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Overseas Report
Paolo Conte at Ronnie Scott's, London

Paolo Conte at Ronnie Scott's, London.

Miranda Mowbray

 "Beyond the illusions of Timbuktu and the long legs of Babalu there used to be this road... this silent road that flies away like a butterfly, a nostalgia, nostalgia flavoured with curacaõ. Perhaps one day I will explain it better."–Paolo Conte, "Hemingway"

Sometimes a concert opens up the road beyond Timbuktu, at least while the music lasts. Paolo Conte is an Italian singer-songwriter, in the tradition of the French chansonniers. "Italian" is a misleading description, however; he's in love with 30's northamerican jazz and southamerican tango, and sings in a mixture of Italian, French, Neapolitan, Spanish, American and nonsense. It's the mother tongue of modern urban Europe, where all these languages jive together. I speak it like a native. When I first heard Paolo Conte it was like a solar-toupee'd English explorer who in the middle of a tropical jungle hears someone speak with the accent of his home town. Je te jure baby, I dream of you, doo du du dudu, sheboom. When none of these languages offer the right word he says it in kazoo. I've never heard the kazoo so eloquent. Bzz bzbz bzzzzzzz, du.

Paolo Conte has a cult following in Italy. He's less famous in England, but all the tickets for his week at Ronnie Scott's were sold out. I queued for standing room. The queue lasted two hours. By the time we were let in the spanish graphic artist had offered to marry the blonde hungarian engineer who'd arrived just after him, so that she could get the Western European passport she needed. She laughed. There was enough standing room for all of us.

Ronnie Scott's. Smoke, monochrome signed photos of legends, dim lights and dinner jackets, glint of polished shoes and the upturned mouth of a trombone. A muted trumpet next to the trombone and Jino Touche's hands spidering over the double bass, his dreadlocks swinging lazily. Luca Velotti twiddling filigrees on clarinet and sax. Daniele di Gregorio plunking an acoustic guitar. Massimo Pitizianti's wheezing lamenting accordion. Paolo Conte, looking older than his 61 years, that sad nose like a cliff, those happy eyes of an italian on a spree which are so deep-set that they are almost invisible. His fingers laughing on the piano keys.  Dudu du doo.

"You keep a straight face but you laugh with your eyes"–Paolo Conte, "Wanda"

"I know", said hat-check lad, "that you can help me, I just have this feeling". He was in his early twenties, black-skinned, wide-eyed. I sat and listened to the decision he had to take, and said a few words of advice. He nodded carefully and said "thank you, I'll try that". I was sure, unscientifically, that what I'd told him was right, and that it was right because the music had given me oracular power. The music that was tapping my feet and pulling at my elbow. I got up to dance.

 "Will you talk it over with someone who knows about it? But your feet, tap-tap-ta-ta-tap, piedi felici."–Paolo Conte, "Happy Feet"

Paolo Conte and the band played "Alle prese di una verde milonga" - In the grip of a green milonga - more slowly and hypnotically than on therecording, bringing out its zebra elegance.

Paolo Conte never stayed at the Café Mocambo or played with Louis Armstrong. His songs are set in a world constructed secondhand from imported records and black-and-white films. That may explain their particular potency for a European generation who grew up listening to shimmies and tangos on their grandfather's wind-up gramophone or dreaming of a road lined with palm trees undulating out of Timbuktu. They tell me Timbuktu in real life is a disillusion.

The milongas that I heard in Buenos Aires were jolly, bouncy numbers, not this slinky green-eyed snake of a dance in Ronnie Scott's. Smoke rose slowly up from a cigarette on the table and dissolved in a spiral. The accordion was asking a question that expected the answer no.

The songs I didn't know were even more evocative than the ones I did know. Rino was whispering in my right ear in Italian. "This song", he said. "It's so full of memories for me. So much nostalgia." "Anche a me" (me too), I whispered back. "Even though it's the first time I've ever heard it, I feel like I've missed it all my life. What is it called?" "It's called Anche a me", whispered Rino.

 "And this day sunsets into an orange glow and swells with memories that you don't know"–Paolo Conte, "Bartali"

The young man leaning his elbow on the bar next to me took a ring off his smallest finger. It was a cheap silver-coloured ring with a mother-of-pearl centre, perhaps sold on a market stall. "I think you should have this", he said, giving it to me. I looked up at him to see whether this was a joke. His face was serious, and he didn't appear to be expecting anything in return. I thanked him. The soprano sax and oboe squealed together. It felt right that a stranger should give me a mother-of-pearl ring. Because of the music.

"I was close to a faraway city all of mother-of-pearl, silver, wind, iron, fire and I found no-one here to talk about it"–Paolo Conte, "Dancing"

Sometimes a concert opens up a road beyond Timbuktu, at least while the music lasts. When the concert ends, it's not so easy to find the road, but you can try the records. Paolo Conte's record company is CGD/EastWest. If you don't speak European, check there are sleevenote translations. Or write to me and ask me what it means. I'll take a sip of curacaõ and try to explain.

and for the home setting

On CD, you should be able to find the following goodies with a little searching.
The Best of Paolo Conte (1996)
Una faccia in prestito (1995)
900 (1992)
Paolo Conte Live (1988)
Un Gelato al Limon (1979)

Copyright © Miranda Mowbray, 1998.