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Italy pays tribute to singing legend Toto Cutugno

Italian singer and composer Toto Cutugno performs ln July 2002 at the Roman theatre in Cartagena outside Tunis during the 38th international festival.
Italian singer and composer Toto Cutugno performs ln July 2002 at the Roman theatre in Cartagena outside Tunis during the 38th international festival. Copyright Fethi Belaid/AFP
Copyright Fethi Belaid/AFP
By Savin Mattozzi
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Tuto Cutugno, one of Italy's most loved entertainers, died on Tuesday, uniting the nation in mourning. Savin Mattozi believes the wave of nostalgia for his songs has also swept far beyond Italy and leaves a lasting legacy.

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Italy is paying tribute to Toto Cutugno, the voice of generations of Italians, who lost his long battle with prostate cancer on Tuesday just over a month after he celebrated his 80th birthday.

Musicians, journalists and actors have taken to X to share memories and condolences for the late singer-songwriter. Italian television presenter Fabio Fazio wrote "#totocutugno was a kind person. Unforgettable memories bind me to him. His disappearance leaves a great emptiness and lots of pain."

In Genova, the city projected a massive image of Cutugno onto the regional headquarters building in Piazza De Ferrari with text that reads "Goodbye Toto, a real Italian."

The Tuscan-born singer became a household name in Italy after winning the 1980 Sanremo musical festival with his hit song Solo Noi. It wasn’t until 1983 that he gained international recognition with his famous song “L’italiano.”

The song’s opening of “Lasciatami cantare…” (let me sing) is enough to perk up any Italian’s ears in Italy or abroad.

It leaped to No 1 on charts in countries like France, Switzerland and Portugal and gained enormous popularity in the former Soviet Union in places like Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Russia. 

Three decades later he performed “L’italiano” with the Red Army Choir at the San Remo song contest - a sign of its continued popularity across Eastern Europe.

In 1990, Cutugno won the Eurovision Song Contest with his song “Insieme” which was an ode to the soon-to-be-founded European Union. In fact, he was the last Italian to win the competition until 2021 when Måneskin took home the prize with their song “Zitti E Buoni.”

From generation to generation

Growing up in the United States to a Neapolitan father, it was impossible to escape the song on road trips, family functions and even in the local Italian market. All it took was to hear the first “lasc…” and I’d give the obligatory eye-roll and start singing under my breath almost like a prayer.

Other than Italian and Italian-American food, the next big thing Italian-Americans bond over is older Italian music. “L’italiano” was one of a handful of songs that was almost guaranteed a singalong if it was brought up in conversation. It also served as a newer musical bridge instead of the songs of the 1960s that were popular among Italian-Americans who grew up with immigrant grandparents.

Although the lyrics are pretty simple, a list of Italian stereotypes like spaghetti al dente and too many women with not enough nuns, the song captured a kind of feeling of what Italy was like during the 80s when my father left.

When I closed my eyes, it teleported me not only to a time when the country was struggling with a bloody war against organised crime, the aftermath of a devastating earthquake in the south and economic crisis. 

But it also let me imagine a time when I could have seen my father and uncles squeezing into a Fiat 500 to go to the sea, watching my grandmother accompany my aunt to the corner store in a blue and white polka dotted-dress or seeing my grandfather speak to the pet canary my father had.

Whether Cutugno knew it or not, his music served as an important connection between Italians in the diaspora and their homeland. Although perhaps the image he painted was a bit polished, it made the children of many Italian immigrants feel like “un Italiano vero” even if it was just for four minutes. Thank you Toto, sing in peace.

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