Billy Torello is Angelo Bignamini, alias Leonard Kandur Layola, guitarrist.
He's the drummer of The Great Saunites, hard-psych band from Lodi, Italy, and has recently started the drone-noise project Lucifer Big Band.
He devotes his life to music and ironwork.
Billy Torello, “the little bull”, alias Kandur Layola, Angelo Bignamini,
so many names he himself forgets.
Born in Lodi, a small village on the banks of the river Adda, a village that was once Celtic, then Roman, then nothing for the longest of time, then home of a short-lived treaty that should have brought the unification of Italy, which finally took place 400 years later and is still being questioned.
It is on the Adda river where Billy learnt guitar. He learnt it hard, by heart, his hands molded by practice and sweat, his fingertips as rough as the metal of strings and as that of his trade, a blacksmith.
From Celtic language, Adda means “flowing water”, and it is that same water that marks an imaginary border between the people of Lombardia, the region where its course starts and finishes, and the rest of the world. The people of Lombardia consider themselves as Italy’s most industrious, their kind separate and most noble, their industries at the heart of Italy’s industrial miracle of the 1950s, and still today it is the countries richest and biggest. Once ruled by the Germanic Lombards, its identity shifts, at times representing that of Italy itself, at times flourishing through the Renaissance, at times dreaming of Celtic and Viking times that never were.
“It does not matter how old are you, what your job is and what your political tendency: what matters is that you and we are all Lombard”, once said Umberto Bossi, leader of the secessionist Northern League, something not all Lombards what themselves to be associated with. And yet his words do have a point. That same soil where Manzoni’s “The Betrothed” was set in, has come to be known as Panania, the valley of river Po, of which Billy’s Adda is a tributary, a sort of mythical region hidden in thick and moist fogs, beaten by hailstorms and plowed by silent and drunken farmers whose only certainties in life were and still are the soil, the womb, the numerous prole, the wine, the beasts and the spade. Now heart of Italy’s only megalopolis, stretching from Trieste to Turin, Padania is the non-place par excellence, places of mere transience where commodities are produced and traded, trucks violate the streets and thunder through ever congested and discolored grey highways, hourly motels are fleeting loves between Eastern prostitutes and divorced salesmen, while truckers and farmers take on the fields and the bushes to consume saddening flashes of intercourse with Nigerian undocumented hookers.
Back to river Adda and Billy’s story, of which not much is to us known. The people of Adda lived through famine and droughts, the plague and the war, several wars to be precise, the last of which the Second World War, where brother fought brother and families were torn apart. Adda is where “The Betrothed”’s protagonist Renzo finds shelter from Milan’s bread riots. At the time “land of St.Mark” under pontifical rule, Renzo wades across that same river that Leonardo Da Vinci made navigable intending a system of sluices in the late 1400s. Chapter XVII of Manzoni’s novel reads:
“As he stopped for a moment, before putting his design in execution, the wind brought a new sound to his ear—the murmur of running water. Intently listening, to ascertain if his senses did not deceive him, he cried out, “It is the Adda!” His fatigue vanished, his pulse returned, his blood flowed freely through his veins, his fears disappeared; and guided by the friendly sound, he went forward. He soon reached the extremity of the plain, and found himself on the edge of a steep precipice, whence looking downward, he discovered, through the bushes, the long-desired river, and, on the other side of it, villages scattered here and there, with hills in the distance; and on the summit of one of these a whitish spot, which in the dimness he took to be a city; Bergamo certainly!”
Running waters, muddy banks, poverty and shelter, disoriented identities and abandoned rafts, a fog so thick that Huckleberry Finn gets lost and paddles adrift through mud and debris. Was is Huckleberry Finn or Billy Torello I was talking about, Sam Soya or Leonard Krayola, Renzo or his impossible love, the birth of a nation or the fall of a state?
It was here that somehow Billy got a hold of a guitar and learnt about America. Utopia for so many Italians who left a nation in ruin and never really united. America came to us through silent movies, where a handsome young man from southern Italy called Rodolfo Valentino enchanted so many folks. If he could make it there, why wouldn’t we? We can farm, we can work, God is on our side and our women are strong, because
“man builds, works, produces,
man loves and he wonders;
he is bound by his remembrances, and to that instinctive breath of his that day by day he drags to the very last;
and he builds his own future on a past which alive paws deep;
his path is a long soft mindless run;
and before the child he once was can even grasp, he is old, already;
now and then he will rediscover his own soul, in front of a mirror, in the most useless instants of his own life;
but soon I will be able to live in an eternal present, with no past nor future. And I will life on that invisible layer on which every single thing, even the tiniest one, has the weight of the soul”.
