Gospel Streuth

Music makes Italy great — there is always music hap­pen­ing some­where, in bars, in churches, in parks, play­grounds and vil­lage squares, often free and usu­ally good. Well, a bit hit or miss, but the hits — like Big Bill Mor­gan­field (son of Muddy Waters) a cou­ple of years back — are thrilling. The musi­cians tend to be either on the way up, or slid­ing way down, but hope­ful unknowns have edge and energy and poignant quite for­got­tens occa­sion­ally have a nos­tal­gic charm that makes the trip into the unpre­dictable worth the jour­ney. This part of Italy is par­tic­u­larly well pro­vided with music — Trasi­meno Blues, Red, White and Blues and Gospel Christ­mas cover most needs and a gen­er­ous chunk of the year.

I’ve always wanted to, and this Christ­mas I really did — I had a wild, jubi­lant head­ful of GOSPEL, cour­tesy of four men and two women known col­lec­tively as F.O.C.U.S. (Friends of Christ uphold­ing Stan­dards. I think). They sashayed all the way from Charleston, South Car­olina to the Church of Santa Maria Mad­dalena in Cas­tiglione del Lago. Their close-part har­monies, their Lead­belly gravel pro­fundo, their vibrat­ing a capella, their full-throated JUBILATION (reveal­ing full sets of per­fect white teeth with­out a sin­gle vis­i­ble fill­ing) trans­formed the famil­iar stan­dards of Gospel, made the trompe l’oeil domes shake, and the extrav­a­gant Madonna lilies drop their petals with a sigh.

There was a stand­ing room only crowd, with short peo­ple debat­ing whether they would incur a long stretch of pur­ga­tory for stand­ing on a seat, or sit­ting on a side altar. The con­ser­v­a­tive con­gre­ga­tion clapped, ten­ta­tive at first, pro­gress­ing to scan­dalous karaoke hip-swinging, finger-snapping, foot-stomping and hand-waving. I felt shock waves from the admon­i­tory fin­ger­wag of God the Father — never much of a rhythm and blues dude.

Otis Red­ding fans knew most of the words, we Stud­ied War no Mo’, assem­bled down by the River Side, con­tem­plated Amaz­ing Grace and sang along with sev­eral week’s worth of Oh Happy Days. Sen­ti­men­tal tears streamed — of course the sing-your-heart-out human voice has a direct line to ten­der recesses of the psy­che, where noth­ing else gets a dialling tone. This was cor­rected imme­di­ately by Jin­gle Bells, which made a sur­prise appear­ance and left me feel­ing a lit­tle queasy.

Fas­ci­nat­ing paint effects and a 15th cen­tury vir­gin wear­ing a charm­ing spotty robe and tot­ing a malev­o­lent baby yank­ing at her exposed right breast diverted atten­tion from con­fus­ing acoustics — mostly a prob­lem when every­one sang together — and if all else failed, one could spec­u­late as to why the Baby J, lying on a sump­tu­ous scar­let couch of vel­vety pointset­tias, appeared to be wear­ing a wig of cop­per Shirley Tem­ple curls.

It was a glo­ri­ous hour or so, charged with hope, inno­cence, energy, and we retired, slightly deaf­ened to the bar imme­di­ately oppo­site run by an Ital­ian called Heath­cliff, full of good­will and benign intent — Col­inette, Mar­i­olina and I started plan­ning a choir. Music, live music, is a whoosh of oxy­gen for the gasp­ing soul.

Def­i­nitely 10 out of 10

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