On a warm night of May in Calatabiano, a small village and former Arab fortress in eastern Sicily, the sound of an oud, a typical Middle Eastern instrument, meets the rock vibes of an electric guitar. The unusual intersection between the symbols of Oriental and Western music happens through the work of Kunsertu, an ethnic rock band from Sicily, Italy, whose goal is to create a bridge between the two sides of the Mediterranean Sea.
By mixing sounds and words coming from every corner of the Middle Sea, from Italian and Arabic words over the sounds of African tambours or Palestinian yarghoul, Kunsertu – a name referencing the part keeping together the launeddas, a music instrument from Sardinia – give voice to the emotions and themes concerning the people across the Sicilian Channel, narrowing the gap created by water and politics.
The band, originally from Messina, North of Sicily, began its path in the 1980s, the most challenging years for the southernmost region of Italy, which faced a rise in organized crime attacks and the first migration landings in Lampedusa. The musicians decided to tackle these pressing issues with songs in a modern version of Sicilian-Arabic dialect, which contains words from all the civilizations that conquered the island throughout history, from Greeks to Spanish, thus creating a common sense of belonging and empathy. Their fame brought them to perform at festivals and concerts around the world, from small villages in Sicily to big Italian cities like Rome, and abroad in places as far as Northern Europe and Canada, where their followers are many second-generation migrants but also curious natives attracted by their music’s message.
The group split in 1995, but after many fans’ requests and the events involving Sicily in the refugee crisis, Kunsertu finally returned on stage in 2016. “After a long pause we felt the need to make our voices heard again through old and new songs,” Giacomo Farina, the band’s leading percussionist, explains. Songs like Mattanza, speaking about mafia, Fannan, on the need for artistic openness outside our borders, and Jazira, on migration landings in Sicily bringing a wind of beauty that should not create fear, are the songs that made this band famous for its political engagement through art.
Farina says he founded the band to give a contribution to ethnic music, and as a “citizen of the Sicilian Channel”, as he likes to define himself, he believes no better place than Sicily could take this bridging role. “Sicily is the center of Mare Nostrum and crossroad of all Mediterranean civilizations so it can be no other place but this island, for history and geographical position, to promote a peaceful dialogue,” says Giovanni Ruffino from the Center of Linguistics and Philology studies at the University of Palermo. “The reflection on Sicilian language should be the starting point to think about our shared roots and values to see our common past and future,” he adds. This is also one of the reason that brought former Italian PM Matteo Renzi to choose Sicily as a G7 summit venue over the preferred Florence, considered more appropriate to tackle Euro-Med issues such as the refugee crisis.