“We must have a break,” we said. “We need a holiday and a chance to get away from traditional music for a while,” we said. “Italy would be lovely this time of year,” we said. But when we realised that one of Italy’s premier Irish traditional music festivals was happening only a few short miles from where we were planning to be, it was just too hard to resist. So Bondeno, about 28 miles to the north of the wonderful city of Bologna, was added to our schedule.
Bondeno is a relatively small town set in a very agricultural part of Emilia-Romagna. It is slightly off the normal tourist trail, and as such, doesn’t have all the trappings of a usual tourist destination – there is fairly limited accommodation, public transport options are few, and sightseeing doesn’t feature high on the agenda. But it is a real town, with real businesses and real people, and that is very definitely part of its charm.
Each year, lovers of Irish traditional music from all over Italy (and beyond) come to Bondeno for the chance to play together and hear some musicians from Ireland who, along with playing in concert format, also join in the daily sessions. Some higher profile Italian musicians are also involved, giving a balanced feel – this isn’t a case of ‘the experts’ from Ireland coming in to show the Italians how it is done; they know exactly what they are doing already. Rather, the festival has a sense of people coming together, regardless of where they are from, to celebrate and enjoy the thing that they are most passionate about – Irish traditional music and song.
This year’s programme had three main threads. There were two or three concerts each day, featuring the booked artists, often with guest appearances by local musicians. These were all held outdoors, either in the grounds of the town’s buildings or in one of the town’s piazzas, and were all free thanks to financial support from Culture Ireland and other Italian funders. There was a lively dancing programme, with Irish set dancing, sean nós dancing and step dancing all featuring alongside the more European Bal folk dancing. And there was a very strong session thread to the festival, with several each day going into the wee small hours, and the standard of the players being exceptionally high - any festival in Ireland would be thrilled to have sessions of this quality at their event.
The whole weekend had a relaxed feel, and people mingled their way between the different venues. Many already knew each other (the Irish music scene in Italy is perhaps not that big) and there was a very warm and genuine welcome for newcomers. In some ways, there was a fleadh atmosphere, and the prominence of the sessions certainly added to this, but with one main difference. Most people in Bondeno had come to take part, either in the sessions or in the dancing; there weren’t so many there as spectators or audients, or whatever you want to call them. In some ways this made the festival even better – you could be part of a session without having to fight your way through the beery crowds that can sometimes be part of a fleadh in Ireland – it’s the kind of session festival that many of us dream of. The people in attendance were there because they wanted to play, sing or dance, and so were very respectful of what was going on. More of that kind of person would definitely be of benefit, whether they participated or not.
This year’s guests from Ireland were well received, many of whom having been in Bondeno before. Oisín Mac Diarmada and Samantha Harvey played a great opening set along with bodhrán maestro Junior Davey, and set the bar very high for the weekend. They also played for a lot of the dancing. Niamh Parsons and Graham Dunne played their set late on the Friday night and despite a smaller crowd, managed to keep people spellbound – if you could have only one voice from Ireland at a festival, you could do no better than Niamh. Liam Kelly and Philip Duffy played their trademark Sligo-style set to absolute attention from the audience, a high percentage of whom were musicians. And the biggest crowd-puller of the weekend was for Lúnasa – many of the young players from Italy having learned much from their albums and live performances. In fact, as you wandered around the sessions over the weekend, it was hard to miss Lúnasa’s unmistakable influence as their sets were heard time and time again. As far as mentors go, the Lúnasa lads would be hard to beat, but it got me wondering if the Italian players would go back a stage further and listen to a past generation of Irish players who brought so much to the music? And would something be missing from their playing if they didn’t?
Certainly, the younger Italian players have learned much from the older generation in their own country, and it was refreshing to see them giving a nod to their mentors throughout the weekend. Tommaso Tornielli and Michel Balatti both launched new CDs, and acknowledged the support from Italian musicians such as Carlo Galantini, a fiddler who has been a great enabler and encourager in their musical paths. Also, the man behind the festival in Bondeno is the irrepressible Umberto Bisi. His passion for Irish music is evident, and he was credited several times over the weekend as “the man who makes Irish music happen in Italy”. With people like this supporting and encouraging the younger musicians, the future for Irish music in Italy looks very healthy indeed.
Apart from the stunning weather and glorious food, there are a few things that will stick in my mind the most about the festival.
One is the singing session that was hosted by Niamh Parsons and Stephanie Lyons on the Sunday afternoon. Though the instrumental sessions were full and of a very high standard all weekend, I was pleased to see there was also a strong interest in song, and this session drew a good crowd. I was amazed by the quality of singers that were crammed into a little room in one of the town’s bars, and by their knowledge of Irish (and other) songs and ability to sing them. We were treated to a beautiful version of Donal Óg, MacCrimmon’s Lament sung to a pipe drone, Molly Na gCuach Ní Chuilleanáin in perfect Irish, and my personal favourite, Willie O’ Winsbury, sung by Gabriele Caporuscio, also a beautiful bouzouki player.
Gabriele was also on the stage with fiddler Marco Fabbri when he launched his album, Crossroads, at the festival. This was another memorable moment as Marco perfectly epitomises the festival – an Italian who lived and played in Ireland for several years, and who knows and has played with most of the traditional musicians there. He has a foot in both camps and is respected throughout – as evidenced by the list of people playing on his album and in his gig in Bondeno. He is a class act, something of a local hero I guess, and his set was outstanding.
Lastly, what will stick in my mind was a moment at the start of the Lúnasa concert. Before the boys took to the stage, Umberto talked about those who had lost their lives after the recent earthquake not so far away in Amatrice. He called for a minute’s silence and then pipers Cillian Vallely and Padraig McGovern played a spellbinding version of the slow air Táimse Im’ Chodladh (I Am Asleep). It was an emotional moment, and one that brought home to me the real community feel that the whole festival has.
Bondeno may not be on any “top ten” lists for the general tourist in Italy, but for anyone interested in Irish music and dance, particularly those who want the chance to play with some exceptional players in a relaxed, welcoming and extremely inclusive environment, it should be right up there. And did I mention the food… that’s a whole other article!