I first heard the music of Franco Battiato while browsing through a cute clothes shop in a 15th century building in the island town of Ortigia (Siracusa) in Sicily in 2016. I had returned to this place, which I first visited in 2014 while recovering from a major heartbreak, and I was loving the summer vibe, which was a town packed with artists (of all kinds, selling their paintings, photos and jewellery in the street, as well as playing their tunes on all kinds of instruments) and tourists from all over Europe, enjoying this bohemian rhapsody of la bella vita.
It was a beautiful sunny day (like most days from about May – October on this island) and I was feeling so happy to be in this place and alive on this day, when a song came onto the radio: Te Voglio Vedere Danzare (I want to see you dance.) I was immediately struck by the uplifting and playful melody of the song, combined with such sweet lyrics. And I loved that with my still basic Italian, I could understand it all. I asked the girl serving in the shop who this musician was, and she said – oh, that’s Franco Battiato, like I should know, of course. I said I’d never heard of him, and she said he was a famous musician in Italy and was actually Sicilian. This was the beginning of my love affair with the music of Battiato, as I began to search through Youtube to discover more about this talented and interesting soul.
Battiato grew up in Catania in Sicily, but when he was 19 he moved to Rome and then Milan to pursue a career in music. He found success quite early on and in the 1960s made a small tour of America with considerable success. Battiato continued his career – helping others as a sound engineer and guitarist, before collaborating with a progressive rock band and then immersing himself in electronic music.
As it happens, that song I heard on that July day in 2016 in Sicily was the song that shot him to national fame in Italy (in 1982), and was the precursor to his entry (with another Italian musician, Alice) into the European song contest with ‘I treni di Tozeur’ – The Tozeur Trains). On that day I think I was transported back to the 80’s, but 80’s in Italy, not in in the Australia where I grew up. But somehow, this 80’s vibe was a similar one to the vibe I loved from the 80’s music of my childhood. There was some feeling of optimism, and innocence in the music of this era, which was very different from what came after it – the more angst ridden, depressive vibe of early nineties grunge and new romantic music.
Battiato masterfully weaves all kinds of cultural references throughout his songs, making them sound like a kind of sonic tapestry – a mythic story told through music. This is particularly true of the song, Te Voglio Vedere Danzare. Unlike something you might hear these days (I want to see your sexy ass move…), the lyrics reference dancers from diverse and ancient cultures all around the planet, and the magic of dance as a form that so beautifully expresses the soul of the dancer.
He references Balinese dancers on festival days, gypsies dancing in the desert, sufi twirling dervishes, the very stylised male ‘Katakali’ dances of south India, Bulgarian fire dancers and the complex 7/8 rhythm of Northern Irish dances. He travels all around the world through this song, a devotional hymn to the art of dance and to all the dancers, young and old around the world who bring this form to life.
Voglio vederti danzare
Come le zingare del deserto
Con candelabri in testa
O come le balinesi nei giorni di festa
I want to see you dance
Like the dervishes in the desert
With candelabras on their heads
o like the Balinese on festival days
I recognise Franco Battiato as someone who was in touch with his soul and following its voice. His music and his vision are unique, and it’s clear he was blazing his own trail through the world, rather than following any prescribed trajectory to musical prominence or success.
Each of Battiato’s songs are like a voyage through his inner Youniverse. Like the one ‘No time, no Space’ a song about travelling through other worlds and other universes. It is also, like many of his songs, a mix of Italian and English.
Parlami dell’esistenza di mondi lontanissimi
Di civiltà sepolte, di continenti alla deriva
Parlami dell’amore che si fa in mezzo agli uomini
Di viaggiatori anomali in territori mistici
Speak to me of existence, of far away worlds
Of buried civilisations, of continents adrift
Speak to me of love that’s made among men
Of anonymous travellers in mystic lands
… and then the chorus
I find the life of Franco Battiato inspiring for any artist, because he has given us the great example of following the inclinations and the inspirations of your soul.
Whether you are a creator or not, I believe that our souls are always talking to us, and the little nudges that we get from our soul to do that thing, create that piece, write that book, paint that picture or say that thing to that person, are nudges that we would do well to follow.
As noted in this article from the New York Times, published at the time of his passing in 2021, Battiato was ‘not interested in politics, but in people’ and his songs display and endless fascination with the people and cultures of the world. This fascination also led him to painting, and he had various art exhibitions in galleries in Italy, Sweden and the US, initially with the pseudonym Süphan Barzani.
As we follow our soul’s inclinations, so we gradually unfold our essence out into the world, and allow our particular perfume to permeate the ethers with the scent that only we can give.
Inspired by Franco, not long after one of my trips to Sicily, I made a kind of yoga dance video, in my grandmother’s living room not long before she had to move out of in in her late nineties to move into an old people’s home. I am fond of this video because of the homage to master Battiato, but also this memory of my dear grandmother’s home.