Telling tales is his life-long calling
Storyteller and musician Charly Chiarelli talks about new project
Tandem on-line Magazine by Pierpaolo Rizzo
Originally Published: 2010-12-12
The recent Ottawa Storytelling Festival provided a four-day opportunity to enjoy the art of storytelling. Several artists happened upon the Myfair Theatre and Saint Bridgid’s Centre stages.
Among the event guests was Charly Chiarelli, the very well known Italian-Canadian actor, who with his harmonica enchanted the assembled crowd during this special evening.
Chiarelli was born in 1948 in Racalmuto, Sicily – birthplace city of the great Leonardo Sciascia: “I’m proud because if you search ‘Racalmutesi authors’ on the Internet, you’ll find Sciascia and me. What’s more, I feel that I understand his soul.”
He moved to Canada with his family when he was just six months old. An eclectic artist, – a musician first and foremost, but also an actor, composer, and writer – Chiarelli grew up in Hamilton, and studied psychology and sociology.
His most popular work is Cu’Fu, written in 1997, in which he tells the story of his Sicilian family coming to the new world, to a completely different lifestyle than their land of origin.
His life as musician and writer developed over time – his only prop on stage is the harmonica: “When I started playing it, I thought it was a toy. But one day, at about age 20, I listened to some character on the radio – don’t even remember his name now – who played the harmonica and that’s when I realized that it could be an instrument, not a toy, and while I tried to combine the blues with Sicilian, I realized that it made some sense.”
Chiarelli’s performance on the Saint Brigid’s stage was effusive, full of comic effects – a perfect combination of music and storytelling.
What is storytelling for you, and what did you think of the Ottawa festival?
“There was great energy the other night thanks to the younger audience and the high calibre of the guests. This is the start of a new era of storytelling in Ottawa, the location is great, and the novelty of the food – great food – served during the performances. Obviously the credit goes to the organizers and the numerous volunteers. In short, yesterday was an important moment for storytelling – exciting, full of energy. Not to be controversial, but I think the festival in Toronto, which is 33 years old, and the people who attend, are more or less my age, 60 to 70 (laughs).
You were in Rome last October for the second Storytelling Festival, where you brought your first Italian work Cu’Fu. Can you tell us how it went?
“When I composed Cu’Fu, the main language was English, with parts in Italian and in Sicilian. This time, however, I had only a bit of English and Sicilian, and I translated the rest into Italian. The festival was a magnificent moment – I didn’t expect such energy, and Italians are fantastic organizers, and let’s not speak about the location, the Appia Antica park. I knew the public would have appreciated my style because it’s very energetic. What’s more, I played a lot on improvisation, asking the public for support when I noticed that their attention was dwindling or when I wasn’t able to translate a Sicilian word into Italian. The perception they had of my work, which talks about Italian immigrants after the second world war, was very important: it was very difficult to be Italian in Canada during the ’50s. But at the same time they also appreciated the irony, like in the story about marijuana and my father. They understood my father – an immigrant from a small town in Sicily – and found the situation very entertaining. At times, there’s no difference between the Canadian and Italian response.”
Let’s talk about your origins. What was it like living in Hamilton during the ’60s-’70s?
“There’s a large Italian community in Hamilton made up of people from Calabria, Friuli and Sicily. They all came from poverty but no longer wanted to be identified in that manner. What’s more, when we watched shows on TV depicting the classic American family, we realized that we were different, and wanted to be like them. Only as an adult, and when you’re fully Canadian, do you begin to seek out your origins.”
Have you ever been to Sicily? And have you gone back to Racalmuto?
“I was just in Sicily but not Racalmuto – I was there six months ago. I love my relatives in Racalmuto, but when I go to Sicily it’s to visit friends who’re in Palermo or Syracuse – artists like me – who understand me. My relatives understand me as well, but they understand my blood, my origins – less so my mentality.”
What are your future projects?
“Last year I wrote Sunamabeach, and I hope to start promoting it soon. We were on tour in Canada and I now hope to travel to many other countries. Sunamabeach is a new work, and I haven’t yet decided whether to introduce it to a different public, or to those who have been following me since the days of Cu’Fu. Anyhow, I’m practically always writing, even if to stay in shape, notwithstanding my priority now is Sunamabeach. Another work I’m working on is Decamerone di Boccaccio, which I staged with other friends at the Storytelling Festival di Roma last October.”
Sicilian memories of James Street North
A home on the Mountain was immigrants' dream
The Hamilton Spectator by Mark McNeil Fri Oct 29 2010
ONE-MAN PLAY Charlie Chiarelli is known for his one-man plays about being Italian and ground up in north Hamilton. He's seen on James Street North.
Charly Chiarelli doesn't really remember it. He was only six months old at the time. But the story of his family arriving in Hamilton at the CN Railway station on James Street North in 1949 was told so many times when he grew up, it's become ingrained into every crevice of his psyche.
"They took one look at me .. and rushed me to Emergency," says the 61-year-old actor and playwright known for his one-man plays about growing up in a Sicilian home in Hamilton's North End.
"My mother said, 'There's nothing wrong with him. He just had a 12-day sea voyage and he's just a baby.'"
But the authorities insisted the gaunt, discoloured infant, that was born slightly premature in Racalmuto Sicily, needed medical attention and Charly spent the next while in hospital.
The Chiarelli family's arrival in Hamilton is just one story among thousands of fleeing Italian families after the Second World War. For most it was grueling 12- to 14-day journey in cramped, third-class quarters. They'd usually arrive in Halifax and then take the long train ride to Hamilton.
