Italy Trip

Rebecca had joined the choir when she came from Italy to study in Cardiff University a few years ago. She wanted us to take part in a festival of political song being planned, but Berlusconi’s antics and the banking crisis scuppered the possibility of any major funding from Europe. Undeterred, she planned and organised, and eventually was able to invite Côr Cochion to come and sing with local groups, to raise money and campaign for Palestinian refugees in a Lebanese camp, and help children and the wider community through music.

For months we sent emails back and forth, working out details of music, travel, itineraries and lists of hosts. Thanks to our hardworking treasurer Sheryl, and the work of Sue, Hazel, Meic and Marie, the dream became a reality. Planes and trains were booked. We loved the Italian songs which Rebecca’s composer father Henry had arranged; we even Skyped a practice across the Atlantic with Elaine in Massachussetts. The last few days were busy. We helped blockade Castle street with Disabled people against the Cuts, and on the Saturday we joined the colourful Mardi Gras march through Cardiff.

Finally the long awaited day dawned, and we set off ; some to Florence, some on the overnight train journey, and a large group of us by train and car to Bristol airport.

Welsh rain followed us, as a thunderstorm broke three months of drought, and we stepped off the plane into the warm evening air in Pisa. Henry recognized our group immediately. He was a tall, bearded Englishman who had long made Italy his home. We all went off to our hosts. Henry’s farmhouse was in the middle of the Tuscan countryside, an hour from Pisa, surrounded by vineyards and olive groves.

On Tuesday morning, we wound through the rolling Tuscan hills. After coffee in the large square in Castelfiore, we had our first sight of Montespertoli, the school which is home to Henry and Debra’s amazing community music project, Prima Materia. We sat down to a shared meal, and had our first practice. The band would not have been out of place in a Fellini film- an ancient Souzaphone, euphonium, trumpets, sax and drums, played with terrific energy. It was the first time that many of the singers and players had ever sung together, but there was an immediate rapport between Côr Cochion, and our new Italian friends in Vociperaria and Scorribanda.

On Wednesday 5 Sept we explored the ancient walled town of Certaldo, Boccaccio’s birthplace, with medieval paintings on the colonnaded walls. A few steps down led to a strange collection of drums and longbows in a stone cellar; back into the sunlight, we enjoyed some wonderful ice cream before setting off towards the nearby therapeutic gardens in Vico d’Elsa. Here, a beautiful sensory garden and greenhouse with amazing cacti was created out of wasteland, with voluntary labour and donated plants.

We followed this with lunch at the vineyard owned by a scion of the ancient Medici family, who plays in Henry’s Scorribanda. Bread, sausage, delicious goat’s cheese and a sampling of red and white wine; the ancient walls of the wine cellar echoed to our singing. Around the winding hills we travelled, singing all the way in four parts; and as the road leveled out at the bottom of the valley, Elaine put on the brakes and her foot went to the floor. Her expert training as a school bus driver enabled her to jerk safely to a stop- if it had happened ten minutes earlier we would have had a serious accident.

We settled into our evening practices, Simone and Ilaria leading the Italian songs, and Wendy conducting De Pie Cantar, La Tasalny, Cancion de Bourg Madame, and Yma o Hyd. Our Italian friends joined in the chorus of the latter with brilliant Welsh vowels.

On Thursday, Stefania came from Rome to join us on the train to visit the ancient town of Siena. Up the steep, steep streets from the station to the centre; I could see where the inspiration came from for the Sienese painters’ vertiginous perspective. Meandering cobbled streets led through archways and opened into spacious piazzas.

Friday 7 September: we went with Ilaria to Pisa, where Ray, Wendy and Olwen took part in a radio interview and press conference, to publicise the work of Circola Agora, and give some background about Côr Cochion prior to the street singing on Monday. We visited Elena’s home, her baby Euridyce surrounded by loving friends and family as we ate lunch together.

On Saturday, all hands on deck to prepare for the big meal in the centre at Montespertoli. We practiced in the morning, and spent the day preparing the evening’s Middle Eastern meal under the expert guidance of a Lebanese chef. Chopping and blending, kneading and whisking, everyone pitched in, and sang as we worked.

Local politicians came to a presentation and round table discussion about Prima Materia’s work. They have made contact with Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps and we saw a short film by Dario about the young musicians in Italy who are linked with a Palestinian bagpipe band. Marie, our chair, presented a cheque to Debra to help a Palestinian film maker realize his ambition to produce a short film.

