Quelli Che Bruciano la Frontiera (Those Who Burn the Border): An Interview With Pocket Poetry Orchestra’s Biagio Guerrera

The first time that I heard the music of the Pocket Poetry Orchestra, based in Catania, Sicily,  I felt transported somehow, to a different emotional  place.  Their CD,  Quelli Che Bruciano la Frontiera contains  incredibly evocative music  interspersed with  spoken word. The music is both melodic and discordant and at once cerebral and accessible. I have listened to this CD over and over and over again.  I like its sound.  It’s sensibility.

My favorite piece is Chiddu, “that one” in Sicilian, the implication being of one set off on the side, the one pointed at the one who does not belong: the clandestino; the criminale.  I spoke with Biagio Guerrera, one of the members of the orchestra, who shared with me the group’s beginnings, the importance of embracing the cultures of Sicily and the immigration situation on the island.

Biagio Guerrera

How did Pocket Poetry Orchestra come about?

Pocket Poetry Orchestra is the natural development of our first project with the Tunisian poet Moncef Ghachem. In 2000, Costanza Ferrini at that time was still in the crew of  group Mesogea and she told me about Moncef as a poet with a great personality, a good voice and a strong live “presence”. I was in contact with the band Dounia (3 guys from Catania and Faisal Taher from Palestine at vocals) and so we had the idea to invite Moncef for a reading. It was supposed to be a one night show, instead a long path started from that experience. Moncef is known for his French poetry but in our meetings i discovered that he wrote in dialectal Tunisian too. As I write in Sicilian and am very interested in minor languages and oral poetry ,etc I  had the idea of translating the Tunisian into  Sicilian . So in the first publication of Moncef and Dounia there is this Tunisian poem translated in Sicilian “Lambuca”. After years of collaboration the guys of Dounia decide to take a break from the band.  I, on the other hand, wanted to amplify the musical colors of the band, and that is how the Pocket Poetry Orchestra project started with the 4 Douni members, plus Marina Borgo, virtuoso marimba player, and Stefano Zorzanello winds and electronics. I have to thank Riccardo Gerbino, the percussion player, that was very positive in the first work and that invented with me this new name. After 2 or 3 years of work at last, we published the CD Quelli Che Bruciano la Frontiera.

Pocket Poetry Orchestra

Talk about the song Chiddu:

In this work the presence of Tunisian/Sicilian poems is important and Chiddu is a sort of manifesto of this work because he speaks of immigrants, an experience that Sicilian people knew very well in the recent past and that Tunisian people knows very well today. I do not know Tunisian or Arabic, so Monecf and I sat close together, speaking in French or a little English.   He translated the poem from me into French and explained the meaning to me.   I translated it into Sicilian with some notes in Italian. Then I worked alone, but when i had some questions I asked Moncef of course. It is a translation, but it is a sort of re-creation of the poem in another language, too. It is a live dialogue between two poet friends and between two cultures; close and different at the same time.

Moncef Ghachem

Chiddu is a moving Tunisian poem from Moncef Ghachem, but we feel that it speaks universally about the suffering of immigrants. Quelli Che Bruciano la Frontier (Those who burn the borders) is the literal translation of the Arab word harraga that is used for the illegal immigrants that cross the Mediterranean Sea in old and dangerous boats.

New Arrivals

It is our sentiment that  poems and music, too ,can “illegally” travel across the sea and find a new, common life together.  Our project started before the Jasmine Revolution when no one could imagine the end of Bel Ali (Tunisia), Gheddafi(Libya) or Mubarak(Egypt) . We cannot change the world, of course, but we can point out some way of living and feeling… and we strongly believe that we have a lot in common between the two sides of the sea.

What is the feeling in Sicily about immigration and refugees these days?

In Sicily or in Spain a great civilization was built in the past thanks to the cross meetings of Christians, Muslims and Jews. In Sicily nowadays there are a lot of immigrants. Generally speaking, in my opinion, the public institutions and the Italian government, especially under Berlusconi, fed the people a lot of racist propaganda about immigration.  Bad laws were passed and   even a criminal agreement with Gheddafi was signed.  The reality is that Italy needs workers from the south of the world but instead of choosing a legal a rational way for immigration we have chosen a propagandist way.  The result is a lot of illegal business, violence, slavery and illegal work. Then the centers that opened to house immigrants were a great business for some people who received enough money to open a five-star hotel, but instead housed the poor immigrants in horrible conditions.

Carabinieri guarding the new arrivals

In Sicily we have of course a long tradition of the melting-pot. Sicily is the result of different domination at different times, immigrations and cultures. So people, in a way, are naturally open but in another way are also full of prejudices. In my town , Catania ,for example ,the big popular markets became a space of work and integration between the different communities, and it is good that they are not  in the area of the town that are inhabited by members of just one  community. Then the different communities have different attitudes: Chinese people work in shop commerce, black Africans in street commerce, people from the Maghreb in the greenhouses, people from Mauritius or Sri Lanka as waiters or in cleaning homes, etc.  So clearly there is a lot of work that still has to be done, but I believe that no one can stop the process of mixing cultures.

Thank you, Biagio!

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