by Roderick Conway Morris

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Pitura Freska Reggae Band

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 3 July 1992


The winged Lion of St Mark, ancient symbol of the city, has acquired a raffish rival, whose right-on leonine features, crowned with a red, yellow and green Rastafarian tea-cosy hat, earring, suspicious-looking conical cigarette, and 'Pax Tibi' ('Peace be with you') badge, have been appearing on posters all over town.

The irreverent upstart is the emblem of Pitura Freska ('Wet Paint'), Venice's very own all-Venetian Reggae band who, having shot to fame over the last few months, have just embarked on a nationwide tour, including concerts in Rome, Naples, Florence, Bologna and Turin, that goes on until the end of September.

The band was founded in the early eighties by self-styled 'Sir Oliver' Skardy, guitarist and school caretaker, and bass-player Francesco Casucci. It now has nine male instrumentalists and two female back-up singers.

The initial breakthrough for Pitura Freska came last year with the release of their CD/cassette ''Na Bruta Banda' ('An Ugly Bunch'), the title of its opening number, which excoriates the greed and dishonesty of Italian politicians and officials - a theme that becomes ever more topical with almost daily arrests of local government figures on corruption charges. The album has so far sold about 150,000 copies.

I caught up with the band on the roof of Venice's Municipal Garage, a six-storey building at the end of the causeway that links the city to the mainland, where, against a panoramic backdrop of Venice under a thundery sky, they were shooting scenes for their first video.

All Pitura Freska's sharp, inventive and often very funny songs are in veneziano, Venetian dialect, which is well-nigh incomprehensible to other Italian speakers (when they first played in Naples, said trumpeter Valerio Silvestri, 'people came up afterwards and tried to speak Spanish to us!').

I asked Sir Oliver Skardy - resplendent in dreadlocks and white straw hat - who writes the songs and delivers them with punch and panache, whether he wasn't afraid that this might limit their appeal.

'The first thing people are interested in is the music,' he said. 'After all, they listen to songs in English the whole time without understanding a word. Then, gradually, they pick up on the meaning... But anyway, I never thought of writing in anything but Venetian.'

Cristiano Verardo, guitarist and leader of the musical side of the group, added: 'In Venice everybody speaks veneziano - for us it's not a dialect, it's a language - the first language we learn. So, naturally, we're much more spontaneous and expressive in it than Italian. We think it's more musical too.'

Both words and music are influenced by the latest trends in Reggae - notably Raggamuffin, or Dancehall style, with its heavy musical pulse and liberal spicing of sexual innuendo and double entendre. 'Zuca Baruca' ('Gourd'), for example, includes a ribald catalogue of the supposed virtues and vices of the women of Venice's different parishes, delivered at a breakneck, rapping pace.

'There's a strong 'fashion' factor in this kind of music,' said Christiano Verardo, 'and we try to keep up with, and even get ahead of the field. But there are some trends we won't follow - such as having smaller and smaller bands using electronics to supply the instruments. We think a big line-up on stage is much more exciting in a live concert.'

One of their most popular numbers is 'Oi 'ndemo veder i Pin Floi' ('Let's go see Pink Floyd') - the 'Oiii!' of the title and refrain being the warning call made by boatmen when they round blind corners on canals, which has also become a vernacular greeting).

The song is the picaresque tale of Skardy's attempt to get to the disastrous 'free' Pink Floyd concert three years back when some 200,000 fans descended on the city, leaving the place vandalized and under mountains of refuse that took the army several days to clear up.

Arriving late by train, Skardy never actually reaches the concert, retires to a bar to drown his sorrows, and at dawn is nearly beaten up by some out-of-town heavies, after politely suggesting to their obnoxious, whinging girl friends, who are loudly holding forth about how horrible Venice is, that they should have stayed at home. As the keyboard player Rino Zinno explained :'For Skardy that night was like coming home and finding a hundred complete strangers in his living-room.'

When not chronicling events or launching trenchant, richly-earned attacks on the establishment, Skardy's lyrics take a more fantastic, surreal turn. His vision of transforming Marghera - Venice's sprawling industrial district on the mainland, where he lives - into a sub-tropical paradise has the refrain: 'Marghera sensa fabriche saria piu sana/'Na jungla de panoce, pomodori e marijuana.' ('Marghera without factories would be more healthy/A jungle of corn-cobs, tomatoes and marijuana'). And 'Bea Fia' ('Lovely Girl') with a strong dash of Soul, is positively soft-centred.

The proceeds of Pitura Freska's racy, highly-entertaining Venice concert on 29 June, which even had the local police discreetly jivving and joining in the songs, is to go to children in Ethiopa - a fitting opportunity for the new-version, Rasta-inspired Lion of Venice to lend a helping paw to the hard-pressed land of the Lion of Judah.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2022