Is it the new coolness to be an atheist?

Zucchero: "For an atheist like me, the moon probably takes the place of god"

He calls himself “Sugar”, fills stadiums, and his music has character: Zucchero Fornaciari is one of the most important international ambassadors for Italian. In an interview, he explains how he marries street language and poetry - and why we are far too cool today to be truthful.

Signor Fornaciari, your new album is called «D. O. C. ». The abbreviation stands for: denominazione di origine controllata, in English: protected designation of origin. You yourself come from Emilia-Romagna. Hand on heart: How pronounced is your local patriotism?

Emilia is my home! My roots are in Emilia and they are strong.

You hardly notice the familiar surroundings as long as they are normal. When did you first become aware of the value of your home?

I was born into a farming family in the country. When I was eleven, in the mid-1960s, we moved to Tuscany, my parents had a new job there. This uprooting really bothered me at the time. Suddenly I found myself in a tourist region, in Versilia and Forte dei Marmi - wonderful places by the sea that had nothing to do with my rural origins. I had left not only my friends, but also the ways and habits of the small, simple village in which I had grown up. I think it was then when I began to love my Emilian homeland.

So home is the lost place? And also the place that one always idealizes?

I guess that's inevitable. That is why I always return to my home village with mixed feelings - it seems to me that it is no longer like it used to be, that it has changed its character. Nonetheless, when asked about my identity, I would always proudly say: Sono emiliano!

And how does proud Emiliano feel about Italy?

Like most Italians: first comes the region, then the nation. But of course my own culture also connects me to my country. I've tried to live in America and England - but I always end up coming back to Italy. Sono anche italiano!

Do you mourn today for rural, simple Italy that hardly exists any more?

Yes, yes. In the country there was a strong feeling of togetherness, you had to come to terms, even if you didn't like each other. Giovannino Guareschi is a writer from Emilia, do you know his story of Don Camillo and Peppone?

Clear. We used to show it on television, in black and white: on one side the Catholic priest, on the other the communist mayor. . .

. . . the two protagonists are like cats and mice. They are crazy enemies of each other, but somehow end up finding each other again and again.

Which side were your parents on?

There was only one church in my village, near our house. My parents were both farmers, deep red and haters of priests. They got up early in the morning, and when they came back from the fields, they saw the priest walking around the village with the Bible, well fed and well rested. That made her mad. At the same time, it was this very priest who taught me to play the organ, and in return I helped him as an altar boy. My father and my uncle, on the other hand, rarely went to church; instead, after work, they went to the Communist Party cooperative, which also had a bar. They played with cards and drank. These were two completely different, apparently irreconcilable worlds, the sacred and the profane. . .

. . . but they complemented each other well.

Despite all their differences, they were not irreconcilable, unlike today. Sometimes my uncle would send me to the priest with a few fresh eggs, and sometimes he would even invite the priest to his home on Sunday lunchtime because he was worried about him. There was a humanity, even a human warmth, beyond all ideologies. I'll say it honestly: I often miss this humanity today.

Idealize you!

Maybe so. But I don't just make up my mind, I've experienced it. Back then, what we had in common was more important, today, however, the differences are emphasized.

Why then?

Today we have everything or almost everything that is needed for life. Today's wealth cannot be compared with the poor life of that time. And in this today everyone thinks first of himself, of his well-being, of his ego, but he does not say it openly, but pretends to be. I found a phrase for this in a song: Siamo vittime del cool, we are victims of coolness.

What exactly do you mean by that?

For example, check out these talent shows on TV. Everyone wants to be superstars at the same time. And “to be” here means “to play”: You pretend. It is the same in politics, in professional life and in everyday life: everyone wants to play the star, subito, without working their way up, without practicing, without dispense.

You are a star.

If you say so. (Smiles.)

Well, how do you see yourself - as a representative of Italian rock who is internationally successful, or rather as an international rock musician who sings in Italian?

I've been around the world, I've tried all kinds of things, I've worked with a lot of different musicians, with Clapton, Sting, Bono, B. B. King - all of that is true, yes. And yet I come from Italian music and the Italian language. 90 percent of my texts are in Italian, they cannot be translated, I play with ambiguity, subtlety and ambiguity, with the street language of my origin, with its rhythm, its melody. But I do it in such a way that an international audience also likes the songs and understands them intuitively. Capisce?

