ITALY: Oro Incenso & Birra - Zucchero Fornaciari
Updated: Mar 17
Fun, raw and multi-talented - Zucchero shows off a fusion style decades ahead of his time in a country that often fails to welcome in black music culture
When one thinks of the greatest contributors to the history of culture in Europe there is arguably one country that they might be drawn to first. Italy’s offerings to the world of art with the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, the world of literature with Dante Alighieri and cinema with Federico Fellini, make the boot of Europe deservedly heralded for its historical excellence. Music is another area for which Italy is famed, due to it being the birth of opera during the renaissance era. However, as we have seen in recent decades in the United States or the United Kingdom, arguably the world’s most effective distributors of such notable phenomena, the only way for their culture to have flourished and gain plaudits from across the globe is through a system of collaboration and integration. The culture of melting pots such as New York and London have benefited massively from diversity and have seen the success of many cultural endeavours thrive as a result.
“...[he] has influences from across the spectrum of traditionally ‘black music’ genres with the rugged and cheeky charm of a rocker who might swig Campari from the bottle instead of Jack Daniels.”
Italy on the other hand has in recent decades been somewhat left behind; this is unsurprising given the racism and lack of multicultural integration when compared to other more open societies. You can read about how the ingrained racial division in Italy manifests itself in the modern era in Joel’s review of Karima 2G’s album here, however, Italian racism in the 21st century of course has its roots in Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship in the 1920s-1940s, and even preceding that era. Whilst racist sentiments have of course been deep rooted, it would be unfair to suggest that this was the case for everyone after World War Two. As such, one aspect of Italian culture, music, was able to prosper due to the amputation of a nationalist and racist mentality in one immensely talented 12-year-old. Adelmo Fornaciari, today better known as Zucchero thanks to an elementary teacher who bestowed this nickname upon him, befriended a young African-American who played (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding to him.
I remember the first time I heard Try a Little Tenderness by the same artist being something of an epiphanic experience, which was after many years of exposure to the soul genre that I already loved. There are some musical styles that this project has revealed to be that I have become immediately enamoured by, so it puts a big smile on my face when I try to imagine what it must have been like for little Zucchero to hear that unique soulful sound he may never have heard before and have his mind explode. This same friend taught him how to play songs by the likes of Marvin Gaye, and Sam & Dave on the guitar, inspiring more cross-cultural collaboration in Zucchero’s youth. He learnt to play rhythm and blues, and in a rather bold move begun fusing African-American musical styles with a more traditional Italian flavour.
This openness to other cultures led Zucchero to the creation of what could be described as the ultimate ‘hard blues’ album. The magnificently named Oro, Incenso & Birra (Gold, Frankincense and Beer in English) has influences from across the spectrum of traditionally ‘black music’ genres with the rugged and cheeky charm of a rocker who might swig Campari from the bottle instead of Jack Daniel's. One such genre that is skilfully mixed in is gospel music. For an album that often lyrically satirises the notion of God, it tricks its listeners into thinking that it might have some deeply religious undertones to it due to Zucchero’s playfulness with the gospel genre, particularly at the start of the album. The opening track Overdose (D’Amore) lulls its audience into a false sense of security as a soulful gospel choir begin repetitively singing in harmony “I need your love, your love in me.” This kind of lyric is something that can be heard in gospel churches across US states such as Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana as many evangelical Christians pray for the love of God/Jesus.
When the Italian comes in with a James Brown-esque war cry of “I’ve got it” before the entrance of the rocky guitar sound and far from peaceful percussion, one can already begin to get a good measure of Zucchero’s mischievousness. The use of the angelic choir before Zucchero drenches the track with his unholy water is reminiscent of my favourite Rolling Stones song You Can’t Always Get What You Want wish begins in a similar fashion before rocking the fuck out. Whilst the James Brown comparison is perhaps most apt on my favourite track Diavolo in Me in which Zucchero fuses together funky gospel rock with real showmanship, Zucchero’s music ends up sounding like another musical icon who conquered the funk genre in the second track. The Prince influence is so apparent on Nice (Nietzsche) Che Dice as he plays with language much like the legend of the Minneapolis sound scene did in his pomp.
The rather lengthy titled Il Mare (Impetuoso Al Tramonto Sali’ Sulla Luna E Dietro Una Tendina Di Stelle...) massively differs from the funkier tracks at the start as it ultimately serves as an impassioned rock number, however, the inclusion of superb saxophone solos demonstrate Zucchero’s willingness to be influenced by other genres such as jazz before shocking everyone and including an African tribal-style beat and chanting towards the end of the song. Perhaps the most beautiful track is Madre Dolcissima. The slower-paced song kicks off with a news report about the Soviet-Afghan war, before Zucchero shows off a raspy voice that Tom Jones would be proud of. Another track with a more melancholic introduction is Iruben Me; the song develops into the hardest of blues tracks, featuring beautiful yet guitar riffs as Zucchero pours his heart and soul out in a B.B. King-like style. This emotional number is a far cry from the more frivolous and entertaining funky tracks that appear in the record.
The rest of the album continues to have diverse influences that Zucchero succeeds to appear authentic performing in. Diamante for example is an R&B ballad, way ahead of its time. It has echoes of Toni Braxton’s Unbreak My Heart with almost a downbeat island vibe. The final track demonstrates Zucchero’s immense guitar skills. It is a mostly instrumental song with only one short lyric, even pithier than Leonard Cohen’s lyrics in String Reprise/Treaty that he leaves his audience with at the end of his You Want It Darker album. The guitar playing is reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix which is no mean feat. The album also features a fun collaboration with another king of the guitar game on the catchy A Wonderful World, as he is joined by Eric Clapton.
Away from this album, Zucchero has collaborated with legends of an array of musical styles, perhaps most notably with Miles Davis. This desire to learn and play with others is something that, it could be argued, other Italians should be more willing to learn from were they to wish for their music culture to develop to the next level. It is no surprise that an album with such heavy African-American influences became so successful, as proven by the fact that it became the best-selling album internationally by an Italian until 1997, when Andrea Bocelli released Romanza. Critics might claim that Zucchero is not keeping within the expected parameters of classical Italian rock, but I say that is a load of old tosh. Zucchero’s authentically Italian charm remains present throughout, he is simply enriching his art by allowing influences from other cultures to seamlessly seep through. What astounds me most about this album, is that he manages to evoke the sound of numerous other styles whilst simultaneously carving out his own unique sound. The music remains as fun and entertaining as it is deeply impressive, with not a single song subject to a criticism of it being weak; it is for that reason that this is one of the greatest albums I have ever heard and Zucchero should be viewed as a legend for budding Italian musicians to emulate in his open-mindedness and desire to share differing music cultures.