I remember my first visit to the Porretta Soul Festival as if it were yesterday. It was 1998 and that particular festival headlined Solomon Burke, the Bar-Kays and the incomparable Swamp Dogg. Porretta seemed like a magical place. Nestled halfway between Bologna and Florence, it was as if God had sprinkled fairy dust on this small village and transformed it into the paradise of the soul for that weekend. Walking through the quiet streets of the city during the day, there were festival posters everywhere. When I bought my second or third ice cream of the day, I ran into one or another of the artists, members of their support bands or festival regulars whose faces and names I gradually recognized. Everyone smiled constantly, full of joy and magnanimity, basking in the warmth of the Italian sun, with the music of the night before swirling in their heads. This is what Soul music is capable of and, for many of us, this was the closest possible place to the heaven of the soul.
It was nine years ago. Hard to believe but this year the festival celebrates its twentieth year. As has so often happened in the history of the Porretta Soul Festival, once again the lineup is centered around the great sounds of the legendary Stax Records of Memphis, as featured artists include Booker T. and MG, Eddie Floyd, Memphis member Horn Wayne Jackson, Sir Mack Rice and the great blues Jimmy McCracklin. One of the great strengths of the festival is that art director Graziano Uliani generally manages to weave together a program that overlaps real box office stars like Isaac Hayes, Sam Moore and Mavis Staples with much more hidden but nonetheless great artists like Ollie Nightingale, Betty Harris, Howard Tate and Bettye LaVette. Those who live in the Porretta area are incredibly lucky. Those who travel across Europe or occasionally across the Atlantic Ocean are very fortunate that such an event occurs year after year.
I started talking about the first time I came to Porretta. I would like to conclude with my memory of the first time I heard about the Porretta Soul Festival. As many of you will know, the late Rufus Thomas was a regular guest in Porretta during his early years and of course the city has its own Rufus Thomas park. Rufus was a man who had traveled the world more than once. He had come of age during the height of Jim Crow’s apartheid era in the United States, had been one of the first black disc jockeys in that country, had had his first success for Sun Records, and, along with his daughter Carla, had a sensational impact on what later became Stax Records. He had witnessed firsthand the great hits of the civil rights era, at fifty he had already recorded a number of incredible Funky hits including “Do The Funky Chicken”, “(Do The) Push and Pull” and “The Breakdown” and turned out to be the star of Wattstax, the largest soul festival in American music history. In the late 1980s, there wasn’t much that could impress Rufus Thomas. Yet, in 1988, when he returned from the first Porretta Soul Festival he was filled with awe, overwhelmed by the way he was revered in a place so far and so different from Memphis, Tennessee. The fact that a park had been named in his honor simply left him breathless.
The fact that the Rufus Thomas Park also exists says a lot about Graziano Uliani in particular and about the people of Porretta in general. I know that Rufus would agree with me and I am sure it is his spirit that continues to circle Poretta every year, continuing to ensure that it remains a place steeped in magic. May the Soul be with You.