermo’s historical importance as cultural meeting point, and his sense of the imperative to help restore that line; “for me, this is antimafia”. He reminds me that it was in this city that Lampedusa’s wife Alessandra was one of the early pioneers of psychoanalysis, and that Gruppo 63, the influential group of Italian avant garde writers, was founded in Palermo in the 1960s. He reflects on his contact with Pina Bausch and her company in the city during work on Palermo, Palermo – “such deep research on the ground, an extraordinary happy time “ – as well as visits by Kantor and other Polish artists, and a stream of young French choreographers, Butoh practitioners and experimental musicians. 

“All these forms make a significant difference in Palermo, while political forces insist on trashing the city. Here one sees the effect of political choices in such an impolite, rough way. The extreme de-culturation of Italy during the Berlusconi years means that it has to be re-invented from the ground up. And this is a new phase, the city is really broke now. I’m concerned that Sicily is unprepared psychologically and practically for the current situation, but complaining is a very low level of political action and approach. We have to do things, find new models in this time, and without art simply becoming ideology”.

Finally Gebbia describes two related video films he has made recently that propose other topographies of memory. The first film emerged from archival and field research into the first Christian missionaries to land in Japan in the 15th century: Sicilian, Portuguese and Spanish Jesuit monks trained in Sicily. The second film concerns the Japanese painter Otama Kiyohara, who worked and taught in Palermo with her husband, the sculptor Vincenzo Ragusa, from the 1880s to the 1920s. 

“Both films were triggered by Sicily’s largely overlooked historical relations with Japan. I want to break the myth of there being no connection. For me, this is also antimafia. As is my determination not to abandon Palermo. Playing in my own city has always been a mission, even if it’s difficult now; and I still try to present unusual, quality things for Palermo audiences, that’s part of its participation”.

(1) As a saxophonist, Gebbia is known for a circular breathing technique that he learnt in particular from Sardinian masters of the launedda (bagpipe) tradition. As well as programming many festivals of performance and music in Sicily, Gebbia is also a long-term practitioner of Katsugen Undo and an ordained lay Zen Buddhist monk. For further details of his many musical recordings and collaborations (with Evan Parker, Fred Frith, Butoh artists and others), and the film projects described here, Nanbanjin (2011) and O’tama monogatari (2012), see his website here

Images: (top) photograph of Gianni Gebbia by Claudio Casanova/AAJ Italia; (bottom) Otama Kiyohara self-portrait, 1884. 

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