L’ocarina di Budrio alla BBC World Service – The cultural frontline

Everybody should own the music. The music, one instrument and the capability to play it, maybe just a little, maybe not so well that you can call him musician. But. A small possibility of a melody tucked into a pocket. Something you can use to strike up a friendship with other people, to bring joy and amusement to a party, feast, or a celebration. Something to console yourself when you’re alone and that can give a sense of magical comfort when all you can feel is maybe anger and fear.

I’m no musician, despite the tradition of a part of my family (my great-grandfather was a professional mandolin player and my grandmother such a delicate piano player). For all my childhood I had a flute on my shelf, a harmonica and a small ocarina, the traditional instrument of my hometown. I was not talented at all, but when I was alone I tried to perform a melody, just for me. Just like the humble shepherd in the Bucolic verses of the great Latin poet Virgil while resting in the shadow of an ample beech tree, he is playing a small flute made out of wood in the idyllic countryside of Italy’s Po Valley. His endeavour? To teach the woods to echo the name and fame of the beautiful woman he loves, Amarillide. Such a tune evokes the image of a possible human peace, in spite of wars and devastations and political ruins everywhere. This is Arcadia, Virgil’s fantasy, yes, but it also exists as a place of spiritual beauty where we can rest and find harmony within ourselves.

To me, in my mind, and in my body too, the sound of Titiro’s flute is the sound of ocarina. It’s here, in Budrio, the small medieval town near Bologna, where I grew up and now live, that the ocarina was crafted and conceived.


This strange, funny, enchanted small earthenware instrument, whose name means ‘little goose’, at the beginning was just a joke that a boy conceived for his friends (an earthenware whistle with the shape of a goose). Unfortunately he dropped the whistle and the head broke off but, the young tiler and musician, the 17 year old Giuseppe Donati already knew that this was a model for a new musical instrument. He was right. So he made four more ocarinas in different sizes from low to high to match the extension of a piano. In a matter of a few years the ocarina became very popular with musicians all around Italy and beyond, all the way to the far East where it is now a beloved instrument.

A local band, the Ocarinistic Group of Budrio now travel the world to perform their music: traditional and classical repertory. They’re especially popular in Asia: Japan, China and Korea, but also England. Even the Duran Duran frontman Simon Le Bon uses this funny instrument alongside synthesizers in songs like ‘The Chauffeur’. Legend has it he came to Budrio to buy the instruments directly from the craftsmen, but of course no one is sure it really happened! From a captivating woodland waltz scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic film Novecento, to the Space Pirate Captain Harlock, a japanese manga series of the Seventies, to a 1990’s Nintendo video game, The Legend of Zelda: ocarina of time, the Ocarina has made its way into pop culture.

In the Forties ocarinas, by chance, ended up in the hands of American troops and, as it seems, even in the war camp of Sandbostel in Germany, where the italian writer Giovannino Guareschi was imprisoned in december 1944. It was there, in three cold, haunted days and nights that we wrote a Tale of Christmas dedicated to his own child, waiting for him in Italy, Albertino. Upstairs, another prisoner, the italian musician and composer Arturo Coppola, wrote the music for a production of the story using only instruments they had in the camp: obo, clarinets, accordion, some strings and an ocarina! They performed this production on Christmas Eve for the prisoners in the small theatre of the cold prison camp, with the hands of musicians freezing and the violins cracking for humidity. It’s a story of an Italian child whose father is imprisoned and he dreams of writing a poem for him. While the child performs this poem in front of an empty chair, the window opens and a small bird- an incarnation of the poem itself!- takes the child with him and together with the grandmother, they travel trough the air and space and they finally arrive at the camp where the father is, to celebrate the night of Christmas all together. But cold reality returns: the father has to stay in the camp while his child and grand-mother go back home. I think this story also gave inspiration to the internationally acclaimed Roberto Benigni’s film “La vita è bella” Life Is Beautiful– even if he didn’t admit it!

So, these days the Po’Valley is cold but it’s not the same cold as in Sandbost in 1944 and there is no war in the enchanted, brighlty lit streets of my little medieval town, with the manger and nativity scenes displayed all over the old town center, not confined to churches, schools or homes but becoming part of the fabric of this town, which is still infused with the iconography of Catholicism. There are 99 Cristmas cribs made with carved wooden figurines, earthenware, every possibile material: some big, some tiny. The shop windows of the cafes are full of artisan Panettoni, the sweet bread with candied fruit and sultanas and the smell of roasted chestnuts and muld wine is everywhere. In a few days we will smell from every open window the broth of capon and meat ragù that will be the condiment for handmade tagliatelle because this is a city that knows so well the art of making fresh egg pasta.

During this time of year I think again that music is something that everybody should own: a melody to play and a light around which to warm up the Christmas celebrations of a difficoult, gloomy year for the World and for too many people.

Hoping that a melody and a light could reach even the darkest corner of everybody’s heart. I wish to dedicate this melody and light to all the Syrian children that, like Albertino, the child protagonist of Guareschi’s Tale of Christmas, are travelling alone to reach a better future. Hoping that maybe that manga hero, Captain Harlock, could offer them a passage on his spaceship, named –strangely enough!- Arcadia.

Testo completo del “racconto natalizio” scritto per BBC World Service, The cultural frontline del 26 dicembre 2015.

In podcast a questo link, al minuto 15:



Foto di Pietro Bassi scattata durante il Festival Internazionale dell’Ocarina tenutosi a Budrio lo scorso maggio (2015).


Grazie a Dany Mitzman (che ha registrato) Fabio Galliani (che ha suonato) Kirsty McQuire (che ha organizzato) e Ellie Bury (che ha editato). 



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