Alfredo Malabello. "The voice of romance" talks to Segmento

Alfredo Malabello, many thanks for taking time out to see me. You are a fascinating and impressive man with many strings to your bow and balls in the air. You have built a name for yourself as a musician/pianist, singer and all-round entertainer ̶ with a “voice of romance”. An icon in the Australian music industry, you feature heavily in the media and have been called “Australia’s very own Italian son of song”

You have readily confessed that you have a burning passion for music. Driven by an entrepreneurial spirit and with a go-getter attitude, approximately seven weeks ago you opened the already highly popular and versatile piano bar/ restaurant the Rattlesnake Saloon in the heart of Lygon Street, where the action is and which is known for its vibrant Italian community.  

I am curious about your life journey. Can you please tell me more about your background? Did you grow up in Italy or were you brought up in Australia?

I grew up in Adelaide, born 11th of December, 1959, at the Queen Adelaide Hospital. I was the biggest baby born in Australia that year - 5.5kgs … My mum says I’m still the biggest baby in Australia. I grew up in Norwood, South Australia, went to private colleges and insured beatings every day because I was the new immigrant. I was always afraid of girls even though I was fascinated by them and at the age of 15, I decided to take up playing piano and singing as a way to meet girls. I was a good student at school and made my way into the Institute of Technology and got my electronics degree as well as electromechanics and physics. I’ve always been a bit of a geek. I started my professional career in electronics whilst performing on the weekends in a band, but the allure of music, and of course the girls, kept drawing me closer and closer to making a commitment to be a full-time musician.  

In 1980 I formed a band called The Rhythms, and commenced my journey into professional musicianship. We supported and opened up for many bands nationally and internationally. We supported The Cure on their first tour of Australia. We also supported and opened up for bands like Midnight Oil, Australian Crawl, INXS, Cold Chisel, John Farnham, Mental as Anything, My Sex, The Angels, Little River Band, Hunters and Collectors, and many, many more. We toured around Australia for four years and then we broke up. I started performing as a solo artist piano playing and singing and touring around Australia playing at resorts and I must admit that that was the beginning of my musical persona. I moved to Perth on the eve of the America’s Cup in 1987 and for just a relationship with the wealthy glitterati of Western Australia and performed at many illustrious parties… Some extremely decadent. Have you ever seen the movie Eyes Wide Shut? Well that is pretty much the sort of life I lead at these parties for many, many years. I’m gloriously tainted.

In 1988, I was able to wrangle support in the form of $100,000 and travel the world in search of a record deal. Along with my musical partner, we were able to sign a deal with Polygram in Tokyo, Japan, and then we moved to New York and then Nashville, Tennessee, for one year and recorded an album. It was a great experience and one that forged an understanding of the professional music industry and recording industry.

Since then I’ve toured America, Japan, Europe, England, performing 5 to 7 nights a week and really honing my skills as a musician and entertainer.

How do you feel about your Italian heritage and are you more steeped in the Italian or Australian culture at this stage of your life?

I absolutely adore and relish my Italian heritage but I also love being an Australian. Artistically, I am firmly based in Italian culture. Attitudinally, I done the attitude and demeanour of an Australian bloke. When it comes to performing, depending on the event, I will milk the Italian “Crooner”, or accentuate the Australian “Bogan”.

What do you most appreciate about Italian arts and culture?

What I appreciate about Italian art and culture, is that, from what I have learned and seen and experienced, striving for excellence is at the core. I really like this no compromise attitude… but then again, when it comes to making love, there is no rule book… And I love this attitude very much.

With regard to Italian people and identity and bearing in mind that also Italy is affected by global trends, is there such a thing as an Italian stereotype today?

There’s one thing I’ve noticed in my travels around the world, that whilst Italy had a very definitive personality and a recognisable persona, the advent of the Internet has definitely white-washed every culture on this planet. I must admit it is getting more and more difficult to spot the Italian purely based on behaviour, movement, fashion, and attitude.

Do you draw from certain Italian traits in your role as an artist and entertainer – i.e. are you very Italian in style?

As I mentioned earlier in the interview, it all depends on the event or the group demeanour of the audience. For example, if I were to perform to a group of Italians, I would definitely be the Italian.

You sing in both Italian and English – are you able to express emotions equally well in either of these languages?

Yes, I’m able to express emotions quite successfully as a performer, in both Italian and English. I enjoy the rapport I nurture with my audience… I love people.

What inspired you to become such an enthusiastic and smooth singer and what is the recipe for success as a singer and entertainer?

My inspiration originally came from my need to meet girls. Then my love for music became stronger than my love for girls, ...... and then it dawned on me that it is better, and much more attractive, to be passionately interested in what you love, than it is to try to look interesting. I hope you understand what I mean.

I certainly do. Where do you feel most happy and fulfilled? When performing by the piano in a small and more intimate venue like The Rattlesnake Saloon or in a larger space like the Melbourne Crown Casino?

To tell the truth, there is no difference to me. When I’m behind the piano, and performing and singing, there’s only one person… 99.9% of the time it’s a girl I’m thinking about. (smiles).

