In the world of music, which has its own geography, the waters of the Mississippi can lap the shores of the Mediterranean.
And anyone can confirm this by listening to the music of Zucchero Fornaciari (b. 1955) and hearing how his African-American style rhythm-and-blues enters the sea of Italian musical tradition. Vivaldi, Donizetti, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, Caruso, Pavarotti: the whole imposing musical legacy of the Italian peninsula crisscrossed and fragmented by rhythmic breaks, the drum beat of jazz, the lament of New Orleans blues, and the howl of rock and roll from all over the world. That is what Zucchero has to offer. He is unquestionably the best-known Italian contemporary singer in the world, but he is also much more, as he demonstrated during a visit to Havana in December.
The artist, a native of Roncocesi in Reggio Emilia, northern Italy, presented his latest album, La sesión cubana (“The Cuban Session”) —produced by Don Was— at a massive outdoor concert on the grounds of Cuba's national arts university, the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA).
The popular Cuban band Buena Fe opened the concert for a crowd of thousands of young people who, for one night, resisted the lure of the annual International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, which was taking place at the same time.
Soon Zucchero took the stage, launching into songs from his new album, alternating between fusion of international poprock and Cuban rhythms and other, well-known tunes from his repertoire, seasoned here with arrangements featuring an undeniably Caribbean twist.
On the ISA grounds —the same place where in May 2012, during the 11th Havana Biennial, Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch shook local spectators with his aesthetic ideas about religious “archeology” and art/ritual in his bloody Acción 135— Zucchero soon had everyone moving to the music, with his irresistible Baila, baila, morena, sotto questa luna piena. Under the moonlight…
He followed with hits like Senza una donna and Misere, featuring the special accompaniment of Cuban pianist Frank Fernández. For other songs, he shared the stage with other stellar local musicians, such as Elmer Ferrer (guitar, bass), Horacio “El Negro” Hernández (percussion), Jorge Reyes (double bass) and young virtuosos like keyboardist Maykel Leoner Pernas, trumpeters Lázaro Oviedo and Maikel Corrales, and tumbadora drummer Julio Guerra.
Zucchero said that singing here became one of his dreams after he performed the first rock concert—together with his band and the Vivaldi Orchestra—at the Kremlin in Moscow after the fall of the Berlin Wall. On that day, Dec. 8, 1990, the tenth anniversary of the death of John Lennon, Zucchero shared the stage with Randy Crawford to sing that emblematic song by the L'enfant terrible of Liverpool: “Imagine.” At the end of the concert, as the ovation continued, Zucchero told himself, “I'm going to do the next one in Cuba.”
However, his manager at the time —who also represented Ray Charles and Sting— told him that if he sang in Cuba, he would never be able to sell any records in the United States (due to that country's policy of blockade against Cuba). “But I don't care about that anymore at this point,” Zucchero said during his Havana visit.
He has shared the stage and cut albums with the likes of Luciano Pavarotti, Miles Davis, John Lee Hooker, Tom Jones, Sting, Ronan Keating, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Cheb Mami, Dolores O'Riordan, Paul Young, Maná, Brian May and Andrea Bocelli.
Likewise, the composer of Bluesugar (1989) —the bestselling album in the history of music in Italy— said that making his new CD, La sesión cubana, was a very personally gratifying experience. “I really enjoyed putting it together with the songs that I wanted,” he said.
For him, Havana was the closing of a circle that began exactly 22 years earlier at the Kremlin in Moscow, and at the same time, the opening-up of a new path. Addressing the crowd of more than 20,000, he dedicated his music to the memory of John Lennon.
This concert was the first stop of his world tour to promote La sesión cubana.
Music lovers in Australia, the United States, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Europe will soon discover a new version of the man who sang “Miserere”; we could call it his Cuban avatar.
And in the end, nobody can possibly harbor any doubts about Adelmo Fornaciari's choice of a stage name: Zucchero means Azúcar (“sugar”) in Italian.