Last summer, while performing a solo show at a music venue called Abetone in Sassari (on the northern part of the island), a well-known jazz musician came up and told me that I remind him of Joan Baez, a performer who toured extensively in Italy. This is a comment I have fielded repeatedly in Sardegna, and which fascinates me, as I never really listened to Joan Baez and so don’t feel influenced by her in the least. And it’s also very specific. When I pushed him to explain a bit more, he described how, even when I’m singing Guccini’s famous “Il Vecchio e Il Bambino” in Italian, I modulate my voice and manipulate the chest/head voice transitional space in an “American” way that reminds him of Baez, especially in the head range. When I queried whether this was influenced by an American-inflected diction when singing in Italian, he insisted that it wasn’t about pronunciation, it’s about singing style. So, to this musician, even when I’m singing in Italian, I sound iconically American.
And yet, despite these shifts in expressive resources, there is something in us that remains grounded and constant, a pure expression of self, regardless of the language in which we sing. In a final solo performance in the southern city of Cágliari at Covo Art Café, a Canadian expat, musician and Cágliaritano (resident of Cágliari) came up to me after the show and told me he loved all the languages I had sung in (in this case Italian, Sardo, Norwegian, Navajo, English) and particularly how my singing style had changed as I sung an original folk song in Norwegian. But after this, he told me: “During the show, I asked myself: do these people [Italian speakers/listeners] understand what she is saying, even though she is singing in English”? Then, when you started singing in Italian, and then Norwegian, I realized they did! Because there was a through-line, something consistent about your stage presence, your persona, your being as your performed, that was coming through in each language you performed in.” So, languages are vehicles for different expressions of self—expressed both in the words we use to sing our song, but also the range, intonation and singing styles we use to express ourselves in each of these languages—but they are unified and cohere through the singular body we inhabit and the sense of self that we share with others, in any language.