Who knew troglodytes could play gigs for the Italian President? Pulling up at night outside a cave overlooking a dark ravine, we knew this wasn’t going to be our usual Premier Inn jaunt. The cave in question was our hotel, and it was plusher than most – each room might have been a honeymoon suite, with high stone ceilings, only a glass wall separating bedroom and bathroom, plus a flatscreen TV and some unlikely artwork (Marilyn Monroe and Batman must both have made appearances here at some point). An item of clothing briefly discarded on the floor would collect traces of cave dust and the light smell of mildew. A tiny window just below the ceiling served as a reminder that we were underground, waking us up each morning with a narrow beam of sunlight and the sound of scuttling feet on cobbles.
Upon arriving at Bari airport, about an hour away by car, we had been approached by a group of TV personnel with cameras, pulling us into an unexpected interview about what being in Matera meant to us and what we were going to bring to the European Capital of Culture event taking place all weekend. With travel-induced bleary eyes and minds, and having not yet learnt what exactly we would be doing here, we attempted to respond with bewildered enthusiasm, saying the word ‘culture’ more times than is ever necessary and smiling on in a daze.
Another warm greeting awaited us at the cave hotel, and before we knew it we were being whisked off to a restaurant at 11pm and showered with all of the antipasti we could digest. Platters of local cheeses, battered courgette flowers, artichoke, maiale nero (‘black pig’ and fennel salami), dried crunchy sweet peppers, fresh bread, and a few gallons of red wine appeared in front of our eyes, and it seemed that every time one plate was finished another replaced it. This was only the starter – and so, given the time, and the fact we’d already eaten dinner before the flight, we agreed to leave it there. In addition to the delicious food and dangerously cheap wine, the service made us feel like the only customers in the world (and believe me, this was a popular place). The maitre d’ was large and jolly, with a huge smile, and could have been straight out of a soap opera. On the final day we returned for what we naively expected to be a quick lunch. Three hours after the first glass of Prosecco, there we remained, sitting outside in the bright winter sunshine, partly wondering how our day of tourism had disappeared and partly not caring, because the food was unbeatable and the next glass of Grappa was waiting for us indoors.
Southern Italy in particular, it seems, is well-known for its first-rate hospitality, but nothing could have prepared us for getting to know our host, Tommaso. A Materan from birth, he was not only the warmest character imaginable, but also seemed to know everyone in the town; due to having been away for some time, he was greeted with flailing arms, affectionate shouts, hugs and kisses by almost everyone we passed. With Tommaso it felt like we were at the centre of all the goings-on – the wine flowed and the people followed. On the last night, after consuming yet more bowls of orecchiette in a cave, we met his friends Rosa and Maria, two tiny older Materan women with youthful spirits and a penchant for dancing the night away. We danced to loud music in the street by the restaurant, and Rosa and Maria threw themselves around energetically as if they had not a care in the world. ‘You are all Indigo children,’ Rosa said in impassioned tones. It seemed that whatever we were, she was one of us.
Being connected with a Materan resident in the way we were was incredibly useful for exploring the city, given what little we knew about it before our trip. The local developers’ motive to preserve the caves and their history while also modernising them for present use means that there are no large corporations, chain hotels or restaurants in the old town, only independent businesses – and so, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, it helps to know the right people.
The history of this enchanting gem of a city is a strange one, and there’s a reason that up until recently nobody had taken much notice of Matera, despite it being one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. In the heart of the Sassi (the old town, literally ‘stones’) where we were staying, humans began sculpting their homes into the rock around 9000 years ago. It was difficult to compute that figure, while standing in a modernised hotel room, considering how a person in the Neolithic period might have stood on this very spot within these walls, perhaps painting them (though presumably not with pictures of Marilyn Monroe). Despite its incredible history, by the end of World War II the cave dwellings of Matera, deep in the rural south, had gained a reputation for being impoverished and disease-ridden, and in 1950 the 16,000 residents of the Sassi were relocated by the government to new housing developments in neighbouring regions. The Sassi became a ghost town, riddled with crime, while its former residents were displaced and alienated, many denying their birthplace which was now known as ‘the shame of Italy’. Perhaps Matera would not exist as it does today if it had not been for a group of politically-minded students who rediscovered these abandoned caves and attempted to overturn the city’s bad reputation throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Government intervention and funding finally came in the 1980s until the city was fully restored, and in 1993 it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status.
A few Italians we worked with over these few days mentioned the microclimate in Matera, which is located in the region of Basilicata in the arch of the ‘boot’. As we ambled along the stone streets of the Sassi, someone exclaimed, ‘Look, the rocks are sweating!’ To our surprise they weren’t exaggerating: the humidity levels were so high even in the cold weather that it constantly looked as though it had been raining even after a dry few days with nothing but clear blue skies. It was hard not to feel as though the Sassi was a living, breathing entity, so much more than just a few cleverly carved rocks.