Across the road came the strains of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. As the afternoon sun lowered, we assembled outside the community centre in San Quirico, and the audience drew their chairs up under the trees. Stefano, the giant of a stonemason, had reluctantly come to the front, but when he sang Il Galeone, a dramatic song about the slaves’ revolt, he had everyone swaying to the sound of the waves as the galleon crashed on the rocks, with the cry of “Liberty or death!” The singing carried on long after the concert was ended.

The Palestinian meal we had all helped to make was a great success, and raised over €1000.

On Sunday 9 Sept we returned to Castelfiore. There in the main square, a charity bike rally passed through, as we met up with Scorribanda outside the Piazza del Popolo. A large platter of pizza appeared , to sustain us on our procession through the town. Led by Henry and his band, we wound our way through the town and then played and sang in the shadow of the trees. As we began Bella Ciao, an elderly man came up and sang with us. The song had a special meaning for him, as he recalled meeting the partisans as a boy.

The response from passers-by was generous and warm; and the town Mayoress came out to meet us.

After the sing, we all went back to Debra and Henry’s house amongst the vineyards.

The pizza dough was rolled and seasoned, and put into the brick oven with a long trowel. We passed the time singing, as we waited for each pizza to be baked and cut into pieces. Stefana and Elena had their set piece- the comic song of the martyrdom of St Caterina – and Plastic Jesus proved a big hit.

On Monday we went to Pisa, to meet up with the Coro Agora for a street sing. We had time to explore the city in the morning. The policewomen near the famous tower were quite firm: no walking on the grass, no posters or flags by the monument, and no singing… so Myrla walked along quietly whistling.

Circola Agora runs a drop-in centre for creative activities for people recovering from mental illness; and there we had an excellent meal. The chef came out and embraced us, saying that the centre had given her a new life. We sang “Dros Gymru’n Gwlad” for her.

The street sing in Pisa was brilliant. Coro Agora stood on one side of the road, and sang a selection of pieces, some with Simone accompanying on the accordion; Ilaria, Simone and Marco performed as a trio. We joined them in la Lega, Yma o Hyd and other songs, which were well received by passers by, and the collection buckets, ably shaken, soon filled up.

The Circola Agora put on a dinner for us, giving us an opportunity to get to know our Italian friends better.

On Tuesday 11 September we visited Florence. There was some confusion at the start, with some of the group waiting on the opposite side of the station; but finally Myra Evans, a Welsh woman living in Florence, met up with us. She took us to the Duomo, the large covered market and street market, and I popped in to the museum to see the frescoes and paintings. We met up with Simone and the rest, and had a slightly hair raising ride to the community centre Le Piagge, across Florence in the wild traffic, with Simone not quite sure how to get there, but singing all the way.

We found the community centre at last. Le Piagge was run by a liberation priest for a community with a large number of asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants. He explained how the centre was run democratically, and provided language classes, activities for children and other services, in a deprived area where few young people are able to complete their education. The community put out a wonderful multicultural buffet, and then we gave our concert. The enthusiastic crowd even joined in some of the songs. We finished with the Internationale in Welsh and Italian.

As the applause died away, Debra asked Ray to address the audience. He thanked the Italians for their generosity, but most of all for their comradeship. He told them of how, back in 1983, he and Tony Bianchi heard a Chilean choir lift the spirits of thousands of demonstrators at a solidarity rally. They were determined to bring back to Wales the idea of using our voices to campaign, and to win justice for working people around the world – especially those struggling for freedom in Palestine. Joining the Italian musicians, we were able to bring a message of hope to the thousands of Palestinians rotting in Lebanese refugee camps; and singing together gave us an experience of comradeship and solidarity which we would never forget. He gave a huge 'diolch yn fawr' (thank you so much) to Rebecca.

Our hardworking chair Marie finished the evening by making small presentations to thank Ilaria, Simone, Rebecca and Wendy for all their efforts to make the visit such a success.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. We gave a fond farewell to our Italian friends, as we would be leaving by plane and train the next day, and exchanged email addresses.

We came home thinking this is how life should be lived; sharing food, laughter and music from morning to night. It was a real privilege to have had this unique experience, and though we were tired, we were happy with the friendships we made, and the money raised for Palestinian projects which made it all worthwhile.

Wendy Lewis, Musical Director

Ray Davies

(A photospread follows. Wendy and Ray also made their own photospread, which you can access here. You may need to scroll down to see these pictures, depending on your browser settings)

Above: It's a hard life! A few moments of relaxation. Right & below, political graffitti with choir members.