Our Daily Bread 304: Alessio Bondi ‘Nivuru’

February 19, 2019

Album Review: Dominic Valvona



Alessio Bondi ‘Nivuru’
(800A Records) February 2019


The prodigal son returns: And not for the first time. Returning to the bejeweled Mediterranean oasis that is Sicily, after various adventures travelling across South America and Africa, the Sicilian troubadour, balladeer and romantic poet Alessio Bondi once more embraces his roots on a new songbook of heart-wrenched soul and pop.

It’s hard not to fall head-over-heels in love with the Island home of Bondi, despite its obvious dark history – though the grip of organized crime has been loosened in recent decades; Sicily breathing far more easily with a certain confidence, as it enjoys a rightful renaissance, and attracts more and more tourists -; a landscape enriched not scared by its conquerors; the various impressive architectural styles and monuments of the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Spanish so ingrained as to be taken for granted by the locals strike a sense of awe and exaltation in the tourist. Having visited the cosmopolitan palmed metropolis capital of Palermo myself a couple of years back (making a return trip I might add in April) I was astounded, hypnotized by the film set like scale of it all: The incredible Triumphal and Porte Felice gateways that stand like titanic totems at either side of the Corso Vittorio Emanuele could have adorned the entrance to an MGM studios sword-and-sandals imagined Babylonian set.

Long ignored, unless for all the wrong reasons, Italy’s often discarded treasure is abundant with a culture and art scene far more polygenesis and open to outsiders than its official Rome-centric administered overlords. Rome pulls and sucks in those looking to escape the provinces in the same way most major capitals or cities of influence do. For example, even one of our hosts when we last stayed in Palermo was based there; the natural international draw for generations of Sicilians, including even Bondi, who moved to Rome to study theatre, graduating as an actor from the Accademia d’Arte Drammatica Corrado Pani.

Continuing to celebrate the melancholic malaise and, almost, sagacious pessimistic – but philosophical – language that runs deep in the Sicilian mindset and art, Bondi follows up his 2015 debut album Sfardo with an equally inviting lyrical collection of both yearning sonnets and more uptempo declarations of love.

The darker pained expression of torrid love affairs, love spurned heartache, the troubled mind and the uneasy relationship that exists between Sicilians and the active volcanic force of the omnipresent Mt. Etna are adhered to by the title of Bondi’s second album, Nivuru, which translates as “black”. Sung in the Sicilian dialect, which isn’t totally alien to those who know their Italian, but has a number of accents, turn-of-phrases and localized pearls of wisdom wordplays unique to the Island, Bondi’s lyrics emphasis a passionate attachment to the “black” miasma that has fueled so much of Sicily’s literature and music.

However Nivuru is predominantly a reference to the “nivi nivura”, the ‘black snow” by-product of Mt. Etna when it erupts. Bondi, channeling Jeff Buckley, pens an especially metaphorical poetic soundtrack to the volcano behemoth that looms ready to one day perhaps destroy the Island, but also nurtures it, on the song of the same title: “Eyes of onyx, ocean of anisette. A volcano’s sciara above me, volcano of flowers inside me.” Evidently, the “sciara” of those lyrics relates to the cooled-down lava when it becomes solid; a phenomenon that attracts tourists; best seen at night when incandescent and showing off its full palette of colours. I only know this because the artist includes footnotes throughout the booklet that accompanies this LP.

Elsewhere Bondi pays a paean of sorts to the Island on the drum shuffling, musing flute and trumpet serenaded ‘L’Amuri Miu Pi Tia’ (“my love for you”); running through a menagerie of Sicily’s natural inhabitants in a swooning declaration of love. But the album’s most heart-twanged lament, ‘Un Favuri’, features an imaginary conversation between Palermo’s famous Formula 1 legend Ninni Vaccarella and his ill-fated son Giovanni; the consequence, in this tale of following in the footsteps of a famous father, ending in tragedy.

The language quirks, expressions are all Sicily, but musically Bondi absorbs the musical influences of his travels to add an often-tropical lilt and rhythm to the earthy romanticism of the Island’s folk traditions. Geographically nestling at the toe of Italy, Sicily is actually a gateway historically, especially in recent years with the migration crisis, to the African continent. Less than a hundred miles from the Tunisian coastline and the next disembarkation spot after the tiny islet of Lampedusa – the first port of call for many migrants making the crossing from Africa to Europe -, Sicily has seen an untold cycle of arrivals. Taking a more practical, even welcoming approach Palermo’s most liberal of mayors, Leoluca Orlando, has attempted to help and integrate these vulnerable migrant arrivals; or at least keep them out of the clutches of the mafia, who he has successfully fought against, jailing in high numbers, confiscating their ill-gotten gains to the benefit of the public, and changing the attitude of locals by encouraging businesses to stop paying for protection (extraordinarily brave in the past, but growing in recent years, shops, cafes et al can even display a sticker in their shop window professing their refusal to pay); encouraging tourism and in the process as, arguably, the architect of Palermo’s renaissance – a city that only two decades ago resembled a war zone, with shoot-outs, explosives and hits carried out on a daily basis, in broad daylight by rival Mafioso clans. Bondi reflects all this by absorbing Afro-funk and fuzz and West African percussion (Djembe, Balafon) on such tumultuous heartbreak as ‘Dammi Una Vasata’ – though there’s an unmistakable air of The Balearics about this song too.

Bringing his signature South American lilt on Bolivian flute to the jazzy, metaphorical drinking-in atmosphere of ‘Café’, fellow Sicilian (well half, the other half being British) troubadour of note, Sergio Beercock helps widen the musical eclectic influences even further.

From a kind of sexy Curtis Mayfield funk vibe to musica popular do Brasil, smooth jazz horns to outright commercial pop, Bondi filters his various musical-peppered travels to produce a cosmopolitan sound: the very epitome of Sicilian culture itself.

Literally baring one’s soul, heart worn on the outside, Bondi is almost always the protagonist, though he shares his sons with a host of hot-blooded Latin stereotypes yet to sign-up to the #metoo agenda –some rather touchy-feely examples. A sensitive poet, Bondi even pens a strange searching requiem to the sisterhood on the starry and filmic ‘Si Fussi Fimmina’, which may lose something in translation (‘if I were a woman”) but is also quite a pained attempt at solidarity.

Guilt, loss, revelation and longing, the full emotional gamut is represented as Bondi, like a cross-between Devendra Banhart and St. Francis of Assisi, or, a penitent balladeer of Sicilian lore breaking bread with Jeff Buckley, channels the earthy soul of Sicily to produce an unguarded love letter to his Island paradise.



Words: Dominic Valvona

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