ReDiscover Nino Ferrer and the lost years of Europe RnB maverick

Cherished by connoisseurs on RnB dancefloors as well as by prog geeks, Nino Ferrer has been a music dandy and one of Europe’s most visionary musicians across the ‘60s and the ‘70s. Turin musicteller Federico Sacchi has decided that time has come to give justice to the too often limited view of his figure through the cross-platform project ReDiscovery, which debuts in theatre this week.

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A blonde lock, a comforting smile, a flawless three-button suit and a song, Je Veux Etre Noir/ La Pelle Nera. To both Italians and French this is approximately what comes up to one’s mind if mentioning Nino Ferrer. But Ninò- as he is simply known in France – is a whole lot more than this.

Cherished by connoisseurs on RnB dancefloors as well as by prog geeks, Nino Ferrer has been a music dandy and one of Europe’s most visionary musicians across the ‘60s and the ‘70s. Turin musicteller Federico Sacchi has decided that time has come to give justice to the too often limited view of his figure through the cross-platform project ReDiscovery, which debuts in theatre this week.

The Lost Years of Nino Ferrer is the first part of an ambitious project aimed at bringing back to light the lives of overlooked musicians as a stage documentary with visuals, videos and sounds. The show will also see the experimental stage debut of T8 glove – A new gadget developed in Turin enabling the user to control multimedia content through Bluetooth technology, a bit like an orchestra director does with his stick.

The enigmatic title, explains Federico, has both a French and Italian validity. He says: “In Italy the lost years are ’63-’67 – when Nino recorded in France. 1970 – a pivotal moment in Nino’s career –  is the quintessential lost year, but not only, all the ’70s are lost.

“Relating to France, the lost years are the Italian ones, when the transformation from the TV-friendly pop star and the composer of [1971 proto-prog album] Métronomie happens. Generally France loses everything done in the ‘70s by Nino despite he lived there after 1971. Apart from [singles] Le Sud and La Maison pres de la Fontaine, French people ignored all the excellent six albums he released in those days. Just to make an example, Le Sud sold 1,200,000 copies, while the LP containing it [Nino and Radiah et Le Sud] only 30,000.”

Federico Sacchi sun1 _ credit Pinelopi Gerasimou

Nino Ferrer, was born in Genoa – on the Italian North-West coast – in 1934 , but grew up in France where his music career is rooted. First a double bass player in jazz outfits and then a white RnB performer and composer who nothing had to envy to Afro-American ones. His warm and gritty voice and exceptional stage appearance granted him his first success beyond the Alps up to the point that when he moved to Italy in the second half of the ’60s everyone assumed he was French – In a ‘60s pop environment where importing  foreign artists was a habit.

There’d be no apparent reasons to still be talking about one of countless ‘60s pop stars in 2017, if it wasn’t for Nino’s forgotten skilfulness, extraordinary songs and one-of-a-kind life.

“Nino’s life could be a blockbuster without changing anything to it.”

As Federico explains, “Nino’s life could be a blockbuster without changing anything to it.” Ethnology and Archaeology student at prestigious Paris Sorbone university destined to an academic career, painter and jazzman, Nino even embarked for a six-month long transatlantic journey when still a youngster.

Federico says: “He brought on two parallel careers. He did everything around black music mixing it with French chanson. Jazz, blues, RnB, croon, Dixieland, he had the New Orleans sound inside…he even did proto-funk.

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“In his first singles he’s like a French Ray Charles, even vocally, with a jazz phrasing. Then, with Mirza and Les Cornichons he changes. These singles can now sound as common pop songs, but nothing similar had been heard before in France. They are like an explosion. Just voice, bass, organ and drums, with the bass guitar coming to the front – and let me add, one of the best organs of the time outside the US – No guitar. He was proto-prog!

“For these songs he developed nonsense lyrics and he clearly declared that in interviews, but no one took him seriously. He worked on words’ sound. Coming from jazz and being into RnB, Nino researched English musicality and applied it to French. That requires a certain skilfulness.

“Aside, he wrote deep, poetic songs and proper concept albums, but no one was interested in them. He got stuck in a role, as a character.”

