Breakbeats in the Land of Dante

Florence is a delightful city, home to the greatest masterpieces in art history; the finest wine from the nearby Chianti region; and olive oil so luscious it can be used to prepare pretty much every single one of the delicious dishes you might consume there.

It is sadly lacking in one staple of any good culture, however: Music. My friends and I noticed at one point that while good music certainly passed through Italy, it almost invariably went through Rome or Bologna.

I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I am one of those Americans who can’t quite get the hang of another culture and finds herself pining to go to the Beastie Boys show in Rome because she just can’t hang with the Italian music.

There is this one guy, Vasco Rossi, whom I have to admit I took a shine to while I was in Florence. In trying to come up with an American counterpart, I can only imagine he is a bit like Jimmy Buffet or Bryan Adams. This guy has apparently been around forever, and Italian women of a certain age blush and giggle upon hearing his name.

So you know, not necessarily the greatest rock and roll of the century, but then again I’ve never been ashamed of my rich pop music sensibilities. If you want to get into Vasco Rossi, I’d suggest checking out the song, “Come Stai,” from his recent album, “Buoni O Cattivi.” Basically, folks, I know I can’t speak for everyone in Florence, but this kind of borderline-cheesy music seems to be what most are into. My friend’s mother came to visit at one point during my semester in Florence, and she thought it might be fun to go to an Italian pop concert.

Francesco Renga put on quite a show, complete with smoke machines and neon lighting. The music was passable at best but I did notice something interesting: while in America a pop concert appeals mainly to one demographic (twelve-year-old girls; desperate housewives; whatever), here was pretty much a cross-section of Florentine society. The young teen crowd was certainly there in full force, but so were couples enjoying a romantic evening out, as well as older businessmen, smartly-dressed college students, and the pierced leather-wearing types.

Even our cab driver, a twenty-something hippie-type sporting dreadlocks and playing reggae music, gave his nod of approval to the concert. So okay, we left about halfway through and hit up a bar with a Beatles cover band, but it was definitely interesting. So besides these somewhat corny men, what do the Florentines listen to? Well, American music, of course! Britney Spears is big there, as is Eminem. Eamon, of “I Don’t Want You Back” fame, is inexplicably so big in Italy that he redid the song in Italian.

British import Robbie Williams tears it up on Florentines’ CD players, as he seems to pretty much everywhere besides America, where we only tolerate him. Ask a cool-looking Florentine guy you meet at a bar what kind of music he listens to, and he may reply, “American hip hop.” Oh, really? Any specifics? “Good, real hip hop… Like Nelly.” Well, okay.

A friend of mine and I decided to travel to Bologna, where we had heard the scene was quite different. From there we would go on to Modena, a nearby city famous for balsamic vinegar and Ferraris, because Guru of Gangstarr was apparently playing there. There was something different in the air as soon as we got off the train in Bologna: Oh, yes, that something different was the noxious fumes of spray paint.

As we walked toward the main piazza, we passed break dancers and flyers for hip hop shows. Several missed trains and interesting people later we arrived in Modena and spent over an hour trying to find a hotel or hostel. The we had a hell of a time actually finding the venue, almost giving up to go bowling, as we had passed an attractive bowling alley several times. Our cab driver was on his cell phone calling anyone he thought might be able to decipher where exactly we were trying to go based on the cryptic information we had gotten off of a potentially unreliable hip hop website.

Finally, however, we found it, and it was everything we had dreamed it would be: Break-dancing, DJs, MCs, and a culture of young people who seemed to have a handle on really good music, both American and Italian. My friend even met a new beau, an up and coming Italian rapper. Pretty cool, right? Anyway, the moral of the story is that good music can be found anywhere. If you’re going abroad, don’t be turned off if initially you can’t find the scene you are looking for: It probably exists, though you might have to do some traveling or have some adventures in order to find it. And of course, don’t neglect the opportunity to check out some music you might have otherwise passed over.

Vasco Rossi, Britney Spears, whatever; when in Rome (Florence but you know what I mean), right? (Come to think of it, this applies to more than music. One of my friends spent months trying to find comic books; another, a waiter that would serve her vodka and diet coke without acting as if she had ordered poison in cocktail form. But these are stories for another article…)