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B(ard)ella Ciao, Ciao, Ciao: The story of a global resistance anthem

B(ard)ella Ciao, Ciao, Ciao: The story of a global resistance anthem
B(ard)ella Ciao, Ciao, Ciao: The story of a global resistance anthem Copyright David Mouriquand
Copyright David Mouriquand
By David Mouriquand
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A poster for the upcoming French elections has got us thinking about the resistance anthem 'Bella ciao' - its history, its versatility, its borderless influence.

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With France set for its most high-stakes election in recent years, there are plenty of posters, stickers and leaflets around to get the French population mobilized to vote in the snap parliamentary election.  

It all kicks off this Sunday (30 June) with the second round on 7 July, and could lead to France having either a hard-left or hard-right government, with President Macron having to appoint a prime minister from an opposition party – an arrangement known as “cohabitation”. This could force him to compromise during the remainder of his presidential term.  

Bold move on Macron’s behalf, after having been crushed in the European Parliament elections, but a risky one. Also an anxiety-inducing one, as this election may give France’s far-right the upper hand.  

As I was walking to work, one anxiety-alleviating poster caught my eye. 

It was hurriedly plastered on a wall, with the glue smears still visible.  

It stands as one of the savviest protest posters I’ve seen in a while. Witty and effective, the banner read: “Bardella Ciao, Ciao, Ciao”, with the ‘ard’ in ‘Bardella’ singled out in white and scribbled out to read: “Bella Ciao, Ciao, Ciao.” 

Genius.

B(ard)ella Ciao, Ciao, Ciao
B(ard)ella Ciao, Ciao, CiaoDavid Mouriquand

For those of you who haven’t yet had the dubious pleasure, one of the key players during this election is Jordan Bardella, the 28-year-old leader of the far-right National Rally (RN). He was handpicked by Marine Le Pen, in a move many see as her trying to further detoxify the RN’s xenophobic and antisemitic past. If appointed, he will become Europe’s youngest prime minister in more than two centuries. You can read more about him here.  

The poster made me smile and applaud the creative soul who put it together. During the rest of the day, I couldn’t help but hum to myself the Italian chant ‘Bella ciao’ (literally: ‘Goodbye beautiful’), a catchy ditty which has been recorded in numerous languages and covered countless times by the likes of Italian-French singer-actor Yves Montand, music legend Tom Waits, EDM star Steve Aoki, and the great Manu Chao.  

From folk to punk, dance to electro, it’s everywhere.  

I’d heard the song so many times – especially since it was catapulted to global commercial fame when it featured in Netflix’s series La Casa de Papel (Money Heist)  - and have always known it to be a resistance anthem. Foolishly, however, I never thought to do a bit of research on its origins.  

Turns out that ‘Bella ciao’ had a richer history than I thought and was not born a partisan hymn. 

Dating from the 19th-century, it was originally an Italian protest folk song, lamenting the harsh working conditions of the mondina workers in the paddy fields of northern Italy. The songwriter is unknown.  

The song's original lyrics, featuring references to the master’s cane, curved backs, mosquitos and saying goodbye to the fading bloom of youth, were modified in the 1940s to tell the story of a young man who bids farewell to his love to join the Italian partisans – with “bella” now representing not only a last farewell but accepting the impending danger of the invader approaching and death.  

“One morning I awakened / And I found the invader. / Oh partisan carry me away / Because I feel death approaching. / And if I die as a partisan / Then you must bury me. / Bury me up in the mountain / Under the shade of a beautiful flower. / And all those who shall pass / Will say "what a beautiful flower." / This is the flower of the partisan / Who died for freedom." 

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The song was soon adopted as the anthem of the partisans of the Italian resistance, which fought against the occupying troops of Nazi Germany and the collaborationist Fascist forces. Every year on 25 April, Bella Ciao is sung across Italy on the Festa della Liberazione, which marks the country’s liberation from German occupation at the end of WWII. 

Just as ‘Bella ciao’ transformed from a protest song for rice paddy workers into a song of resistance for anti-fascist partisans, it has since been used with varying lyrics as a cry of resistance and a hymn of freedom in many different countries. I never realised quite how many.  

In Greece, it was the anthem during the popular 2015 protests. It was the anthem for the Catalan independence movement in Barcelona, as well as the Yellow Vest movement in France.  

It has also become a feminist anthem, one used to voice anger against the patriarchy and especially banned abortion rights.  

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In Argentina in 2018, activists chanted it in front of the Argentinean Congress, which was about to vote on a bill legalizing abortion after years of political struggles by the abortion rights movement. They sang to the tune of ‘Bella Ciao’: “Este sistema que nos oprime / caerá, caerá, caerá” (“This system that oppresses us / will fall, fall, fall”). 

In 2020, Polish crowds protested against the Constitutional Tribunal that had banned abortion rights, singing: “Pewnego czwartku polski trybunał próbował przejąć moje ciało, twoje ciało, ciało, ciało, ciało” (“One Thursday, the Polish Tribunal tried to take over my body, your body, body, body, body”). 

To highlight the song’s peerless versatility, it aslo became a song of solidarity during COVID-19 in both Italy and Germany. More recently, it has become a de facto resistance anthem in Ukraine, and has been frequently used as a protest tune in Iran in response to the Islamic Republic's crackdown on protests and demonstrations in the wake of Masha Amini’s death in police custody. 

I can’t think of a song, performed to bring attention to such different causes, that has been adopted and adapted by so many worldwide. 

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So, while many in France may be singing the lyrics “la jeunesse emmerde le Front National” (“youth fuck the Front National” - a line from the song ‘Porcherie’ by French punk band Bérurier Noir, which has been making the rounds on social networks recently), I’ll be singing ‘Bella ciao’ when I go to the urns on 30 June and 7 July. Not only clued up to its history, but thrilled that this song about standing up against corruption, tyranny and endangered rights, will always keep its borderless relevance.  

When things get tough, resistance can move people forward. When things get tougher, there’s always music to understand how songs transmit memories of protest and speak to debatable and heated politics. In France, and globally. 

Ciao. Ciao. Ciao.

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