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Ian sali
February 16, 2023

I studied to play for the people: the music and civic engagement of Ian Elly Ssali Kiggundu

The voice of Ian Elly Ssali Kiggundu interviewed by Sara Manisera, FADA Collective

Blackn[è]ss fest is the first festival in Italy which presents a re-elaborated version of the African lineage universe. Events and roundtables are organized both to think about the concept of being black, following a path of decolonization of the language, and to discuss topics such as mental health issues linked to racial profiling, discrimination, racism, and also music, cinema, media and representation of black people . 

Voice Over Foundation chose to accompany the festival in this path and it decided to tell stories about it through the protagonists’ voices during the whole year. 

Interview with Ian Elly Ssali Kiggundu, Italian pianist. 

Q: Can you introduce yourself, who are you and what do you do? 

A: I am Ian Elly Ssali Kiggundu, I am a pianist on the go. Besides piano, I teach English privately, I am finishing my law studies and I am specialising in space law. I am very involved in civil society issues because one cannot shy away from improving the society in which one lives. For a long time I worked for the reform of the citizenship law with the G2 Seconde Generazioni Network and then with other associations. This whole kaleidoscope of interests has been my compass and my guiding star, because I believe it is important to be committed to improving society and helping to make it fairer. 

Q: Let's talk about the Blackn[è]ss fest and why is a space like this important in Italy? 

A: I was very happy to be invited to this festival. It was a good experience and I was able to play in front of black people. Mind you, I don't consider myself Bipoc (Black, Indigenous, and people of color, ed) but I was happy to have been able to give something to this community, a community not only of black people but of Italians among Italians. It was important to me to give that message. Also, playing the piano in that space was important to get across the idea that the piano is not an elitist instrument. Playing music is something for everyone. One of the pieces I chose, like "I'm Troubled in Mind" (by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, ed), was a song that African-Americans sang when they were under the yoke of racial laws in the 1800s and it's interesting because racism was already causing mental health trauma at that time. The pains are still there and it is obvious that racism affects black people the most but I think it is important to reiterate that any form of dehumanisation creates trauma. Music can certainly become a political tool and carry a message but it depends on the person and the artist. My first political gesture is to go on stage with a beautiful dress made in South Africa, with the sheet music inside a bag made by an Italian friend of Ethiopian origin who lives in Pisa... that's what I like to be, to involve all these things.

Q: How did you encounter music, what does it mean to make it in Italy? What are the difficulties? 

A: In Italy it is difficult to make it because music is not experienced as an experience. We are much more used to consuming it, regardless of genre. The difficulty is being able to turn it into a job, there is a big race to the bottom that starts with the workers themselves and that is a problem. Also, there is a great centralisation of power in 'cultured' music. If you go to Paris or China it is very different, there are many generations that listen to classical music even from different social classes. In Italy, listening to classical music is linked to social class and has become a purely bourgeois habit. Moreover, even in the Catholic Church, little good music is heard, unlike in the Protestant tradition. Music is the introduction to mystery, if that is missing even feelings are a bit superficial. 

Q: In your opinion, is Blackn[è]ss Fest a space for creating community or is it more a space for exchanging anger, joys and sorrows? How do you bring so many souls together? 

A: Let's start by saying that when you are in a minority condition, you start to be addicted to certain thoughts that you can hardly oppose and this then generates a kind of conflict. When you become aware of yourself and start to distinguish yourself more clearly from the majority, that's when the anger comes out because it's as if you start seeing yourself in the mirror for the first time. I think many also take their cue from the African-American world, but that has a different story. In Italy you are confronted with a country that is extremely intelligent, in Italy there is deep knowledge and a lot of knowledge but with a huge provincialism, where you are accepted in the community but with its own rules. I for example am Italian but that is not all I am. Instead in Italy they only take what suits them and throw the rest away. I understand very well the anger of racialised people but I think a way of compromise, or rather fusion, is also necessary, but I understand that for many it is difficult.

Q: How can we prevent blackness from becoming a brand and reproduce more divisions? 

A: I think it is fundamental to claim one's right to be a free man or woman. I don't act because someone perceives me as black, but I think that today being black has already become a 'class', where people seen that way are expected to behave in certain ways. This, however, is not freedom. I want to act as a free person, where blackness suffers perceptions but I do not act black. I have my own very strong cultural tradition, the Ugandan and the Italian, and according to these two cultural shores I move. I don't consider my friends white, just as I don't consider myself black, then of course there is white supremacy but, in general, I think it is important to understand that you are much more than being white or black. You decide to do things not because you are black or white but because you believe in those values, also because black-white reasoning risks dividing the forces of good. This does not mean to stop denouncing, but exaggerated categories risk dividing. There is a term I like and it is 'transcend': what is past cannot be corrected, we can only take it and bring it forward, improving it. 

Q: What are your plans in the future?

A: I will continue to play for people because I was trained to play for people. The Fantino-Ssali Piano Duo with pianist Chiara Fantino is something we are doing to involve more and more people. We have to do things that excite us and push us in this direction, to be enthusiastic and happy and music is a need of the spirit. It is a need to be sad, joyful, majestic, colossal... and today there is a need for everything.

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