Britain has a folk tradition that goes back two hundred years, that talks about popular movements and trade union struggles, but much of this tradition only talks about the past. How has the Italian folk tradition been handed down? How do artists like yourself try to link the past with the present?
We found things were quite easy. For a long time now modern Italian music had to come to terms with music from all over the world, whether it was folk, international pop, folk-rock, and more recently ethnic or world music. But with such a lot of stuff around you risk creating a mish-mash rather than something clear.
All of these ingredients — traditional songs, world music — in Italy encountered a series of blocks. Music hasn't filtered down to us like it was water, often it has been blocked. A lot of traditional music ended up in ivory towers being studied by academics.
But when popular music returned to the streets it had a huge impact — such as in 1968 or 1977 — also through the writing of new songs. Then there was the influence of punk, of singer-songwriters, and most recently the movements against the Berlusconi government. Because this government has behaved like a regime, there have been many movements for a new kind of democracy which have contained forms of musical expression.
Music started to change in the 1980s, when young musicians such as ourselves criticised singer-songwriters for being boring, as they paid far too much attention to words rather than music.
What has been so important and wonderful for us is to sing about contemporary events by using songs that already existed. All of this has been relatively easy, because apart from a song such as Bella Ciao, most of these songs are completely unknown.
What happens when you come across an old song, how do you convince the copyright holders that this song needs to be changed? Surely you have to do this otherwise you'll end up playing a museum piece?
First of all you get information from books and so on, and you listen to all the versions that are available. If you've chosen to renew a song you have to re-arrange it. The wonderful thing is that these are both popular songs, part of our history, but they are also political statements.
A popular song, or a popular love song, aren't created by chance. If a love song is performed by rice workers out in the fields it is likely to express desperation — every song has its own political history even if it doesn't appear in the words of the song. It's one thing to sing 'oh my love' over a conventional chord, it's another thing to sing it in a dejected minor key — by doing that a different world opens up in front of you.
At the end of the day you're dealing with a song with deep cultural and historical roots which are part of our heritage, but which also has a political message.
There are also new songs being written about the Resistance, both by you and other groups. How do you balance your sympathies towards this historical movement with your own concerns about today?
After sixty years Italy still hasn't come to terms with the war for liberation. As with any war, more powerful states cast a long shadow — and the system was rebuilt by bringing back many people who were on the other side — so in our case people who worked with fascists and Nazis. It's the same today in Iraq, many of those in power, and those organising censorship, had links with Saddam's regime.
Part of the left made a big mistake and tried to make the whole Resistance period 'legendary'. They took away the bad complexions, the smell, the fleas, the bad breath of the partisans, their suffering, and tried to create versions of Soviet or Chinese iconography. This meant that future generations have looked upon partisans as if they were different to them.
On the other hand, the revisionist right has acted as if it has seen 'long live freedom' written in red on a wall. They've then told the painters to eliminate the writing — but what do the painters do? They write 'long live freedom' — but this time in white. In reality they're not cancelling out this slogan but making it all the more visible. The same operation has been tried both with the Resistance and its songs.
So overall, in not wanting to come to terms with it, or turning it into a legend, the political class hasn't put it to rest. While the right has tried to cancel it out, the left hasn't dealt with its own mistakes and compromises. Therefore you've either got people who want to totally rewrite it and tell us a completely different story, or others who don't know how to defend it — arguing that deaths on both sides should be treated equally.
All of this means that Resistance songs are incredibly contemporary, sometimes it feels as if they were written the very morning you perform them.
The Berlusconi government is serious about cancelling out this history. It has recently cut finances to the National Partisans' Association by 85%.
That's right, but much of this started locally. When the Northern League gained control of my town council ten years ago they immediately cut local funds to ex-partisans. Then they moved the monument to the Resistance from the city centre to the outskirts. Even if they were to bury it we'd still use the footage we've made of it, we show images of it when we sing one of our own Resistance songs — 'The last eyewitness'.
How do people respond to your concerts?
I remember one young girl who had never known her grandfather because he died fighting in the Resistance, who told us we had created a new way for her to remember him. It is really weird when old partisans come and thank us, because a kind of 'dance of thanks' develops. 'What do you mean, 'thank you'? It's us who have to thank you', and they answer 'I was up in the mountains fighting, and I want to thank you for what you're trying to do with your music', and so on.
They ask us to create a world of peace — all of this coming from people who have carried machine guns and used them, people who have looked into the eyes of death often because they caused that death. This isn't pacifism though — they're just saying they would have liked to hand down to us a world of peace.
You open your show on the Resistance with a passage from the writer Primo Levi which includes the words 'For us the war has never ended'. What does this phrase mean to you?
To start with, like I said before, many people still haven't come to terms with what happened. Another thing is that soon after the end of the war all the old leaders came back — partisans saw this and had great difficulty fitting in to society. Some partisans kept their guns under their bed because they could sense things weren't going to work out right.
The huge disaster of the wars which are being fought today shows that until peace breaks out there will always by wars — in this sense 'the war has never ended'.
To get a copy of Yo Yo Mundi’s previous album Sciopero for just £3.50 e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 020 7819 1171