Fabrizio Poggi is one of Europe’s finest exponents of the blues. Hailing from the north of Italy, Fabrizio has recorded over twenty albums and has shared stages with numerous top blues artists including The Blind Boys of Alabama, Eric Bibb and John Hammond. He’s the author of four books on the blues and has been touring this year with Guy Davis, promoting their new Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee album. Down at the Crossroads was delighted to get the chance to chat to this blues enthusiast and master of the blues harmonica.
Fabrizio – you’re a blues harmonica player. Tell us a bit about how you started on this blues journey and what drew you to the harmonica.
To quote my good friend and harp legend Charlie Musselwhite, music in general “overtook me when I was a little child.” While other kids spent their spare time playing soccer or riding bicycles, I stayed inside all day long listening to records. Every kind of music. My favourite toys were a drum, a toy piano and, of course, an out of tune harmonica. Then one day I saw Paul Butterfield playing Mystery Train in a movie called “The Last Waltz” and my life changed forever.
Maybe nowadays it seems a little strange but most of the things I learnt in my younger days came from records. There were no computers, Google or YouTube, and musical instructional books were very difficult to find. It was hard, very hard. It took me six months to learn something that today a kid can learn in one day. Also with English language was the same. I always make a joke of it but my English teachers really were Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
What is it about this music that you find compelling or attractive? Is it just entertainment or is there more to it?
Oh yes, much more. To me the blues is a miracle and a miracle is always difficult to explain with simple words. The miracle of the blues is that it’s so full of power and wisdom that it touches every heart throughout the world. Mine too! It doesn’t matter where you were born, what language you speak, or what colour your skin is. Blues and spirituals, and music in general, are amazing gifts – often from wonderful unknown singers – to heal people’s souls. With the blues I have my own connection to the shared human conditions of struggle, darkness, and pain cloaked in redemption, overcoming, and freedom.
Blues taught to be simple and humble. To love and respect people that come to my shows. To be nice with them. Because often they tell me some precious words that keep me going on when the wind of life sometimes blows too hard against me.
The blues taught me to play from the heart. Always.
I know you’ve played with a lot of well-known blues artists. Tell us about some of the people your played or toured with.
I had the privilege to share the stage, and to record with The Blind Boys of Alabama, Charlie Musselwhite, Guy Davis, Marcia Ball, Ronnie Earl, Kim Wilson, John Hammond, Sonny Landreth, Garth Hudson of THE BAND and Bob Dylan, Eric Bibb, Ruthie Foster, Mike Zito, Bob Margolin, Flaco Jiménez, Steve Cropper, Otis Taylor, Richard Thompson…
They are so many that it’s impossible to talk about them all. We’d need a big book!
Most of them were heroes of my youth (and still they are). When I was sixteen and I was in my little room in a little town in northern Italy listening to their records, I didn’t imagine that one day I would play with them. I really feel blessed.
There are not enough words to explain how moving it was to play with these people. I still have goose bumps talking about that. It was amazing. Great artists and wonderful human beings. But having the opportunity to sing with the legendary Blind Boys of Alabama was one of the highest musical privileges in my life. Every time I listen to my recordings with them I still sit in humble disbelief hearing my voice singing with theirs. Most of them called me brother and every time I think about that I am moved to tears.
And you’ve released a couple of albums with Guy Davis, one just this year, a homage to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, which has been very well received. How did this collaboration come about, and how do you find collaborating with Guy?
My first encounter with Guy Davis dates back to 2007 when we met at a blues festival in Italy. Between us was born almost immediately a deep friendship based not only on mutual respect but also about the passion we both have for the most authentic acoustic folk blues. Over the past years, our close personal links materialized in live shows, and then Guy recorded a couple of tracks on my album Spirit & Freedom. After that we did Juba Dance which I also produced artistically and I also was a special guest on Kokomo Kidd. To play at his side is something that always amazes me and makes me proud because Guy Davis really is one of the last great masters of the blues, a direct heir of Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker.
Guy and I are extremely fascinated by the primitive sound of the blues and spirituals — the music that was played “without electricity” under the front porch of those shacks scattered among cotton fields of the Southern States. Also, the acoustic sound allows us to better tell the stories that are in and around this mysterious and magical musical genre. Every album we did together is a perfect picture of the encounter, the embrace, and the total and complete fusion between two musicians from seemingly distant worlds, light years away. Sometimes I think that this happened just because probably in another life, Guy and I were brothers and already playing the blues just for fun on the porch of our house… not just for us … but thinking about what would come next.
Tell us about the album, Fabrizio, and why you wanted to record it?
