Roy Paci and his band Aretuska make their US debut
Roy Paci plays major venues – concert halls, big clubs, festivals – when he tours Italy, Europe, and Latin America. But the Sicilian singer, trumpeter, and bandleader made his United States debut Sunday, October 11, in the auditorium of a junior high school in Brooklyn.
Paci and his band Aretuska came to the borough – actually, Avenue P, in Bensonhurst -- as part of a weeklong series of events in New York and New Jersey organized by Italy's National Association of Migrant Families (ANFE) for Italian Heritage and Culture Month. The week’s theme is the fight for legality and the struggle against the Mafia, in Sicily and Italy, with a dedication to Joseph Petrosino, the New York Police Department detective murdered in Palermo in 1909 by the Mafia.
The “Concert for Legality” at the Seth Low Junior High School in Bensonhurst, which also featured Sun, another Sicilian band, will be repeated October 15, 7:30 p.m., at the Felician College University Theater in Lodi, New Jersey.
Whatever the circumstances, the opportunity to catch Paci and Aretuska perform was not one I could miss. I’ve been a fan of Paci for several years, having found his blend of Sicilian musical tradition and global sounds (reggae, ska, R&B, jazz, rock, rap, samba) totally irresistible. He’s made several terrific albums with Aretuska (Baciamo le mani, Tuttapposto, Parola d’onore, Suonoglobal, and the compilation, Bestiario Siciliano) as well as Matri Mia, a collaboration with Banda Ionica that takes Italian banda (marching band) music to places it has never been. He’s also collaborated with the French-Spanish rocker Manu Chao and the Malian duo Amadou and Mariam.
I’d heard that Paci and Aretuska kill on stage, and the DVDs I’ve seen of their performances bore that out. Even so, I was unprepared for just how exciting they were. Paci and his nine musicians, dressed in black, opened with “Isola dei fessi,” from Suonoglobal, and from the first bars I knew this was going to be a memorable gig. Paci’s drummer Jah Sazzah is one of the few non-Jamaicans I’ve heard who really nails reggae’s characteristic “one-drop” rhythm, and when he and bassist Mike Minerva locked in the groove, the music demanded dancing.
But – and how to put this politely? – much of the audience was not age-appropriate for Paci and Aretuska. The show, which was free, was more of a community event for the Sicilian Americans of Bensonhurst than a showcase gig for one of Italy’s major pop stars. The anziani enjoyed the opening set by Sun, a Palermo trio (augmented by two additional players) that plays a Sicilianized jazz that sometimes strays into New Age-y territory. But Paci’s music – hard-driving, funky, and loud – didn’t seem to be the old folks’ tazza di tè. There even was a rapper! As the set went on, there were more and more empty seats.
The rest of us, though, had a fantastic time. Paci and Aretuska knocked out tough, tight versions of some of their best numbers – “Viva La Vida;” “Searchin’ for the Sunshine;” “Yettaboom;” “Malarazza;” “Sicilia Bedda;” “Cantu Siciliano,” their re-make of “Mambo Italiano;” and “Toda Joia, Toda Beleza,” a madly catchy samba that was an international hit in 2007. And in a nod to Italo-America, they closed with “Eh Cumpari,” with the manic Paci rushing about the stage to conduct each musician’s playing.
By then, the front of the hall was packed with some very happy fans, all of us dancing our butts off. It was the response Paci and Aretuska seemed to be craving from us, and they looked very happy to get it. They certainly more than deserved it. To say that Paci works hard would be an understatement. From start to finish, he was a whirlwind, playing excellent jazz trumpet, singing with more power and nuance than on the recordings, all the while dancing and even leaping into the air. The members of Aretuska keep up with their hyperkinetic boss, their coordinated moves evoking British “two-tone” ska bands like The Specials and Madness as well as African American soul revues.
I left the show convinced that Roy Paci and Aretuska can find an audience in America. I’d even venture they’re more likely to cross over than some of the other top Italian acts who’ve performed here in recent years, like Jovanotti, Carmen Consoli, Vinicio Capossela, and Avion Travel. You don’t need to know a word of Italian, or have previously heard their music, to enjoy them. The band’s rhythmic power – almost entirely derived from music of the African diaspora – plus their charisma, humor, and energy – make them one of the best live acts I’ve seen in quite a while. Paci may be the pride of Sicily, but his and his band’s appeal transcends boundaries of nationality and culture.
And although it was big fun to catch them in a small, intimate show, they really deserve to be presented in a bigger, high-profile Manhattan venue. Forse la prossima volta?
On Tuesday, October 13, Paci joined several other Italian musicians for a presentation at New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimó. Mauro Pagani, the veteran Italian rock musician (Premiata Forneria Marconi) who in recent years has led the orchestra at the Notti di Taranta pizzica festival in Puglia, discussed his career and, on violin, played a duet with the New York-based guitarist Marco Cappelli.
Before their performance, Cappelli spoke about his excitement at coming from Italy to play in New York, and his fondness for both Italian American jazz musicians and Jewish-American klezmer music. Sun, as a trio, performed acoustic versions of the two Rosa Balestreri numbers they played in Brooklyn, “Mi votu e mi rivotu” and “Ballata per Peppe Fava.” Paci, voluble and frequently hilarious – he related how a German newspaper had described him and Aretuska as a band of Sicilian mafiosi – showed three of his videos, including the “What You See is What You Get” sequence from the 2006 film “La Vera Leggenda di Tony Vilar” (The True Legend of Tony Vilar). The film, which stars another southern Italian musician, Calabria's Peppe Voltarelli, will be screened Tuesday November 10, 2009 at Casa Italiana.