6.00pm Wednesday evening and it’s still an energy-sapping 33°, made worse by the lack of any significant breeze to cool the brow. The heady scent of Brugmansia from the garden below hangs in the air but it’s just too hot to muse, too late to go to the beach and way too early to go out in search of entertainment. What to do?
“Why don’t you pop up and see the jazz concert.” Suggests Maria. “I think it starts about seven. It’s somewhere in the hills above the village.”
“Seven? Are you sure?” Nothing starts here much before 11.00pm, even when it’s advertised for 9.00pm.
“It’s the Eco-Jazz week. I think they’ve been doing this evening’s thing for over twenty years…..they play to the sunset. You should go!” She insisted, only too glad to get me out from under her feet.
Mmm, I thought, thoughtfully. I mean, they can hardly hold up the sun till they get their act together…can they? Valiantly, I got up off my back-side, picked up the camera and my M.D. recorder (just in case) and got in the car and headed for the hills. Within a few minutes of cautious manoeuvring round the ever-narrowing, twisting lanes into the mountains behind Pellaro, I spotted a sign (rare in these parts) which confirmed that Eco-Jazz was indeed somewhere ahead. Eventually, as the air was beginning to get thinner and my ears popped from the change in altitude, I found myself on a single and almost vertical track, overhung by large cacti and high, weeping reeds. I’d only gone a hundred metres through the foliage when a figure approached from the hill above wearing a black Eco-Jazz T-shirt. I must be nearly there. As I came to a halt, he leaned into the open window (would have been painful had it been shut). “Hi:” he said cheerily. “You’re Maria’s husband aren’t you, I’m Agostino, pleased to meet you. Unfortunately you can’t drive up here, you’ll have to reverse back down and park….follow me and I’ll show you.” I’ve long given up wondering how so many strangers I meet seem to know who I am, or at least who I’m married to. Four years now and I still have no idea.
We dropped back down a disturbing distance before he indicated a neat place to pull in. It was still incredibly hot and the long slow walk back up the hill looked more than a little daunting. As I trudged upwards it dawned on me that flip-flops were probably not the most practical choice of footwear and it was equally, I tutted out loud, a little remiss of me not to think about bringing some water. Perhaps, I hoped, there’ll be a kiosk purveying some ice-chilled bottles of beer. I checked my pocket for money….ok, good…..not a complete idiot then!
Finally I reached an opening at the brow of the hill which revealed a rather nice villa with its back built into the rock behind and a small flat turning place for, I presumed, any visiting cars. A handful of people sat on the flattened grass, gazing out over the precipice towards Sicily. There were two paths I could go by, but no more signs. “Excuse me.” I called to the small group. “Which way is it to the music?” They looked at me and shrugged….and pointed to the ground at their feet. “Here?” They nodded. My heart began to sink with the now rapidly setting sun. There’s no stage, no lighting, no technical paraphernalia that seems to be so essential these days and no musicians.. More importantly, at this point when I’m panting like an old Labrador, there’s no kiosk! What the heck, I settled down on a little knoll and took in the view. This was a stunning location….high above the towns, overlooking the Straits of Messina and the blue-hued Sicilian mountains on the other side. I took a few snaps and checked my recorder for sound. The little Sony mic was picking up grasshoppers some 20 metres away, almost more clearly than my own ears (best £60.00 I ever spent….the mic, not my ears).
The handful gradually grew. A slow train of young couples, pushchairs, old-folk boogies and various sizes and shapes of flowing prints and beaded sandals made their way up the hill towards us. The crowd seemed to settle at around 50 people but as yet there was no sign of the promised performers….and the sun was sinking fast. I willed it to arrest its decline, wait… please! Then, quite unexpectedly, out of the chatting parishioners stepped a trumpet and a saxophone and took up position….backs to Etna and the setting sun, feet planted close to the edge of the steep drop.
On cue, the grasshoppers fell silent, the children were shushed and obeyed and the older faces became intent. Silence. The eco in ecojazz becomes immediately clear.
What followed was a duet to nature. The trumpet twittered quietly like a butterfly, resting on one note…flitting in the air as it searched for the next to settle on. The sax breathed softly like the gentle breeze around us. A couple of bats swooped and flit in the gloaming, confused perhaps by the sonic messages below, before shooting towards an abandoned barn to the east. Rapid exchanges between instruments colluded with the changing colours of the mountains and sky beyond…..orange, purple, pale blue, yellow, pink, gold and the glistening silver of the sea. A congress of sight and sound.
Who needs lighting effects and state-of-the-art sound systems, this was The State of Art. Why do we strive so hard to improve perfect? Spiritual is a word which is oft overused or misused, but this came mighty close. The whole set lasted no more than 40 minutes and only finished because the sun had played out its part as spectacularly as possible before retiring for another night.
This event has been going for over twenty years now and, now that I’ve discovered it, I fervently hope it continues for another twenty (anyone willing to push a wheelchair up here). I’ve since found out that this festival in Calabria centres round Pellaro. Lasting three days, it begins on the shore in Reggio at four in the morning on day one to greet the rising sun. It then moves location and its followers around to hear different artists (this year we had Dave Henderson) before finishing with a flourish, late on a Friday night at the race track in Pellaro. The audiences come and go, taking rest, rejoining, growing and subsiding along with the day. It’s a testament to the organisers that it continues to find new followers and fans…and manages to put a little “eco” into a struggling economy.