by Marco Galli
There are bands born to change the history of rock’n’roll and others that could have done so. At least … ideally. It’s not a matter of small importance. With your elbows resting on the bar anything seems possible. Even putting a band together without knowing how to play. And no instruments.
But that’s how Dr, Chattanooga & The Navarones came into existence on Christmas Eve,1980. At the “Pace” in Chiasso. In those years the music scene, and not just in Ticino, was like Kaurismaki’s Finland, before the Leningrad Cowboys. You might call their first live appearance “the smallest rock’n’roll swindle”. They were looking for supporting bands in Locarno for the Flame Dream concert in the Piazza Grande. Chattanooga sent them their profile: glamour photo and dashing titles. Apparently that was enough. Their demo-tape on the other hand never got there. The procession of Jesus Christ Superstars and Grateful Deads passed without leaving a trace. Then The Navarones took over the stage and, in spite of outraged entreaties from the organisers, didn’t leave it until they had imbued the impatient public with a symphony of “rending, dislocated sounds in that dubious area between being determined not to play music and not knowing how”. The audience went out of its mind. If they could have, they would have burned them alive, flambé. “Locarno’s sleeping” came close to being their last words. Instead, there ensued four years of concerts galore and a huge following of devoted fans: Carilla and Teatro Tenda Codei in Biasca (supporting group with Jo Squillo), Bandoria 83, Ticino Rock Festival, Palapenz (supporting group with Alberto Camerini, with after-effects); gigs on the other side of the Gotthard — Festival de La Bâtie and Salle du Faubourg, Geneva; Atlantis, Basle; Stutz Zurich; Kursaal, Berne — and across the border, at the Tribasei in Milan (for Art In Action, a significant title). A Sunday appearance on Swiss Italian TV didn’t take place due to a squirt of ketchup that horrified the director, with the result that the video was censured (and the meagre token fee withheld). As is often the case, the band decided to quit while they were ahead. A tour of France didn’t happen because of the budding artistic activities of Captain Achab (alias Francesco Vella) and F. J. De Bratislava (alias Franco Ghielrnetti), who were busy with the opening of the post-Brera exhibitions, and because of the “familial obligations” of Hector Munoz (Carlo Butti). The only one to continue his career was Mr. Livingstone I Suppose (Nicola Marinoni), still an esteemed percussionist on the french world music scene. Among those who collaborated with the group — because dialogue in music is always dialogue between people — the following should be mentioned: Giuseppe Martignoni (one of the founders who distanced himself after the first few concerts, Giorgio Rossi (dancer of the Carlson school and protagonist of turbulent performances), musician and musicologist Pietro Bianchi and New York graffiti artist of Italo-Portorican origin Claude Caponetto (for Art in Action).
After an interval of more than 20 years, Carlo Butti and Franco Ghielmetti met in an attic in the Via Soldini to “contemplate” good music and to begin composing once again for a project which was to materialise bearing the name-tag Boffalora Stompers and which would include friends and illustrious and unpredictables guests from Santiago de Cuba music scene.
When a type of music cannot be defined in two words there’s no point in trying to define it. This principle would seem to apply to I Chattanooga, their music being so entirely open not only to a wide diversity of influences — folk, rockabilly, punk, new wave, electronic — but also to sounds from all over the world: rumba, tango, calypso, tex-mex, Maghrebian and African rhythms. And of course the expression “world music” was still a long way from being coined, right Mr Byrne? An iconoclastic music that metamorphosed at every concert according to the atmosphere, the mood of the musicians, the experimental projections that slashed the set, the (self)hallucinatory? Invited guests that jumped on stage with unforgettable invasion (including savage strip acts, sparkling fountains and interminable hurdy-gurdy solos), the caprices of the sound system — these were perhaps the only predictable things at their concerts. Their songs were inspired by the picaresque characters that inhabit the Chiasso suburban microcosm, permeated with impressions, images that are part of the post-modern collective consciousness.
An opening on the world, perceived as close and essential, that does not forget its roots, who turn nomadic. A fragmented identity in which loss, distortion and pre-global contamination can be sensed, but also the unique quality of encounters and the confidence in the feeling of being a citizen of the world. The lyrics are in a dialect which becomes, magically, Esperanto, interspersed as it is with English, Spanish, French, German and even Japanese. A linguistic blob, hallucinatory and visionary, animated by assonances and associations, original, sacrilegious, with flashes of irony redeemed by the most disarming poetry. As if to remind us that in the present there is always a somewhere else. A legacy taken up 25 years later by the Boffalora Stompers with the same, if perhaps more conscious, wish to be astonished before the marvel of life, because “Ciass l’è cumè Brixton se ta sgranat i öcc” (If you open your eyes wide, Chiasso is like Brixton).