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Alfredo

 

 

 

Well Bambino, as I told you, I sang a song in Italian at the Drop-in on Sunday: “Torna a Surriento”. It wasn’t easy working out the pronunciation but with the assistance of YouTube I produced a version which I checked with Joe Tiralosi. Even with his help I still had to put in a lot of effort to work out the difference between mainstream Italian and dialect. What I sang on the day was probably a compromise between the two. Pretty much the same as what I sang to you over the phone, of which you seemed to approve.

 

Joe asked me why I call you Bambino? I told him about a movie light I bought for the College while I was at Swinburne. It was an Italian-made movie light which was twice as bright as other lights of the same size. He seemed to enjoy this explanation of your nickname.

 

I had a practise session with Joe before the afternoon got under way. The people who came to the Drop-in on Sunday gave us a big accolade. Joe’s great portable Wurlitzer playing certainly helped me over the scratchy parts; with my fog horn I can’t get the last high notes like Pavarotti, or Mario Lanza, or even Dino Martini. It was all in good fun and the others loved it. One, who clearly was inspired by my effort but who must remain unnamed, has even threatened to learn a French song which is a particular favourite of mine and sing it at a Drop-in in the future! I can’t bear the thought that I have started something terrible and will be repaid in full when he presents that great French song with terrible pronunciation, in an Aussie accent, and out of tune to boot!

 

So Bambino, why is this song so important to me? I don’t think I ever told you how it came into my life. I was only about ten years old, maybe I should say ten years young, when my parents met an Italian man named Alfredo and his German wife, Gerda. As you know our home was a cosmopolitan home by the standards of Melbourne in 1953. Many of our visitors were recent arrivals from various parts of Europe and the Middle East. All were welcome at our house, as well as at Uncle Victor’s and all of Dad’s brothers homes.

 

I have no idea how Mum and Dad met Alfredo and Gerda, it could have been by Dad meeting Alfredo via work, or Mum meeting Gerda via hairdressing. I just don’t know. In the case of Mr. and Mrs. Pelliconi, they certainly met Mr. Pelliconi through his wife who was one of Mum’s clients, and that is how I came to know all about the mandolin, with the Italian style gourd-shaped sound-box rather than the American version with a flat banjo-like sound box, which I was learning at the Victoria Banjo Club.

 

We were living in our new house in Venice Street, Box Hill, where we moved after we left Belgrave. A strange thing Bambino, there were three other streets coming off Elgar Road with Italian names, Piedmont, Verona and Naples Streets. I don’t think I’ve told you that before. Byron Street and Milton Crescent were just down the hill near the tram terminus at Wattle Park.

 

I was going to Marcellin College in Canterbury at that time, my younger brother John also went there, my sister Maureen went to a convent school; my younger sister Gabrielle was only about 2 years old.

 

We often had a lot of visitors over for lunch on Sundays in those days, Dad’s brothers, his uncles and aunts, Mum’s brother Philip and his wife Olive, Mum’s sister, Auntie Monica and Uncle Jack with their large family, and many strangers like Alfredo and Gerda who had recently arrived from Egypt. Also, John Pelliconi, his wife and their two beautiful daughters, who, despite their fine Italian surname, had migrated to Melbourne from Egypt. The Pelliconis spoke four languages and John Pelliconi played the mandolin like an angel. He was a large rotund man with chubby fingers. I’m being polite Bambino, they were really fat fingers, like someone else I know, but you wouldn’t believe how well he played those ‘classical’ melodies on such a tiny instrument. I think it was through his playing that I first heard Vivaldi, Scarlatti and Corelli, as well as some of the popular songs of the day.

 

Anyhow, although Mr. Pelliconi had some influence on my life it was Alfredo who made the greatest impression upon me.

 

As you would know Bambino, an Italian man meeting and marrying a German girl only a few years after the war was a most unusual thing, especially now that I’ve learned so much about the wartime experience of these two nations from films like “Rome, Open City”, but also from docos and other readings. They were a handsome couple. Excuse me Bambino dear, an example of ‘litotes’... I’m selling them short. He was extremely handsome and she was a stunner! At that time in the early fifties they had what I would now call ‘film star’ looks. Alfredo accompanied himself on his guitar singing popular songs from that period, “Mamma son tanto felice”, and “Torna a Surriento”. He sang really well, and in those days I thought he played very well too, but now I realise he only strummed the few chords which were necessary for those songs in a popular style. His guitar technique was very basic compared with John Pelliconi playing his mandolin. But when Alfredo sang he strummed with very good rhythm, and if he played music from South America he used a tango or rumba rhythm which would have been very unusual for me to hear in those days. I was gob-smacked!