It’s another album we recorded together that I produced and is titled Sonny and Brownie’s Last Train. The CD, as the subtitle says, is a “A look back to Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry.” I think that now it’s the time to celebrate them for a new generation. I completely agree with what Guy wrote in the liner notes explaining the concept of the recording: “Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry were two musicians whose work will not be surpassed, let alone improved on… It features our combined musical talents, and is not meant to compete with the originals. It’s meant to be a love letter to Brownie and Sonny signed by the both of us. They were two of my favourites.” The idea for the album came from my lovely wife Angelina. One night she told me: “I’ve seen you and Guy playing together many, many times. I love it when you play together and I think that you two need to do a record dedicated to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Nobody’s done it yet, so you have to do it! You and Guy are the right musicians to do that record.” Guy and I stayed for two days in a recording studio in Milan and recorded all the songs live. The album is the result and I hope people like it. We put all our passion, love and respect for those two wonderful musicians and their music into it. I felt like they were seated in the studio with me and Guy, looking and smiling at us. The title track theme was my idea, and Guy in my opinion wrote a masterpiece just on the spot. When the song Sonny & Brownie’s Last Train was finally finished and recorded, Angelina and I were in tears. It is really a wonderful love letter to them.
When people think of Italian music, they might think of great opera or classical music, but the blues maybe isn’t the first thing people think of! So tell us about the interest there is currently in the blues in Italy.
I often say that among the great miracles of the blues is that it has become an international language; so nowadays you have great musicians playing great music all over the world. It doesn’t really matter where that musician comes from.
There are many people all around the world singing great opera tunes or playing classical music so behind the stereotypes, so why shouldn’t Italians be playing the blues? The important thing is the vibe, the connection, to be honest and sincere. So yes, there are great blues players here and many blues festivals. The blues is “alive and kickin’” in the land of pasta and pizza!
Also, I know that you’re a blues historian, Fabrizio, and have discovered that there are a number of threads that link Italy and the blues – not least that Italians that lived, worked and suffered alongside African Americans in a Mississippi plantation at the turn of the nineteenth century. Perhaps you could give us a flavour of that story?
It’s a story I discovered some years ago in Mississippi about Italian farmers and fishermen who, looking for a better life, around 1895, left their homes in Northern Italy to settle down in the cotton fields of the Delta. Their life was difficult because of the extreme conditions they had to endure: the mosquitoes carrying malaria, the frequent floods, and the racial discrimination all made their existence very hard. In 1865 at the end of the Civil War when slavery was abolished, a lot of black people, already free even if just by word of mouth, left the cotton plantations to emigrate to the northern States, leaving their owners “in difficulty.” Replacing tireless workers like the African-Americans wasn’t easy; so some owners decided to try and get other workers who were badly off but at the same time were expert labourers in the fields: the Italians. But they all were victims of a terrible trick. With the promise of a better life, men without scruples brought the Italians illegally into the United States, and then sent them on a “biblical” journey to the plantation of Sunnyside near Greenville, Mississippi, the world capital of cotton. The Italians lived and worked in close quarters with the black workers, and shared with them misery and misfortune.
Black people and Italians were not officially enslaved, but their life conditions were like real slavery. They lived in poor shacks on the sides of swamps infested by mosquitoes. Malarial fever was widespread and a lot of children died. The burden of debts oppressed Italian poor emigrants who worked hard, but were unable to emerge from a life made of “insects, scanty food and non-potable, green and stinking water.”
The Italians were often treated, if it is possible, as badly as the former slaves. And the African-Americans were the only ones who were gentle with them; they had passed through that hell, too. Together they withstood the racist vexations of the white ruling class. The Ku Klux Klan didn’t persecute just the black community, but also Italians. In the first decades of the 20th century, despite their sacrifice and their dignified misery, the Italians were considered just “ugly, dirty and bad.” In addition, some of them had dark skin and were thought of as black. In rural America, in the state of Mississippi, in that period of history, it often happened that groups of fanatical racists burned the houses, the stock pens, the schools, or the harvest of some poor Italian family. Together with black people, the Italians survived not only this, but nature’s fury: the frequent storms and floods that destroyed their poor houses.
So Italians were there when the blues were “invented.” In one book it says that “…outside Tribbett road, at Dean Plantation, there was a long wooden shed. In the first years of the 20th century, that was one of the places where black people met for playing and dancing the blues on Saturday evening, and the sound of blues was taking care of the pain of the Italians’ souls, too….” I don’t know if there are threads that link Italy and the blues. What I know for sure is that certainly the story of the “Delta Italians” is fascinating and proves that Italians along with black people, living and working together, have suffered strain and pain which gave rise to their singing. And for sure, African Americans and Italians sang in the fields. Maybe each one sang his own song. But they worked side by side in the same cotton fields, and perhaps the songs were mixed among themselves. Because music is like that; it is like the wind – it can’t be stopped.
You recorded an album with your band Chicken Mambo, entitled Mercy, which is mostly spirituals or gospel blues. Do you see some connection between the blues and faith or spirituality?
A few years ago, I read that for someone, “Hell is the experience of being separated from God.” After coming out of my deep depression, my own personal “hell on earth,” I realized that for me singing Blues and Spirituals was a way of staying connected to what I call “Heaven.” Just as it was for African slaves in America, blues and spirituals, to me are sides of the same coin, and are my key to carrying on in this “mean ol’ world.”
What’s next for you Fabrizio?
I know that maybe it sounds pretty corny but what I really wish for my future is to play my harp until the day I’ll die. I hope on a stage! But if you want to stay tuned with my world and keep updated please visit my website www.chickenmambo.com
Fabrizio and Guy Davis are on tour during November and December in the UK. http://guydavis.com/wp/tour/