Kavisha Mazzella is an accomplished singer-songwriter from Melbourne with a substantial body of work behind her and a long career of touring solo and with bands of various composition (no pun intended).
Were that the end of the story, it would be laudable enough, but it literally crests just the tip of the iceberg of this remarkable woman. Leader of community choirs in Australia and Italy, flexible and adaptive musician who lends her talents to a litany of projects including providing backing to a silent film from the 1920s — live.
It’s any wonder that when Bill Quinn caught up with Kavisha earlier this week he kept the chat time down to under 20 minutes. There are just too many things to talk about.
Kavisha Mazzella launches her Riturnella album of centuries-old Italian songs on Sunday 4 May at the Django Bar, Marrickville.
*** Audio file will be removed at the end of February 2020 ***
Bill Quinn: This morning I’m talking with Kavisha Mazzella. Now, Kavisha makes Victoria her home, but that’s only telling part of the story. Kavisha is going to be in Sydney on the fourth of May  to launch an album. We’re going to hear all about that, but let’s start off by saying, “Hello, Kavisha!”
Kavisha Mazzella: Hey, how are you?
BQ: All the better for speaking with you, of course!
Kavisha, let’s go right to the business end of proceedings: tell us about the new album, Riturnella.
KM: Ok, Riturnella. Some of these songs I’ve been singing since I started exploring my family heritage in Italian folk music in – oh, over 30 years ago, I suppose. And some of them are songs I’ve been singing for 30 years and some of these songs are new. And they’re songs I’ve put into a new album: 13 songs of love and betrayal spanning 500 years.
Or more. 600 years.
The earliest song is from the 1400s, and then quite a lot of songs from the 1800s and 1700s. They’re really old songs I’ve learnt of either living musicians or recordings that I’ve fallen in love with.
The song ‘Riturnella’ is the title and it means ‘little swallow’, and it’s a song I was inspired to learn from Mara! actually. Mara! and Llew [Kiek] did a version of this song many years ago. They do some Italian folk in their repertoire and I fell in love with that song. And then I forgot about it, and then I thought, “Gee, that song’s melody is so haunting; I just need to learn it”.
So then I found a recording of it by someone else and I’ve just learnt it off that, and I did my own version. What I found is that at my gigs I always sing a few Italian folk songs in my English language with my singer-songwriter hat gigs. And people would ask if I had that song on a recording and I’d have to say “No”. So finally, I had to just put some of these songs down that people want to hear and take home with them, like ‘Angellare’ which I do often, and then I added all these other new songs.
So it’s been a really exciting project and I recorded it with Andy White, the Belfast poet and singer-songwriter. He’s from Northern Ireland and also living in Australia. I met him at many festivals, but you know how it is at festivals: you see someone for five years before you have the first conversation with them. And it was like that with him.
We were playing at Fairbridge Folk Festival, back to back, again a way that you really connect with people as if you were on stage with them, if you’re doing a gig after them and you get to see them, and they get to see you. And we started talking and I thought it would be really great to get him to produce the album.
BQ: Kavisha, I think I’m right in saying that the Italian part of your heritage is something that you came to a little slowly and for a very good reason.
KM: Yeah, well my Dad’s Italian. He’s from an island in the Bay of Naples, one of the Italian islands called Ischia on the west coast of Italy. He migrated first to England and then he met my mum who’s from Burma. She had gone to study nursing, and he was an orderly working in the hospital there. They got together and I was born in England.
We migrated to Australia in the 1960s and in Australia at that time, you didn’t really express your heritage – the word ‘multicultural’ wasn’t really widely used or even heard of. Australia was the land of meat and three veg, and that was that: you had to assimilate. Growing up in the 70s, there was a bit of confusion over identity, in that sense of we’re all Aussies and my thing was I wanted to be blonde and have blue eyes and be called Jane!
In fact, my best friends at school were blonde and blue-eyed. I never really thought about it, but now looking back, isn’t that fascinating? And I really wanted to be like them.
So it wasn’t until I was about 20 and at art school and I had a party at my flat – I’d just moved out of home – it was my very space away from my parents. I had a party and a guy came in, a Sicilian guy who’d just emigrated to Australia with his family and he brought some beautiful cassettes of Italian folk groups, and I fell in love with the music.
I fell briefly in love with him for a while too!
Our friendship flourished and does still to this day, and we ended up playing music together with my little brother in a band called I Papaveri. And I started singing and exploring all of these songs.
BQ: And you’ve got the other project I Viaggiatori – I hope I’ve pronounced that correctly.
KM: That’s right, correct. Yeah, with Dave De Santi. In a way, all that has grown out of… They’re all little branches of a tree, I suppose. I was lucky enough to be invited by Tony DE Bolfo who discovered this silent film, Dall’ Italia All’ Australia, many years later I should add, maybe nine or ten years ago.
Tony De Bolfo discovered the film, made in 1924 in the silent era, in the film archives in Milano. He was doing research on his grandfather and his uncle’s migration journey to Australia. And they came out to Australia in the 1920s on a boat called the Il Re D’Italia – The King Of Italy. And he wrote a book called ‘In Search Of Kings’ about the 108 passengers that disembarked in Australia, and he followed their stories and he wrote this wonderful book.
