Photo Mario Rota
Fabrizio Poggi is one of Europe’s finest exponents of the blues. Fabrizio has recorded over twenty albums and has shared stages with numerous top blues artists including The Blind Boys of Alabama, Eric Bibb Sonny Landreth, Ruthie Foster and John Hammond. He’s the author of four books on the blues and was nominated for a Grammy a couple of years ago, along with Guy Davis, for their Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee tribute album. He also has a Hohner Lifetime Award, and has been twice a Blues Music Awards nominee.
Fabrizio and his wife, Angelina live in the north of Italy, just south of Milan, where they’ve been sheltering over the past couple of months as Italy as suffered under the onslaught of Coronavirus.
On the 20th February, Italy’s “patient 1,” the first case of domestic transmission of the virus was confirmed and it has gone on to kill nearly 29,000 people. Italy became the first country to enforce a nationwide lockdown in early March, but the country still suffered terribly, with hospitals overwhelmed and the virus spreading to all parts of the country.
After almost two months under lockdown, the longest so far of any European country, Italy is now set to begin slowly easing restrictions. But the economic forecast for the country is bleak, with experts predicting a crisis not seen in decades. And in Italy’s poorer south,Living in people have been running out of food and money, with the Red Cross delivering food parcels.
A few days into lockdown, we saw images of people across Italy singing and playing music from their balconies as they came together to say: “Andrà tutto bene” (Everything will be all right). But the devastation of the virus has changed that and people are saying “Everything will not be all right.”
Down at the Crossroads got the opportunity to talk to Fabrizio and Angelina in their home in north Italy to find out what’s its been like living in Italy these past couple of months, how they’ve been coping and about the music Fabrizio’s been sending out to encourage people.
Gary: How are you and Angelina and your families? You’re living just south of Milan, in the north of Italy, which has been in the thick of the coronavirus outbreak for the past few months. What has it been like for you and Angelina?
Fabrizio: We are fine for now, so far. We have survived through a lot of bad things. We try to go on.
It’s very tough, we are mostly inside all day long. We have the opportunity to communicate with people through technology, but it’s hard. Most of the people we know are sick and we lost many friends.
Angelina: It is a tough time, we lost friends, people we know. We lost a very dear, deep friend who was also our doctor. Her name was Patricia, and it was very, very sad for us. She was always helping people, she was on the front line, and she died giving her life to people. Now we are not in the worst part. But it is still sad, when you go out to the supermarket, the few times you can go, and I can’t wait to come back home.
I only have some relatives, and I’m happy for that, because my parents were very old and I can’t imagine…and Fabrizio’s mother is very old, but fortunately, she’s safe. And we are happy for that.
Fabrizio: People know nothing about the future, which is also tragic, because we can’t see a real future which is in these days why I keep on playing and trying to bring a little light to people. Everything seems very dark.
Gary: What’s the situation in Italy right now? I gather things are a little better.
Fabrizio: Well it is hard to say, because the information…sometimes it’s a real mess up. One day optimistic, one day negative. The terrible thing about this virus is that we don’t know much about it. It’s hard to trust information because you don’t know who has control. So, people are sad about this.
Gary: We saw the videos of people trying to keep their spirits up singing from balcony to balcony. That was incredible.
Fabrizio: Yes, we were all over the news a lot. But probably not so many people were actually singing from balconies! From what we saw on the TV, it seemed like everybody in Italy was on their balcony singing! But that was just the media! We are not so happy as we appear.
Gary: You’ve been posting some nice videos of you singing and playing your harmonica, which have been very touching. How important do you think music can be at a time like this?
Fabrizio: Music is always important. The story of African-American music is that it was music that was born to uplift. Spirituals, blues are two sides of the same coin. Music brings people out of the tunnel, to believe, to hope for a better future.
And I want to try to play that kind of music for the people, because of the meaning inside the songs. So, playing Precious Lord or Amazing Grace or I Want Jesus to Walk With Me, is me trying to reach other people’s souls.
Gary: Some of the songs you’ve been posting are spirituals or hymns, like Amazing Grace. Is faith important right now, Fabrizio?
Fabrizio: Yes, I think that these songs contains a real message. They say, I’ve been there before you when there was no hope, just desperation – take my hand and I will walk with you gives some hope, some light, some hope for a better life some day.