Nino Ferrer bassa_credit Kinou
Photo credit- Kinou

This is the turning point of the show and possibly the main reason which led Federico to tell the story of Nino Ferrer’s lost years.

The ‘70s are the real musical turning point in Nino’s life. A row of astonishing, ahead-of-their-times albums [Métronomie; Nino Ferrer & Leggs; Vèritables, Variètes, Verdâtres; Suite in Oeuf; Blanat; just to cite a few] recorded with superlative jazzmen, ranging from funk and chanson to psych-rock and proto-prog, all with a pop hook making them highly enjoyable.

The ’70s forgotten LPs are constructed as concept albums which can be put at the level of the best products of those years. Nothing less than the works done abroad by Zappa, Bowie and The Electric Light Orchestra or in Italy by singer-songwriter Lucio Battisti.

All projects bordering insanity, as insane was the choice to build a top-range home studio in his French mansion La Taillade or to rent for three months a castle to record an album –  1979 Blanat, which can be considered, according to Federico, the LP closing the ’70s musically because of its prog-rock consciousness and punk irruence in the way it is played. We are talking about an affirmed pop star, yes, but Nino was far from the financial backing the Beatles or The Beach Boys had available.

“Releasing certain albums, especially 1970 Rats and Roll’s, has been a real commercial suicide for Nino”

“Releasing certain albums, especially 1970 Rats and Roll’s, has been a real commercial suicide for Nino,” explains Federico, “He was trapped in a TV-friendly role and no one wanted to release complex albums, especially if treating uncomfortable topics as he did.  “In order to release his LPs, Nino had to surrender to real extortions from his record label.”

“Nino is titanism. He’s the quintessential romantic hero.”

Despite all this, Nino did not pay too much attention to the mainstream market tricks and preferred to pursue his own music experimentation at the price of commercial failure and isolation. As Federico enthusiastically sums up, “Nino is titanism. He’s the quintessential romantic hero.”

The feeling is that the audience, both in France and in Italy, always failed to fully understand this music business dandy. Federico says: “In Italy Nino is that of La Pelle Nera (Je Veux Etre Noir) – A catchy soulful song about his desire of beign black in order to be able to sing Rhythm and Blues –  the joyous guest of TV shows, that of Kraft cheese slices adverts. His blonde flock is iconic. Though, there generally is a certain benevolent affection for him.

“In France he is a so-called vedette rigoleuse, but he is also considered a poet.”

“In France he is the funny singer of nonsense pop hits as well, the so-called vedette rigoleuse, but he is also considered a poet. If you speak to middle-aged mid-to-high educated people, they’d say to you that ‘Ninò est un poète’. This in virtue of singles like Le Sud (The South – A bucolic view of southern France) and La Maison pres de la Fontaine (The House by the Fountain) which are considered to be post-war French music classics.”

If Nino’s production was not of its sublime level, it would be a surprise to see how this Italian-born and French-bred artist has got second lives in specific music niches. His mid-’60s organ-drenched singles like Les Cornichons, Le Telephon, Mao et Moa, Mirza or Alexandre are proper mod/RnB dancefloor bombs, while LP Mètronomie is a nugget for psych and prog connoisseurs – And in virtue of this, it is the only Ferrer album which has been repressed. Surprisingly, even an easy listening ballad as 1974 Looking For You had its momentum in the late ‘70s disco/ rare groove scene.

Sacchi Logo_ credit Rediscovery

Ferrer is not an easy character to understand, but the story of his multi-faceted life will be a thrilling surprise for sure. Federico – With his musictelling skills and his year-and-a-half long research going from old magazine articles to meeting the family and visiting Nino’s Taillade studio – Will be able to capture the audience and put shivers in you, as the professionally-made multimedia content on the ReDiscovery website did. ReDiscovery, in fact starts on-line as a three-language [Ita, Eng, Fra] platform telling Nino’s story through a series of short films, Spotify playlists and extra material as ’60/ ’70s newspaper articles.

Whether you do not know much about Nino or are hardcore-fans, it is worth visiting the project’s website and then, if you can, grabbing a ticket for the show which will be staged at Teatro della Tosse, Genoa (April 27th, 28th, 29th) and at Le Roi, Turin (May 8th, 9th).

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