‘Any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) an opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence’.
(Amnesty International founder Peter Berenson coining and defining the expression ‘Prisoners of Conscience” in a 1961 article on The Observer)
Progressive rock is a music genre that, since its birth in the UK in the late 60’s, has sought to intertwine in its multi-faceted expression topical elements and instruments of genres such as classical, rock, folk, metal, jazz, electronic, and many others. It has resulted in a cultural phenomenon that heavily relies on the depth of its interpreters’ technical expertise and on the depth of their experimental investigation into what lies beyond the conventional boundaries of musical harmony and time. As actor William Shatner would have it, progressive rock is “the science fiction of music”.
When, at the beginning of the 70’s, progressive rock arrived in Italy, it sparked an extremely creative and prolific musical season, whose legacy these days seems to be particularly emblematized, in the worldwide perception of that particular Italian season, by bands such as Area, PFM, Le Orme, and Banco del Mutuo Soccorso.
What inaugurated the nearly 50 year-old career of the latter were the three much acclaimed albums in which the band particularly devoted its musical expression to progressive rock: the self-titled “Banco del Mutuo Soccorso”(1972), the concept album on evolution “Darwin”(1972), and “Io sono nato libero”(1973).
The album “Io sono nato libero” – which in English translates as “I was born free” – opens with the 16-minute track “Canto nomade per un prigioniero politico” – which in English translates as “Wandering Song of a Political Prisoner” – a song inspired by the Chilean coup d’état on the 11th of September 1973.
On that infamous day the democratic government of Chile’s then socialist president Salvador Allende was overthrown by military forces led by the general Augusto Pinochet. As tanks entered the Presidential Palace in Santiago, Allende left a message of hope for his citizens. Before his death a few minutes later, he promised he would stay and defend the democracy and the will of his people. The horrendous aftermath of the Chilean coup resulted in a dictatorship that, under Pinochet’s military regime, lasted until 1990.
According to several commissions that in the following years investigated human rights violations during the dictatorship around 30,000 people were forcibly imprisoned and/or tortured for their ideological beliefs, while around 4000 were killed, and around 1200 disappeared. Decades later, the debate on the actual number of victims during Pinochet’s dictatorship is still ongoing, and the bottomless scar of grief it left on collective memory has all but cicatrized.
In fact, one of the founders and most crucial members of the Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, the pianist/keyboardist Vittorio Nocenzi, recently introduced the performance of “Canto nomade per un prigioniero politico” at a concert by stating the following:
“(…)When Allende got killed, the worldwide youth of thousands, millions, was upset. And not because they voted left-wing. Because we felt that, as individuals, faced with the logics of collective interests, we mattered nothing. So I wrote a tune…”. .
In these days it must be autumn down in our parts,
sweet Marta, my Marta…
I remember the hay and your Normandy horses
we were free…free…
In the opening lines of the song (which have been translated from Italian, as the rest of the song), we acquaint with the unspecified political prisoner as he’s seeking refuge from the reality of his incarcerated state in an intimate reverie about a far-off woman named Marta, and the time they spent together. But the harsh reality of the prisoner’s present state starts worming its way in his blissful mirage by deforming the very memories in which he had tried to find solace:
On the wall, images overflowing with damp,
stains with no freedom…
Listen Marta, in this strange autumn,
your horses are crying, howling..
alas, in chains!
As stressed by the abrupt change in the music’s tune and tempo, the prisoner awakes to the dramatic concreteness of his solitary state:
What can I say, suffocating, shut in here…why?
Prisoner for an idea, my idea…why?
As the questions to his jailers go unanswered, the prisoner turns to the only sympathizing presence in his company – his accomplice and heir – the very song he’s singing:
The path I have chosen for myself is so distant,
where everything is worthy of attention because it lives,
because it’s true, because it lives the truth..
At least you that can, run away, wandering song!
This cell is full of my desperation…at least you,
don’t get caught!
Then, addressing again is voiceless jailers, the prisoner assures them that:
You sentence for your convenience,
but my idea is assaulting you already..
It’s only my flesh you torture,
my brain still lives…still…
Before citing and commenting the final lines of the song, please forgive my own wandering off in the 19th century, when the Italian author Giacomo Leopardi wrote a notorious poem, whose title is commonly translated in English as “Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia”.
In the poem, a shepherd, appointing the moon as his tongueless confidant, proceeds to compare their solitary existences, and to interrogate the moon on the meaning of them, if indeed a meaning they do conceal. Yet the moon pays no heed to the shepherd’s disconsolate queries, and, by staying silent, restores the unassailable wall of incommunicability that severs the very diverse existences of what is sentient, and what, in our understanding, is not.
Since the Banco del Mutuo Soccorso have made several allusions to famed literary works throughout their lyrics it doesn’t seem too implausible to imagine the “Wandering Song of a Political Prisoner” as an implicit reference to Leopardi’s “Night Song of a Wandering Shepherd in Asia”, and, in several ways, the poem’s hypothetical counterclaim.
In Leopardi’s poem the wandering shepherd, though physically free, laments his metaphorical entombment within the toilsome burden of human consciousness, in regards to which he feels captive, impotent, defeated. His disheartened conclusion, therefore, as he sentences in the closing lines of the poem, is that “the day one is born is a day to mourn”.
Viceversa, the prisoner in the song, after lamenting his physical captivity, acknowledges that the freedom of his consciousness is not only untarnished but triumphant: the wandering song that bears it is not only able to transcend the prison’s walls, but the cage of its singer’s mortality, and will live on in whoever and however it may. Thus, reconciled with what is now acknowledged as the unjust but worthy cause of his impending physical death – his consciousness’ freedom – the prisoner addresses those who might mourn him, and, before a long instrumental part ensues, he concludes:
Guitar laments, wrongfully suspected, sigh softly,
and you, women, with your proud gaze, mouths like pomegranates,
do not cry, for I, I was born free,
Don’t waste a requiem mass on me,
I was born free!
I was among the people to have the great, great fortune of seeing the band in concert when its vocalist and lyricist, the charismatic Francesco di Giacomo, was still alive.
In one of his last concerts, back in December 2012, he suddenly turned to the audience, and, in a truly concerned tone of voice, pensively asked: “Why are we all becoming so…absent?”.
Squinting amidst the beams of the stage lights, presumably hoping for an answer, he gazed upon the rows of the theatre seats engulfed in darkness.
But we, much like the prisoner’s jailers, much like the shepherd’s moon, much like confirmed absentees, stayed silent.
In questi giorni è certo autunno giù da noi
dolce Marta, Marta mia,
ricordo il fieno e i tuoi cavalli di Normandia,
eravamo liberi, liberi.
Sul muro immagini grondanti umidità,
macchie senza libertà,
ascolta Marta, in questo strano autunno
i tuoi cavalli gridano, urlano… incatenati ormai.
Cosa dire, soffocare, chiuso qui… perché?
Prigioniero per l’idea, la mia idea… perché?
Lontano è la strada che ho scelto per me
dove tutto è degno di attenzione perché vive,
perché è vero, vive il vero.
Almeno tu che puoi fuggi via canto nomade
questa cella è piena della mia disperazione,
tu che puoi non farti prendere!
Voi condannate per comodità,
ma la mia idea già vi assalta…
Voi martoriate le mie sole carni,
ma il mio cervello vive ancora… ancora.
Lamenti di chitarre sospettate a torto,
e voi, donne, dallo sguardo altero…
bocche come melograno, non piangete
perché io sono nato, nato libero,
Non sprecate per me una messa da requiem,
io sono nato libero..