I guess so. Who has particularly shaped you in this regard?

Luciano Pavarotti, he too an Emiliano. I've performed in the Pavarotti & Friends concert series a few times, we made music together, especially in the 1990s. Pavarotti lived in New York, and I visited him there from time to time. And when we got together, he spoke Emilian dialect, and yes, he cooked himself, and of course it had to be a plate of Emilian pasta - but the meetings took place in New York, and we developed music from a large global pool, and so did we developed them for the whole world. Today, however, in Italy we have a foreign minister who is proud of his country but who doesn't speak English.

That would be provincialism in the negative sense.

Exactly! Such provincialism is alien to me - your own origins should be a foundation for being curious about the world, and not an obstacle or hindrance.

You use pronounced metaphors of nature in your lyrics. One motif that recurs with remarkable frequency is the moon. What is the reason for this?

First of all, the moon is beautiful. I love to watch the phases of the moon, which are constantly changing, but according to the same, familiar rhythm. The moon is important to the women who give birth. He commands the ebb and flow of the tide. And it already plays a fundamentally important role in rural culture. It moves so many things - when you plant which seed, when you harvest what, the wheat, the vines.

In doing so, you are enrolling in Italian literature. . .

. . . especially in the romantic, for sure. I see you brought me a volume by Giacomo Leopardi. . .

. . . yes, I wanted to talk to you about that. One of his canti - his poems - is called "To the Moon". Do you know it?

Of course, the Canto is beautiful. The moon is the figure that watches over everything - including our memories. Leopardi is right. For an old atheist like me, the moon probably takes the place of god, the place of a supernatural who, to a certain extent, protects and guards me.

I noticed something else about the new album. In the song “Freedom”, which you composed with Rag’n’Bone Man, you speak of freedom as a woman.

You have read carefully. That's true.

In highly sensitive times like ours, that can almost be called brave.

I respect women and have worked with them for years. There is exaggeration, many make themselves important by invoking political correctness.

In his magnum opus “Il principe” (“The Prince”) Niccolò Machiavelli depicted Fortuna, luck or fate, as a woman. I wanted to ask her . . .

. . . I love Machiavelli, he is also on my reading list. But I didn't think of that.

If you know your lyrics and hear you talk like that, you might get the idea that you are not primarily a cantautore, but rather something like a rock poet in disguise.

Thanks. I really like the definition - yes, I'm a rock poet! (Laughs.)

With your international hits, you are also an important ambassador for the Italian language. What made you decide to sing in English from time to time?

All of my friends have recommended that I switch to English and sing at least half of the songs in English. I did that for a while, until I admitted to myself that I had reached my limits. First of all, it was difficult to pronounce, but okay, that can be charming too. Much more important, however: the texts that I wrote in Italian did not translate into English really well. The irony was lost, the ambiguities, the wit, the poetry. And so I started singing in Italian again - with a few exceptions. Because why not? Just as we hear English songs in Italy without understanding them, the Anglo-Saxons can hear Italian songs without understanding them. It worked.

You have developed your own style of music over the years. Anyone who hears a Zucchero song on the radio knows immediately: This is Zucchero. How important is your own style to you?

I never planned it, it just happened that way. When African American music hit Italy in the 1960s - Otis Redding, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin - I was electrified and instantly fell in love with these new rhythms and the way of singing. I grew up listening to the music of Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, I was familiar with the great Emilian sound of Arturo Toscanini and Mirella Freni - and then that! Bringing the Mediterranean and the African American together, I think that's what defines my musical path in life.

Landing a hit is difficult enough. Few can produce multiple hits. How did you manage to have musical success over many decades?

I can only answer with a commonplace: you have to constantly change and stay the same. Of course, I had a lot of ups and downs, fears, uncertainties. But I was deeply convinced of my music, this conviction gave me the strength I needed to do my thing. And I've always followed an ancient wisdom.

Which? You have to tell me about them at the end.

OK. I said to myself: you have not yet reached your goal when you have achieved it. You always have to live up to your success. You have to prove to your audience why there are good reasons for them to go to your concert. If this bite is missing at some point, it would really be time to think about the next chapter in my life.

Zucchero, real name Adelmo Fornaciari, born 1955, is one of the well-known Italian songwriters. The new album is called «D. O. C. » and has just appeared. His 2020 tour will take him to Sierre on June 13 and to the Hallenstadion in Zurich on December 5.