And while he was researching that book, he was looking on the internet and he saw this fantastic picture of the Flinders Street Station in 1924. And under it, it said it was from this silent film. And Angelo Drovetti had been commissioned by the Italian government at the time to hop on this boat, the Regina D’Italia (which was the sister ship of Tony De Bolfo’s ancestor’s ship) and come out to Australia and film this journey. And he was so excited because this boat had travelled the same route that his grandfather’s boat had travelled, and he got to see the vision that his grandfather saw from the ship.
And so he was very excited about it, and he got the rights to show it in Australia. And he needed musicians to play because it was a silent film. He contacted me, and when it came up to Canberra a few years later, I needed a band to play, and I knew that Wongawilli were playing up at Canberra, and I called Dave and said, “Listen, Dave. Do you know these songs?” And he said, yeah, I know these songs.
And I said, “Here’s the list. Follow my arm. When I say ‘stop’, stop. When I say ‘start’, start the next song.” So it was Dave [De Santi] and Mark Holder-Keeping and Jane Brownlee also played in that first version. It was raining and we were in this mad tent in Canberra – I think a few people will remember that – and it was packed. They thought there would be a bit of interest in this show, but it was a wonderful experience, and being in a packed tent on a wet night: very atmospheric.
And we had Irini Vella playing mandolin and bouzouki, and it was just a gorgeous experience.
Now we have a trimmed down band: Dave, Mark, and Dave’s son Sam has joined us, and there’s Irini and myself. And sometimes we also have my brother Giri; he’s living up north and he comes and sings the tenor parts. And of course we have our historian Tony De Bolfo – we joke and say we’re the only band that has a historian, and he jokes back and says he’s the only historian who’s got his own band.
It’s a beautiful project, and we don’t do it very often, but it comes out if we’re lucky twice a year, or once a year, to various festivals. Because there’s a big group of us, it’s not always easy for a festival to budget, but when they do put us on, people just adore the film and the music. It’s an hour-long film complete with music. We’ve now put the music onto DVD and we’ve got a CD of the music as well.
It’s been received really well. In 2011 it was nominated for Limelight magazine’s Best Worldwide Music Release.
BQ: Lovely. I did want to ask you a little about current day migrant issues. You’re one that really feels migrant issues very deeply and culturally, don’t you?
KM: Yeah, it’s in our family history, full of migration, and also the refugee experience. My mother is from Myanmar or Burma, and as a little girl she walked into India, she made the trek into India when the Japanese invaded Burma. She had to walk with her brothers and mum into India.
In fact, the other day on the internet, I actually found the list of all the evacuees, and their names were on it. And it was just really powerful to see this list of evacuees, and there’s my ancestors’ names on there. It just made me cry. I’m thinking, wow, if they hadn’t lived through that journey, I wouldn’t be here. My mum did teach me guitar, she was my first guitar teacher and first singing teacher. She has a beautiful voice and she still sings; she doesn’t play guitar anymore, but she plays piano every day at least five times a day.
I can’t help but feel very passionate about refugees and humane treatment of refugees. They deserve humanity, and our country deserves humanity too, because when we’re being inhumane to people, the country’s humanity just goes down the gurgler. I don’t support our current government’s policies and treatment because I don’t think it works. And also, it’s degrading for everybody. Australians who feel we should have a strong refugee policy or a strong immigration policy – it’s degrading for everybody, because they’re not really upholding anything.
These people are not being treated well. They say there’s this great refugee policy, but what’s great that we’re torturing people in terrible places? Australia’s always had refugees and we’ve dealt with them in a much more humane way.
And it’s not a lifestyle choice to get on a leaky boat. It really isn’t.
We need to be more compassionate. I feel Australian society has become very selfish, and this only encourages that selfishness but I know there’s a lot of good-hearted people who are protesting against it. I just hope that in the end it will just be a dark period that we’re going through, a dark and stupid period that we’re going through, and I hope that a more enlightened attitude prevails.
BQ: If this were a video, you could see my t-shirt which says, “I Am A Boat Person dot com“.
KM: That’s right! Basically all the European, all of the white people in Australia are boat people. This is so crazy. It’s really dumb to think otherwise. I’m sorry; I’ve got no time for it!
People say, “I’m four generations bruff bruff bruff. Or I’m seven generations.” Big deal! What about 40 000 years? What about 60 000 years? Hello!
And I’m going to be doing some of my refugee songs too at Django on the fourth of May, I’m really excited, as well as doing my songs from Riturnella the Italian record as well.
And I’m coming back in June as well, there’s going to be a huge thing: Andy Busuttil from the Blue Mountains has put together a beautiful CD of whole lot of artists who are supporting refugees, and the proceeds of the album will be helping the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. I’m excited to be involved in that.
It’s going to be absolutely huge.
BQ: That sounds absolutely wonderful. For the here and now, though, May The Fourth Be With You. It will be a powerful night.
KM: Very funny! Very good.
BQ: Just leave your light sabres at home, people, but it will be at the Django Bar, upstairs at Marrickville, just a stone’s throw from the Sydenham train station. I’m looking forward to it immensely, Kavisha. Looking so much to seeing you on Sunday, and thanks so much for talking with us today.
*** Audio file will be removed at the end of February 2020 ***