 

Looking back from where I am now, I’m sure he was a most influential person in my musical life; not the most, because there were so many, before and since, but my love of music was deeply enriched by Alfredo’s songs, his style of singing, and his guitar playing which was so new for me at the time.

 

Mum and Dad only kept in touch with Alfredo and Gerda for a few years. I don’t recall them visiting us after we moved to South Caulfield when I was about 13 years old. I’m fairly certain I never saw either of them after we moved from the appropriately named Venice Street, Box Hill.

 

Then my musical life meandered down many new pathways, I was drawn by so many influences. As you know Bambino, I’m a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. I don’t mind that at all, I like being Jack. But had I not encountered Alfredo and his guitar, I may never have experimented with making a guitar (well, two guitars actually!) for playing folk songs, then learning to play Flamenco to accompany my sister Maureen’s Spanish dancing, and eventually, classical guitar inspired by hearing Segovia on radio... yes Bambino, “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” first heard on the radio in the kitchen when I was about 17... and the rest, as they say, is history.

 

The years rolled by. In the fullness of time I had become a middle-aged person making films and teaching at Swinburne, hardly ever playing the guitar. Just mucking around and playing for friends at parties, not really learning anything new, not expanding upon what I had learned up to the time I was 23 or 24. Very few new songs, and no new classical or Flamenco pieces. I was in my musical dormancy. The eruption which you have witnessed only commenced in 2008 when Ina and Graeme introduced me to the Irish Nights at Trentham and since then I’ve learned more than one hundred new songs or pieces which I would never have dreamed of playing before they persuaded me to bring my guitar along. So the last Friday of February 2008 was an extremely important date in my calendar.

 

About thirty years ago I was visiting my Mum and Dad after finishing work at Swinburne for the week. I had made a habit of calling in for dinner on Friday evenings. As I was deeply into the ‘diary-observational’ style of filming in those days, occasionally I would take a camcorder with me. VHS camcorders offered an opportunity which shooting on film did not: compared with the weight and bulk of movie cameras, the noise they made, as well as the expense of film and processing, video was the go! I was ‘filming’ Mum in her kitchen washing up the interminable dishes at the sink, the late afternoon light filtering through the lacy curtains over her ageing face. I can’t recall what she was talking about when we began, but then she turned to me and asked me if I remembered Alfredo. I said “Yes Mum, of course I do, he was a wonderful musician. I liked him very much”. She paused, and then said “I heard from …. Veenie... (one of Mum’s childhood friends) that he died the other day... (pause, long pause) …. he was killed in an accident at work.... he was crushed by a forklift truck”. I was shaking, convulsively, my hand-held camera-work went downhill fast. I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t bear to think that the life of this beautiful man who had inspired me so, who had given me his wonderful gift of music, had just been snuffed out... that Alfredo had been squashed like a fly.

 

I have often thought about Alfredo since that time. Dad has passed away, Mum also, and my sister Maureen, who opened up the world of Flamenco to me died recently. She was very young!

 

Both sides of our family have longevity in their genes, many of our uncles and aunts living into their 90’s, but Maureen died at 62 years of age. However, there is something quite different about the death of Alfredo. He did not make it to old age. He did not succumb to illness. His life was ended suddenly, unexpectedly, most brutally. I hope it was instantaneous for him, not a lingering death. I know none of the details. I often wondered if it might not have been an accident?

 

These are things I will probably never know. Who could know if he had an ‘enemy’ at work? Possibly someone who didn’t like wogs. I remember that once he told my father about guys stealing tools hidden in their kit bags as they signed off from work for the day. He was obviously angry at them for that, it is one of those very few memories which made such an impression upon me nearly sixty years ago when I was so young and so impressionable. Other than his music I have no other memories of Alfredo... those wonderful Italian songs he gave me have left an indelible memory which I will cherish until the last day.

 

That is why I sang “Torna a Surriento” at our Drop-in on Sunday. I wish you had been there Bambino. I think you would have enjoyed it.

 

Ciao,

pt

 

2017

 

 

 

FOOTNOTES/LINKS

 

“Torna a Surriento” (Dean Martin)

 

“Mamma”  (Andrea Bocelli)

 

“Mamma”  (Gigli)

 

Vivaldi

 

“Recuerdos de La Alhambra”  (Segovia)