Across the ravine, just outside the doors of our accommodation, there were more caves, these ones uninhabited and some supposedly containing paintings dating back thousands of years (though sadly we didn’t get chance to witness them). Looking across the void was like staring deep into the distant past, before Matera had even been established. And from over there the old city must have looked even more glorious: it’s no wonder the Sassi has been used as the film set for Jerusalem on several occasions – they’d certainly have had me fooled. Equally, Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones might have been just as at home here between the rocks.
On our day off, our host took us to the MUSMA (the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture), tucked away deep into the caves, which were once used by tradesmen for making and storing their goods. A couple of holes in the floor, almost like wells, led down to where rain water was once collected and used by the local residents. The modern sculptures in this museum are exhibited within the carvings of the rock, making it difficult to know which to give more attention to – the walls or the artwork. The museum’s website states, ‘An ancient city like Matera should not live only on its past but must understand how to transform its historical heritage into a new culture.’
The shows were high profile and high intensity. Being blasted onto a stage to play your best two-minute performance in front of all of Italy’s most important public figures and some million or so TV viewers a few times a day – the adrenaline rush is hard to beat. On the Friday we rehearsed for the following night’s TV appearance: as is typical, this mostly involved a lot of waiting outside in the cold in full costume, and then being given contradictory instructions by various men with headsets who appeared rather stressed. Aside from it being for TV, the reason for this was mostly down to the fact the Italian President and Prime Minister would soon be seated in the front row, and we spent a great deal of the time working out the exact amount of intensity with which to perform in order to entertain but not terrify the country’s two most important people. There was a small chance they were frightened of all things loud and illuminated.
Meandering back down the dimly lit streets after a few hours of highly-organised confusion against a cinematic backdrop, we posed for photos with cheery old Italians, who seemed unfazed by our wandering presence despite us having not actually played a show yet.
The first show took place outside of town in the Cava Del Sole, a brand new venue still in the midst of being decorated when we arrived for a site visit. On the gig day we turned up in the early afternoon on a bus, fully costumed-up and ready to play. Audience members inside the venue included the Italian Prime Minster, President, and a few hundred consuls and government officials, and so we waited outside the main gate on a long, deserted road lined with security guards, while our host carried out the final checks that allowed us to enter. One stern and stocky policeman stopped by the bus to capture a quick video of us playing and then silently stepped back in line with a satisfied grin. Despite the high profile nature of the audience, as soon as we entered the building they flocked around us like excitable children. Moving quickly towards the stage with an almighty sound, I was struck by the realisation that we’d be passing the President in order to get there, through enormous amounts of security. But then suddenly there we were, making loud noises and dancing around, surrounded by all of Italy’s most important people, and I couldn’t remember what the President looked like anyway. I recall catching glimpses of Catholic priests dancing in their long maroon robes, sophisticated men and women in suits clapping energetically, and for a few minutes the room was completely alive. And then it was over, except for a few more selfies and offers for gigs in Eastern Europe next week, and shortly after leaving the building we were unsure of whether it had really happened or not.
Rapidly removing our makeup back at our cavernous rooms, we allowed just enough time for a hearty restaurant lunch and then to put the whole costume back on again before the next show, this time on Italy’s main TV channel for prime time Saturday night viewing. (There’d be no half-hearted clown-whiting for this!)
By the time we were show-ready once more, the street outside was lined with expectant people, and as we made our way through the crowds they cheered and shouted ‘Bravo!’. We were elated and confused – after all, we hadn’t yet done a performance they’d actually seen. We headed for a cafe located right by the stage and waited there among the espresso machines for the show to begin. The cafe was filled with other performers, all waiting for their moment to play, and we watched all of the events taking place just outside on a large TV on the wall. Typically it started pouring with rain for the first time in days just as the show began – Matera may forever be known by the world as a rainy place.
Our TV appearance was fast-paced and over in a flash, and before we knew it we were bounding off the stage and up the road for a subsequent parade that seemed to last for hours and was entirely an uphill endeavour. On the wet, slippery rocks it was a case of one step forward, two steps back, as we followed a procession of marching bands up through the Sassi and out of the old town altogether. If we were done with quick-fire two-minute shows in front of government officials, this certainly made up for it. Perhaps one of our greatest highlights was a moment when we surrounded a police car full of officers on duty and got them belly-laughing and dancing in their seats. Drums and lights aren’t so scary after all.
It wasn’t just the scale of this gig that made it feel so special to perform here. The city itself seemed to have such an important place in people’s hearts. For all of this historical significance to have been disregarded for so long; and suddenly here it was on the world stage, finally getting the recognition it surely deserved. For Tommaso and all of the other local organisers, this wasn’t only rewarding, it was truly symbolic.
And for us, coming from the UK, to be warmly welcomed by the European Capital of Culture in times of political disarray and uncertainty – a time when we might expect to be shunned – it was a humbling and memorable experience. To the people of Matera, here’s wishing you the bright and prosperous future you should have enjoyed all along.