THE TRANSCULTURAL VERSATILITY OF THE MANDOLIN

In conversation with Carlo Aonzo, leader of "Carlo Aonzo Trio" that will be performing at Co.As.It. on 7 February

Is this your first time in Australia? What are some of your first impressions?

‘Yes, it is the first time for my two pals and fellow band members Luciano Puppo (double bass) and Lorenzo Piccone (acoustic and electric guitar) and it is the second time for me. It is a wonderful big land with good people and there is space for everybody here.’ And he consults the others: ‘What else guys? Prime impressioni?’ He gets the response: ‘Sembrano essere tutte le città abbastanza tranquille.’ And Carlo translates back into English: ‘Yes, the cities are very liveable. So far, we have been in Tasmania, Canberra, Wollongong, and Sydney and so far the experience is very good. We are very happy and actually after my first time last year I really wanted to bring back my music with my trio because I felt there was a sensibility here to like what we are doing.’

You and your Carlo Aonzo Trio will be performing at Co.As.It on 7 February, taking us on a musical journey that will transport us through the various regions of Italy and that has flavours from different times and epochs. What do you envisage will be the Italo-Australian audience reactions to your very creative mandolin music and your fusion of musical styles? (with bagpipes, Jamaican reggae, and South American rhythms included in your musical melting pot and creatively enhancing the Italian sounds).  

As I was saying before, the Australian audience is very sensitive to our musical arrangements. We make music come alive in a modern way – including some evergreens that are iconic for the Italian culture so we have several special audiences and also in general appeal to music lovers in general. The concerts deliver very high-quality music. Our music takes you on a trip and journey all around Italy but also encompasses the world at large so we cross over many different musical genres and the main character is the Italian instrument il mandolino.

What first inspired your musical interest?

Well music is a family tradition for me because I learnt this instrument from my father who used to play it very often when he got back from work, so he was my first teacher and mentor who taught me the tradition of the mandolin at home.

What makes the mandolin so versatile and what can we learn from this instrument (its sounds and story)?

The modern mandolin is like pizzicato violin. It has the same tuning so it allows you to play the violin repertoire very easily and this special technique that is the tremolo seems to be a sound that penetrates our soul and reaches deep into our hearts ̶ so we are experiencing very important emotions. The mandolin is the symbol of Italy and an ambassador for music around the world, with an Italian touch ̶ which is very trendy lately. Together with Italian food and fashion, Italian music (including the sounds created by the mandolin), these are powerful ways to bring our message to the world.

Having already travelled and toured extensively throughout your musical career, vowing fans in Italy, Europe, Japan, the USA and Canada, where has the audience reaction been the strongest and most enthusiastic?

Yes, we travelled all over the world and we have a big turnout and response from the Northern American audience. But also, here in Australia the response has been really powerful and we are already planning for a possible comeback next year. Also, Japan has a very big sensibility for the mandolin music maybe because the sound is similar to their original instruments. Japan is also a big market for the classical Italian mandolin music. All around the world the mandolin takes on a different shape and terminology.

Please tell me more about your album and tour called “A Mandolin Journey” – ‘a musical tour through the continents’.

With “A Mandolin Journey” we went all over the world with our repertoire to discover and explore different musical genres where the mandolin is the main character like the bluegrass and ragtime in northern America, starting from the traditions of Italy, so that  was the very first of the Carlo Aonzo Trio. Our second album focusses on Italian music and is called “Mandolltaly” (2019).

In your preliminary Co.As.It talk on 4 February you will be illustrating ‘the evolution of the mandolin and its social function across the ages, looking at paintings by Simone Martini, Tiepolo, Picasso, Matisse, etc’. How does art and music connect with respect to your speech and subsequent concert?

I conducted research on how they painted the mandolin across the ages, so starting from the angels of the frescoes up to the modern paintings including Picasso, Matisse, etc. And the mandolin was always something very iconic to show. And what we can get from the paintings and artworks is also the study of the evolution of the instrument and equally the study of the social function it played throughout the ages.

What makes your Italian mandolin, the acoustic guitar and double bass such an effective mix?

Well, it’s because I am working with two incredibly wonderful musicians and we work very hard on the arrangements, finding new ideas and teasing the audience with new musical solutions but often using old material so very well-known songs like “Volare” or other iconic Italian songs. The fresh arrangements of course are very effective so everybody is welcome to come to listen to our music and enjoy the new mix.

What makes your music so evocative, reminding us of different places, musical traditions and eras?

The mandolin of course is very evocative of Italy but we study deep in the different styles and genres ̶ the sileni  ̶  the styles that characterise the musical genres. So, in this way we are very evocative of different places and traditions.

What prompted you to make music that steps away from 100% traditional and instead spices it up in a modern, catchy and cutting-edge version?

That is our challenge: to bring alive the true tradition, an almost philological way to play the instrument with the same natural way that we play reggae or a swing or a funk style of music using an instrument that is usually intended as a traditional instrument. In reality the mandolin is a modern instrument; very special but also very normal so it deserves to be played in all the possible ways that it can be.

You are impressively successful on the musical stage. What is the recipe for success, in your view?

‘To give a good musical proposal with something new to think about. And also, to tell stories around the pieces as they have a story behind. So, it is very interesting to discover why one song was born and what is the context, so you bring alive a piece of history together with the song. This is very important for the success of a musical proposal. The virtuosity and the musicality also have to mix together within a successful final dish’ [he adds, providing an elegant poetic touch to his words!]

Why does the world need music? And what human values does the mandolin represent?

Well, can you imagine a world without music, without birds singing?! [Carlo laughs]. There would be nowhere to stay, and the musicians bring to our ears what already resides in nature. They just pick the right notes, so the music serves to bring us emotions. So, it is a language that has no borders and that everybody around the world can understand. So, imagine a world without music; we don’t always understand each other linguistically but at least music allows us to communicate all around the world without learning a new language.  

I don’t know if the mandolin represents human values but for sure it represents Italian culture and traditions and maybe with regard to human values the versatility because it went all around the world and changed its shape, going deep into the different cultures.  

What are some of your upcoming projects?

After this Australian tour I will be involved in a classical mandolin project in India and we will tour the country and then we go for another North American tour with the trio and then again with classical guitar to China and to Japan in September. Important for the audience to know are also our international camps in Genova in August so please check our websites www.carloaonzo.com, and www.academiamandolino.com for more details. Join our camps to learn the mandolin! It’s not too difficult and permits you to play ensemble music without not too much prior learning.

Do you have any final message to our Segmento readers?

Pay attention to what happens with the mandolin. It is an instrument that is undergoing a growing trend all around the world and an important symbol of our country, it is nice and positive with a lot still to tell. So, keep an eye on the evolution of the instrument and keep in touch with us! www.carloaonzo.com and Carlo Aonzo Trio on Facebook. I hope to meet many of you at our performances on our journey through beautiful Australia. Thanks for including us in your magazine and I look forward to meeting all of you! Ciao ciao!

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.