Guy Davis, Katleen Scheir from Belgium and I have just recorded a version of We Shall Overcome. And we’re trying to raise funds for Doctors Without Borders.
Angelina: We choose We Shall Overcome because it has a very important message and we connected Italy, Belgium and the United States. It says that music has no borders. We had borders before the virus and now we have more borders because we have to stay at home. But music can go everywhere, can help people everywhere, all over the world. People are maybe not in the same country, don’t speak the same language, are different – but when they sing and play, they are the same.
Gary: Wonderful. Tell us about some of the music you’ve been listening to over the past couple of months – what has helped?
Fabrizio: Every kind of music that moves me and in some way touches me was welcome these past two months. I listened to everything from blues to old spirituals, from jazz to classical. I just appreciate the music because it is a wonderful gift, a gift of beauty. But all my life I’ve not just listened to blues – my ears are always wide open!
Gary: Now, I remember we met on that wonderful pre-Grammy’s concert in the City Winery in New York City a couple of years ago. Being nominated for a Grammy in 2018 must have been an incredibly proud moment for you, Fabrizio.
Fabrizio: I remember that City Winery evening very well. The best memories! And yes, I was very proud. It was like a dream come true, something I really didn’t expect. Great memories, a lot of people I love were there, and it was a great experience I will cherish in my heart for the rest of my life.
Gary: Did you ever think when you first lifted the harmonica that the road would take you there?
Fabrizio: No, not at all. If a friend of mine had come to me in my little room in the middle of nowhere in Northern Italy and said to me, You know Fabrizio, one day you will challenge the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Gardens in New York for a Grammy, I would have said, my friend, don’t kid with me, it will never happen!
And I owe a lot to the Rolling Stones. Because I discovered the blues from the Rolling Stones, John Mayall, Eric Clapton – as many people of my generation did. At that time, in Italy you couldn’t hear Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker. So, in a way, I won two times at the Grammys – once to be there, and for me it was a wonderful experience, and secondly, for the victory of the Rolling Stones – in some way, they were like my musical fathers. So, without the Rolling Stones, no Fabrizio at the Grammys!
Gary: You’re very generous, Fabrizio, because I think a lot of people felt that the record you and Guy made was much more of a traditional blues album and should have taken the award.
Fabrizio: I think for most of the journalists there, they felt that the Rolling Stones didn’t win the Grammy just for that album. They had never won a Grammy for an album, just one back in the 80s they had won for a video, but they had never won one for, Exile on Main Street or Let It Bleed, which were historic albums. So the Grammys owed the Rolling Stones an award. And that was the time.
Gary: Did you get to meet any of them?
Fabrizio: The night before at the City Winery in New York at the blues party, which you were at – someone said that Keith Richards is in town. So maybe he’ll show up. But he didn’t! But I had the opportunity to jam with some Rolling Stones musicians!
Gary: As we eventually come out of this terrible situation, what are you hoping for? Can the world be different?
Fabrizio: I hope it will be better. I hope we learn something from this tragedy, but I’m not sure. I’m not really optimistic. Musicians have been very much affected by this tragedy, and I don’t know what the future for music is. Aside from the big stars, what will happen to little clubs, to musicians who don’t have a lot of money? I’m afraid there may be dark times. And I hope that people around the world will understand that now is the time to support musicians. If not, they will not survive any more. Music may change for ever and we will lose something very important.
Too many people take music for granted, think that music is free, that musicians don’t need to pay bills. Now it’s time for us to grow up and understand that music is life. Musicians give us their talent their creativity.
Gary: Presumably, Fabrizio, not being able to perform has had a financial impact on you?
Fabrizio: Well, you know, the most beautiful reward a musician has is the clapping hands, and people who come up to you and tell you your playing was amazing. So this is a very big loss. Playing for people live on stage, connecting with them is something that can’t be done in the same way with technology.
Gary: Eventually we will come out of this. And what about for you and Angelina – what are you looking forward to?
Fabrizio: To go back our old life. And to start again to hug people! Because, yes you can communicate with your eyes, but a hug can communicate something that is hard to communicate with words. So, when some doctor tells me, OK, Fabrizio, go ahead and hug someone, that will be a very bright day!
Gary: Lovely to talk to you both, I hope you stay well. And we are looking forward to seeing some more nice videos from you.