Banaau - Centro Civico Agorà, Arese (IT)
17th July 2023
My journey to Arese began in 2018 at the Prog On festival, part of the Milan-based FIM, where I’d been lured by the appearance of Anekdoten. Organiser and Black Widow owner Massimo Gasperini suggested that I’d also like Hollowscene, another of the acts on the bill and though I missed the first part of their set following a change to the running order, what I did hear was first-class symphonic prog. The compositions on the self-titled CD include a 40 minute long, five-part suite ‘Broken Coriolanus’, based on Shakespeare’s tragedy ‘Coriolanus’, which is what I’d been so impressed with at the concert in Milan, plus ‘The Worm’, a piece based on Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Conqueror Worm’.
The background research for my album review revealed that the band had previously been known as Banaau, a Hindi word meaning ‘to do’, ‘to prepare’ but that name didn’t chime with Black Widow who were going to release the CD, so the band settled on a compromise name while managing to retain the Hindi script of the Banaau logo on the CD artwork.
Five years later it was something of a surprise to see a Facebook post advertising a concert by Banaau and prompted by my wife expressing a desire for a break away from the UK, I investigated the ease of travelling to and staying in Arese because I liked the idea of watching the group perform a full set.
Looking back through the band’s Facebook posts indicated that there had been a number of changes in personnel, with only three of the septet responsible for the ‘Hollowscene’ CD remaining: guitarist Andrea Massimo; keyboard player Bartolomeo Cicala; and flautist/vocalist Demetra Fogazza. When I exchanged emails with Andrea Massimo a couple of days after the concert, he explained that following Prog On at FIM they only managed a couple of concerts around Milan they’d had to arrange themselves which proved insufficient to stimulate the group, causing the exodus of guitarist Helmuth Kesten and keyboard player Andrea Zani. The decision to remain as a five-piece was taken when COVID restrictions lifted and group activity was possible once more, though it entailed a drastic rearrangement of guitar and keyboard parts, but just as they felt they were ready to perform again bassist Tony Alemanno and drummer Matteo Paparazzo left the band.
New recruits Paolo Callioni (vocals), Ketty Mancuso (bass and bass pedals) and Massimiliano Varotto (drums) fit seamlessly into the group, with Andrea Massimo telling me he’s relieved not to have to sing. Another important development is the enlistment of Francesca di Natale as a dedicated sound engineer, a role Andrea describes as necessary for live performance for a band with their range of instrumentation. This line-up change acted as a catalyst for dropping ‘Hollowscene’ and reverting to Banaau, the original moniker and with all the pieces in place the idea of a concert as a definitive moment, something to aim for, was conceived.
I had wondered why Arese had been chosen as the location for the performance, once the site of car manufacturing but otherwise a sleepy, well-heeled community surrounded by greenery with a giant out-of-town shopping mall, Il Centro, where the Alfa Romeo factory used to stand. It turns out that Andrea has a connection with Arese through the local Isola delle Note Music School where he teaches guitar and bass and where Eleonora Mosca, who is also passionate about prog, works as a singing teacher and choir director. The two colleagues have previously organised concerts and seminars, so the idea of hosting the Banaau concert seemed like a logical step, in Andrea’s words ‘to be able to test the new formation in the field’.
The venue was the Centro Civico Agorà, Arese’s civic centre, situated a very short walk from my hotel, boasting a public library and a small auditorium, kindly provided free of charge for the concert by the Municipality of Arese. The facilities were excellent, with a raised stage designed for theatrical productions and raked seating, and the band provided their own PA system. The performance was advertised as ‘Progressive and Literature, music linked to thought’ which seemed very fitting for a band inspired by Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Edgar Allan Poe and Zeami Motokiyo and began with Andrea talking about the use of literary texts within progressive rock which, not being much of an Italian speaker, was hard for me to follow. I did pick up the odd reference, especially when Andrea began to talk about Coriolanus, the primary subject of the Hollowscene album.
The concert itself began with music from the 2015 five-track EP ‘The Burial’, inspired by The Burial of the Dead, the first of the five sections of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and originally released in digital-only format. During these pieces the members of Banaau were joined by guest musicians Franco Cartanese on trumpet and flugelhorn and clarinettist Mirko Fattor. Andrea informed me later that it was this music that persuaded Black Widow Records to give Banaau a recording contract and it wasn’t hard to understand why as I sat listening to the compositions for the first time. Highly rated in on-line reviews, ‘The Burial’ is instantly recognisable as music by Banaau/Hollowscene with its Hackett, Banks and Canterbury influences but the inclusion of the guest musicians and with Demetra Fogazza shifting between cello, flute and whistle, the layered instrumentation, deftly handled by Francesca di Natale at her mixing desk, produced a chamber-prog level of sophistication.
‘Broken Coriolanus’ was almost faultless, a miss-start on ‘Welcome to Rome’ and a possible loss of a keyboard patch on ‘Rage and Sorrow’ being the exceptions. I’d always thought Andrea had performed the vocals quite well and that his style suited the compositions but enlisting Paolo Callioni as the lead singer was a great choice, adding range and emotion; the call and response vocals with Demetra on ‘Rage and Sorrow’ were really moving. Holding everything together, the new rhythm section of Ketty Mancuso and Massimiliano Varotto easily coped with the metric shifts, allowing Andrea’s guitar, Demetra’s flute and Bartolomeo Cicala’s keyboards to weave their melodies.
‘Welcome to Rome’ was re-played as the encore, an excellent end to a most enjoyable performance. I’d got to see the band play a full set! I was surprised at the size of the audience – the attendance was much higher than I’d feared when I went to look at the venue the evening before and could see no indication that a concert was due to take place the next night – but it was evident that a good number of those present were local and had some link to the Music School, with a noticeably different demographic to the audiences I’m part of when I go to see prog in the UK.
If Andrea was looking at the performance as a ‘test’ for the band, with all the inherent technical challenges posed by symphonic prog, I’d say they passed the test with flying colours. Both Andrea and Eleonora suggested to me that they’d like to host an annual prog-related event along the lines of the Banaau gig, inviting other groups who have difficulty finding appropriate occasions to play.
Arese may become one of my regular destinations!