[12 October 2010]
If your idea of Italian music is “O Sole Mio”, opera, and the operatic pop schlock of Andrea Bocelli, you’ve never heard Roy Paci and Aretuska. You’re in for a treat.
Rosario “Roy” Paci, 41, from Augusta, Sicily, has been tearing up European and Latin American concert stages with his ten-piece band Aretuska for the better part of the past decade. Paci, a trumpeter and vocalist, has created a hybrid yet personal sound that marries his Mediterranean roots to Latin idioms like samba and cumbia, as well as ska, reggae, R&B, and jazz. His stellar chops and conceptual smarts ensure that the eclecticism doesn’t result in genre pile-up or mere pastiche. The title of one of Paci’s recent albums—Suono Global (Global Sound) – captures what he’s developed and continues to refine: an expansive but cohesive style built on the rhythms of the African diaspora and the melodicism of Italian and Latin pop.
He and Aretuska are bringing that sound, and their exciting live show, to the United States in October, as part of a “Hit Week” tour of contemporary Italian artists. They include the Tuscan rock band Negrita; pop singer Elisa; the rock quartet Apres La Classe, from Puglia in southern Italy; composer-pianist Ludovico Einaudi, and the alternative pop duo, La Blanche Alchimie, from Milan. Paci and Aretuska will perform with Negrita and Apres La Classe at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge on October 12; the three acts play Los Angeles’ El Rey Theatre on 16 October.
Joining Paci and Aretuska for the New York and LA shows is Ray Mantilla, the renowned, 76-year-old Latin percussionist whose resume includes work with such luminaries as Eddie Palmieri, Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Ray Barretto, and Max Roach.
The Hit Week shows should give Paci and Aretuska the exposure they missed on their American debut last year. In Italy, Europe, and Latin America, they play major venues – concert halls, large clubs, and festivals like WOMAD. Their first US gig last October was in a junior high school auditorium in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, before a small audience of mainly local Sicilian-Americans. Nevertheless, Paci and the band played a tight, powerful, and mad funky set that had those lucky enough to catch it – including this writer – making comparisons to James Brown and to another trumpet-playing Sicilian bandleader: Louis Prima.
Paci, like Prima, is an extroverted and high-energy performer who comes across as a fun-loving bon vivant, the king of carnival, as he proclaimed on one of his early recordings. His fusion of Italian and global sounds was influenced by Prima’s mix of Italian and Italian American pop and New Orleans jazz and R&B. With his brilliantine black quiff and pencil mustache, Paci also recalls ‘50s star Fred Buscaglione, one of the first singers to bring Latin music to Italian pop.
A precocious musician, Paci began playing trumpet in Sicilian jazz bands when he was barely in his teens. He moved to Uruguay in 1990, living in Montevideo, home to a sizeable Italian immigrant community. In South America, he absorbed the sounds of the Rio de la Plata region and the work of Brazilian musicians associated with the Musica Popular Brasileira (MPB) movement.
When Paci returned to Europe, he became a highly sought-after sideman and arranger. For several years, he recorded and toured with the French-Spanish rocker Manu Chao, as a member of Chao’s Radio Bemba band. Paci also played on Dimanche a Bamako, the successful Chao-produced 2005 album by the Malian duo Amadou and Mariam. He’s collaborated with the Belgian-African vocal group Zap Mama, “gypsy punk” band Gogol Bordello, and Mike Patton, on the former Faith No More vocalist’s 2010 album of Italian pop songs of the Fifties and Sixties, Mondo Cane.
Since 2006, Paci has led a three-trumpet band with The Klezmatics’ Frank London and Serbian virtuoso Boban Marković. With typical cheeky humor, Paci dubbed the group Il Terrone, l’Ebreo e lo Zingaro. (“Terrone” literally means “farmer” but northern Italians use it to slur southern Italians as backward yokels. London and Marković respectively are the “ebreo” – Jew, and the “zingaro” – gypsy.)
Paci in 1998 founded his own label, Etnagigante, to promote his work and that of other Sicilian artists. (Universal distributes his recordings outside Italy.) He and Aretuska released their debut disc, Baciamo le mani, in 2002, followed a year later by Tuttapposto. On those early albums, Paci was still working out his mixture of Sicilian music and jazz, R&B, and ska. Baciamo features one of his most entertaining experiments, “Cantu Siciliano”, a re-working of “Mambo Italiano” that starts out slow and somber like a Sicilian funeral march before exploding into a ska rave-up.
The band’s rapid growth was evident on their third record, 2005’s Parola d’Onore. The album included a raging version of the Sicilian folk song “Malarazza”, complete with a rap in dialect, and a number of strong originals, among them the reggae lament “Anna” and “Gastarbeiter”, a defense of migrant “guest workers”. Their 2007 release, Suono Global, remained on the European world music charts throughout the year and produced a hit single “Toda Joia Toda Beleza”, a madly catchy samba featuring Paci’s pal Manu Chao on vocals.
On his latest album, this year’s Latinista, Paci sings in Italian, Sicilian, Spanish, Portuguese, and English, often mixing languages from line to line. He also plays flugelhorn, piano, and harmonium, in addition to his customary trumpet. The record’s brand of international pop covers samba (“Io per amore vivo”), cumbia (“Santa”), and reggae (“Non so che”). There’s also some guitar-driven rock – “Il Segreto”, a duet with Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz, and “Il Diavolo”.
Paci believes Latinista is his strongest effort to date. “I don’t want to exaggerate, but I consider it an historic album for me”, he told a writer for the Italian website Tiscali: Spettacoli. “There’s the presence of rock guitar as never before, which I’ve wanted to have in my music for some time. Then there’s a strong dose of music coming from the global South, from my Sicily to Latin America, with fusions of different languages and sounds that enrich the record and make it unpredictable.”
One thing is predictable: the Latinista songs will sound even stronger when Paci and Aretuska perform them in concert. As last year’s Brooklyn show demonstrated, the recordings, as good as they are, are templates for what the irrepressible leader and his terrific band do with their material on stage. With another “Latinista”, the great Ray Mantilla, joining them, the Hit Week concerts could win Roy Paci and Aretuska the wider US exposure they deserve. At the very least, there shouldn’t be anymore junior high school auditoriums in their future.
George de Stefano is a New York-based writer specializing in culture, politics and sexuality. He is the author of "An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America" (Farrar, Straus, Giroux) and a contributor to many other books, websites and print publications.