Their lives changed forever when they walked out the big doors and past the Doric columns of the railway station at James Street and Murray.
Chiarelli says the voyage from Sicily to Hamilton was like a rite of passage for his family, “like passing through the birth canal to a new world.”
The Italian wave also had a huge effect on James Street and the city of Hamilton. For one thing it gave new life to a street that needed an influx of people to make up for the vacating English, Scottish and Irish who were heading off to bigger homes at the edges of the city. Italians became important in the community, active in all professions. Larry Di Ianni, who immigrated to Hamilton from Italy as a boy, ran and lost in this week's municipal election after serving as mayor from 2003 to 2006.
According to the most recent Canadian census data from 2006, there are more than 72,000 Hamiltonians of Italian descent (10.6 per cent of the city's population), the fourth-largest ethnic group behind English, Scottish and Irish. An estimated 30,000 of the Italians are from Sicily.
Sicilian immigrants who came to Canada tended to live within blocks of the train station they arrived at. Rents were cheap. James Street North from York northward to the train station, took on the appearance and language of the homeland they left. The grocery stores carried pastas, spices and foods remembered from home.
There were coffee shops and barber shops and shoemakers who did business primarily in Sicilian. All Souls Church on Barton gave Catholic services in Italian.
“Immigration tended to be either a push or a pull situation — the push from the home country was the poverty. The pull from here was the people who have already come here and made it,” says McMaster University professor Vittorina (Vikki) Cecchetto, who teaches a class in Italian immigration to Canada.
She says there were three waves of Italian immigration that led to Italians coming to Hamilton and elsewhere in Canada.
• From 1840-1900 Italian men tried to escape poverty by moving to countries such as Canada, the U.S. and South America. The Hamilton-Toronto area was a popular destination because there were lots of manual labour jobs with many infrastructure projects going on at the time.
• From 1900-1939 Italians tended to focus on Canada for a new home, catching up with relatives who had arrived before. Others came looking for work, settling largely in Ontario, Alberta and B.C.
• From 1945 to 1972, “Italy was in ruins after the Second World and it was during that period of time that mega numbers came to Canada,” says Cecchetto. It was that wave, she says, that had the biggest effect on James Street North.
“James Street Italians were mostly Sicilian, and most of them were from the little town of Racalmuto,” says Cecchetto. At its height in the 1960s and '70s, an estimated 10,000 people of Sicilian origin lived around James Street North. It was a community unto itself.
In earlier waves of Italian immigration, she said, the tendency was for an older son to come over and then after he established himself, send for parents and the rest of the family to follow. But after the war, Italian families arrived in droves.
Many travelled with little more than the clothes on their backs and pockets full of olives or cheeses to eat, says Chiarelli.
The Chiarelli family, two parents and three children, were met at the Hamilton train station by an uncle, who put them up for awhile.
Eventually dad found construction work and the family moved into a home within blocks of James Street North.
Chiarelli — who moved to Toronto at the age of 22 and then onto Kingston where he now lives, uses his experiences as a youngster in Hamilton's North End as grist for his passion for storytelling. He has written and performed three plays: Cu'Fu; Mangiacake and Sunamabeach.
A lot of the humour involves the collision of western lifestyle and his parents' traditional ways. In one play Cu'Fu, Chiarelli talks about the time he and his brother brought home a record turntable they had bought with paper route money.
The father stared at the spinning record like he was going into a trance. He kept staring, totally mesmerized by it all and then suddenly said, ‘Tanka you, Tanka you” to the machine.
Chiarelli's work also draws from what linguists call Italiese. Italians in Canada often mix Italian and English words together. In the language “thank you” becomes “tanka you” and “car' becomes “car-ro”.
Cecchetto says Italiese helped unite those who came from different places in Italy.
Chiarelli says differing accents give clues about where in Italy a person came from. But degree of accent makes it possible to tell when someone arrived here. A thicker accent usually means the immigrant came here as an adult. A slight or non-existent accent suggests the person arrived as a child.
“The older you are when you come over the less likely you are to learn the language.” He says his parents, who came over when they were 40, never learned to speak English except to say things like “how mucha it costa?” And “tanka you very much.”
Charly spoke to his parents in Sicilian, he says, but he always talked to his siblings in English. With Sicilian friends, he always used English.
“We wanted to distance ourselves from our ethnicity. We wanted to be Canadian or North American. We wanted to be like the people we saw on television like in Leave it to Beaver or My Three Sons.”
And consequently, when Charly set out on James Street, he'd tend to walk by the stores that offered Sicilian fare.
He liked cannolis from the baker or Italian ice cream from Michelangelo's. But what he really loved were the stores like Eaton's, Kresge's, Woolworths and Robinsons that were a world away from his heritage.
He loved going to the Tivoli. He worked for awhile as a pin boy at bowling alleys on James and John streets. He washed dishes in various restaurants.
He remembers in the '50s and '60s that James Street was a hopping place and King and James was only a seven-minute walk.
“It was a time when the city was thriving with activity and commerce and James Street was the centre of it all.”
But while it was exciting to a teenager to be downtown, his parents had a different view.
“The dream was always the Montagna — The Mountain.
“It was almost as if you could get to heaven before you died if you could afford a house on the Mountain. The burbs was the dream for Sicilians.”
It never happened for Charly's parents who have both passed on. But many others did move away to find the dream and it set the stage for the next wave of immigration — the Portuguese.