It’s that time of year again. The vivid yellow rape blossom has long since turned to seed, the wheat is tinged with gold, the corn, while not quite as high as an elephant’s eye, is lush and leafy, the sunflowers are stretching their necks ever higher towards the blazing sun, and the season of sagre and feste is upon us. These are the literally thousands of local festivals that take place up and down the country during the summer months. They typically revolve around food, normally a locally grown speciality, such as artichokes in Montelupone’s case, or around live music and entertainment. In practice, though, most are a happy fusion of both. And we love them.
So it was last week that we resolved to put our fears of leaving the house unattended to one side for a few hours and spend an evening in Montecassiano for its annual festival of street art, food and live music that takes place in among the winding lanes of the historical town centre. Montecassiano is another one of ‘Italy’s prettiest towns’ (I Borghi più Belli d’Italia – https://wordpress.com/post/lemarche.life/141) that lies some 20km north-west of us, set high on a ridge with commanding views over the fertile Potenza Valley to the south, and to the north towards the Cònero Peninsular, the forest-clad promontory that rears up over the sea like a giant, deep green whale plunging into the turquoise waters of the Adriatic. Although we had only ever been to the place once or twice for a coffee, we knew its events enjoyed a very good reputation hereabouts, but what really clinched it for us, and what finally made us listen to those more rational voices telling us that we cannot become prisoners in our own home was the chance to see Funk Off again.
No, not a mispronounced expletive from one of my students, but the name of a fifteen-strong jazz-funk street band. We had stumbled across them – almost literally – some four years earlier when holidaying with our dear pals Nick and Elaine. We were keen to show them some of the wider area and Mr Blue-Shirt had booked us all into a country house hotel near Lake Trasimeno in Umbria as the finale of our mini-tour, with a stop-off in Perugia en route. The capital of modern-day Umbria, and formerly one of the twelve settlements that made up the pre-Roman Etruscan League, this handsome university city has in recent years become infamous on both sides of the Atlantic for the curiously sordid murder in 2007 of British student, Meredith Kercher, for which American student Amanda Knox was convicted in 2009 and subsequently exonerated in 2015. It has been known much longer, however, for chocolate – especially its baci (dark chocolate and hazelnut ganache ‘kisses’) – and also as the home of Umbria Jazz, the ten-day long world-class international jazz festival that has been held there every July since 1973. A fact of which we were completely ignorant until we popped out into Piazza Italia, having made our way up from the car park to the historical centre through the city’s network of Etruscan tunnels which now house the public escalator system, and found ourselves practically face to face with a dozen or so guys in identical jeans, trainers and red T-shirts, and equipped with an assortment of trumpets trombones, saxophones, drums, and a sousaphone on which they were giving an infectiously toe-tapping rendition of Sweet Georgia Brown. The four of us were instantly captivated by their energy, their style and the sheer ‘feel good’ vibe of their music, and despite the near 40-degree heat, we kept pace with them as they boogied their way along Corso Vannucci to the grand Piazza IV Novembre where we watched them perform a non-stop programme of high-energy, tightly choreographed numbers that within seconds drew a mass of enthusiastic fans. This was a masterclass in making the highly polished and meticulously rehearsed look spontaneous and casual, and they were seriously good musicians too. No itinerant buskers, these. They were a class act.
And four years on, the sheer joie de vivre of their performance on a balmy, jasmine-scented summer’s evening in Montecassiano was just as infectious. They formed up in the far corner of the central square, barely noticed by the crowds of people grazing from the various food and drink stands around the perimeter. Having tuned their instruments and exchanged high-fives to get themselves in the groove they simply set off through the town, dipping and bobbing to their own beat. But like a band of funky pied pipers, they quickly gathered a stream of followers – including us – as they wove back and forth through the narrow lanes. Their crunchy jazz harmonies echoing among the tall palazzi and tightly-packed townhouses, they paused occasionally in a square for a bit of fancy footwork, or on a street corner for a solo saxophone riff, and, by now trailing a hundred or so people behind them, finally bopped back down into the central square and up onto the stage for what was billed as their ‘static’ set, but which was in fact anything but. And once again we were treated to an hour-long life-affirming, spirit-lifting tour de force. Hand-clapping, finger-clicking, head-bobbing, foot-tapping, thigh-slapping – and that was just the audience, that had now grown to several hundred people, every single one of us (yes, even Mr Blue-Shirt) boogying along to the irresistible beat.
Best of all, though, for the entire duration of their performance we did not once think of intruders, security, or break-ins. For the first time in weeks, we were simply lost in the moment, utterly liberated from our fears. And were now armed with an empowering new battle cry for those who have sought to crush us: FUNK OFF!