And some of them made it, some of them more honest than others, some of them were lynched by mobs who thought their bread was not bitter enough. Some were called Diegos, Dagos, Greasers and Ginzos, some fashioned their names into more American sounding ones. Others were anarchists and given the chair. Some of them made fortune, some of them didn’t make it at all, but among the many things that in common they had, all greatly feared God and all missed their land.
When Billy was just a child he would watch tv as all the others did. Back in the 80s young Italians were hypnotized by American tv that all of a sudden came like a flood to tv sets that often were still black and white. Rocky Balboa against Ivan Drago was something no kid would be able to forget. Italian as them, but American nonetheless, and because of this strong and manly, and against the Russian, the enemy, a machine so perfect that for sure lacked heart. Teenagers ate hamburgers which was a novelty back then, wore flashy bomber jackets and roamed streets in loud scooters, just like they believed the Americans did. Billy read Jack Kerouac but found nothing fascinating about his own Italian roads. He longed for a road so wild and spacious and endless that would drive him nowhere and nowhere he would be found. Billy played everyday by the river, where dirt and industrial waste accumulated and killed all the fish and neighboring industries were so busy making money in the roaring 80s that they believed they could just dump whatever crap they wanted and anyway strive. By the river Billy listened to his walkman and listened to the blues, a music so remote to what tv and muzak would play that is might as well be from Africa of the Far East, but to which he somehow felt a connection so strong he could not understand why and where it came from. Then he read the names of those musicians he so much loved: Blind Mississippi Morris, Howlin’ Wolf, Smokey Wilson, Muddy Waters, Lonesome Sundown, Mississippi John Hurt, Slim Harpo, some of them were blind, some had were from Mississippi, some of them were lonely, many smokey as the fog he woke up everyday to, and most of them were not alive. Some of them were ghosts, and all of them sang of sadness and solitude, of rivers and lies, beaten by lives so harsh and cruel, by lands dry and at the same time fertile with grime and hate. Then again, rivers and rivers again, lands fertile and poor, cursed by the devil, cursed by man himself. At times Billy’s own river, the Adda, felt cursed to him, and cursed had been with poverty and sickness, wars, famine, lies and and ethic of hard work which was built upon exploitation, feudalism, ignorance, fear of God and wife beatings. His mind would bring him adrift on placid and dark waters, where black men would teach him cry through a guitar and keep those tears away in his eyes.
And practice did Billy, day after day, sound never perfect enough, his heart needed more, his minds so dissonant with whatever and whoever was around his that his only company became that of his beloved dog and of his guitar and blacksmith tools. Day by day we retreated more and more into a silent isolation from which escape became harder and harder.
Tuning got twisted, lengths expanded and spacey, notes deviant and his fingers nervous and hungry, until one day in sleep he met a strange man, just like he did in his earlier dreams, but the man was called John this time, was white and sick, his voice hoarse and his frame frail. John, whose surname was Fahey, would meditate with his guitar, his melodies soft and sentimental, cosmic in breath and immaterial, yet dense and heavy with burdens, longings and hardship, the epiphanies he told were seldom liberating. John was bitter yet awakened, his soul torn between the cultivated and self-aware and the primitive and spontaneous. His guitar was the richest he ever saw, but also the most sorrowful and harrowing, disenchanted and mystical.
Billy expanded his horizons. The Adda Delt still weeping but the waters now tumultuous and ever unsatisfied. They, and Billy with them as their voice is one, wanted more, of what is not to them clear, and hence the noise, the screaming and raw inscrutability of his own “Lucifer Big Band” ( https://luciferbigband.bandcamp.com/ ), a band of one, and his duo “The Great Saunites” ( https://thegreatsaunites.bandcamp.com/ ), with its geometrical psychedelias.
But it still is on those same banks, whether they belong to Adda or to the Mississippi, that Billy draws a prismatic America of reflections and fascinations, bewilderments and honest exaggerations, long-gone loves and empty motel rooms, countless cigarettes and metal.
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