Is performing to you a dialogue between the audience and yourself as a singer and musician?

Absolutely yes. 1000% yes.

What are some of the most common themes in your songs and why are they so important?

Love, sensual passion, anger, jealousy, heartbreak, loss. They’re extremely important because it lets the listener know they’re not alone in this condition.

Do us human have the same needs across cultures?

Yes, of course. But certain cultures accentuate certain traits...... like rebelliousness, for example.

What, in your view, makes the world go round?

Religion, love, romance, fashion, food, sex.

How important is poetry in the world today?

I cannot begin to even try to express how important poetry is ..... It’s something severely lacking in our artistic and urban landscape.  

Can music ease our pain and soothe our souls? In other words, does music have healing properties?

It has literally saved my life ..... It has healed me… Many times… From a broken heart.

What singer/ singer-songwriter do you admire and feel most inspired by?

This is a very difficult question to answer… But I would be confident in saying the person who inspired me to play piano and sing, is Elton John

What made you embark on the project of opening up The Rattlesnake Saloon and did you know when you first set out that it would become such a success?

It was a serendipitous event. The fruit of a casual conversation overheard by philanthropic friend. Please forgive me if I sound cocky, but yes, I always knew it would be a success.

Can you please tell me something about the history of the venue? What purpose/s did it serve in the past?

It was an Italian restaurant called La Notte ...... A very large one, quite popular in the 80s and 90s. It had been closed for approximately two years before I stumbled upon it.

Congratulations on gaining licence to stay open until 3 am 7 days a week(!). How did you manage to convince The Council?

Well, that was a seven-month ordeal. It’s best that we don’t talk about this because I’m not a huge fan of the Melbourne City Council. Their rules, regulations and planning laws are destroying Lygon Street.   Let’s leave it at that.  

Why the name The Rattlesnake Saloon?

I wanted something TexMex, cantina style, Mexican Adobe, casual grungy. I did some googling and saw the rattlesnake was an inhabitant of that part of America, and it stuck.

The Rattlesnake Saloon was awarded the title of Best Fringe Festival Venue this year. What makes this venue stand out above the rest?

Yes, and I’m very proud of that award. I’m an Artist and Actor, and I love anything and everything to do with music and theatre.  I love young people, I love the energy, the enthusiasm, and their raw talent.  There was not anything I wouldn’t do for these people at my venue. I believe they felt the love coming from me and my staff.  And, I must admit, I had a ball being amongst it all.

Does the location – Carlton – with a rich Italian cultural and historic heritage add to its success?

Yes, Carlton is rich in Italian culture, but it has changed, morphing with a much more international cosmopolitan student base emanating from RMIT and university campuses. There are also many more affluent and arty residents living in close proximity. The Rattlesnake satisfies their penchants for an eclectic alternative.  

Please comment briefly on the many changes Lygon Street and its Italian community has undergone through the years. Do you see these changes as positive or less so?

I’ve been here for just over two years, and in that time I’ve gotten to know the old boys, the restauranteurs, the shopkeepers, the homeless… and they all say Lygon Street is dead, it used to be amazing, now it’s all gone..... etc., etc., etc.  I’ll admit that this attitude upsets me, firstly because it’s defeatist, secondly because they’re resigning to the fact that it will never be great again. I believe Lygon Street is great and with the right attitude and support from The Council, it will surpass its previous legendary fame with even more glory.

I couldn’t agree more. The crowd-pleasing Fringe Festival cabaret/ drag show/ confessional play La Nonna (a tribute paid to an Italian grandmother, by her Melbourne-based “nipote”) was staged this year at The Rattlesnake Saloon. Did you watch the play yourself? If so, can you sympathise with the ordeals and identity issues experienced by the Italian grandmother? (to do with cultural identity, belonging, nostalgia for the past, finding your feet in a new place, etc.)

An amazing show, and rightfully one of the most popular this year. It made me cry, sincerely heartfelt pain and joy experienced by all. I loved it.

You are a master in the kitchen and your Facebook page features regular posts of scrumptious Italian dishes that are a feast for the eyes. Is it true that not only music and poetry but also food itself is “food for the soul”? What makes a perfect Italian dish?

Hey, yoo gotta feela da love when you eat - you feeda da body, and itta shoulda feed da soul ...anda maka you feel happy, or at the very least that you are loved.....

If you don’t feel this love from Italian food, then all you’re doing is surviving......

Last but not least, is there still a place for romance in these dire times of political turmoil and social unrest across the globe?

Now is the time to dive into romance more passionately, courageously, with more wild abandon than ever before. Don’t hold back

Jytte Holmqvist

Jytte Holmqvist is a movie enthusiast with a doctorate in Screen and Media Culture from the University of Melbourne and a keen interest in contemporary Spanish and Italian culture. She has established a publishing record and presented at conferences nationally and abroad. Her interest in Italian film began in earnest at the University of Auckland when in the paper Italy on Screen she explored films by Fellini, Rossellini, De Sica, the Taviani brothers, and Pasolini - to mention but a few. With that grew a love for Italian cinema and the fascinating world that it opens up to the viewer.