Fiddle Guitar Vocal duo the Summer Januaries– Sean Michael Robinson and Rachel Erin Robinson

Three Gigs and a Whole Lot of Walking

We had been asked by a local pub owner to play an informal gig on our last day in Leno, at a bar called Cosmopolitan. Other than that, we planned on taking the day easy and getting in some relaxation and packing. Twas not to be, though, as at the last minute we added another small performance, at a local Leno Christian Youth Center. They were having a charity breakfast that morning to bring awareness to free trade practices and goods, and they wanted to know if we were up for playing a little bit? Sounded good to us.

But before we could play that morning, we got another last minute invitation, from Renzo, the doctor we met the previous two days. He wanted to know if we would be interested to eat with his family that evening?

So we spent our last day in the area in Leno and then Brescia and then Leno again, three performances of varying levels of informality.


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Just a regular morning at the Leno Youth Center.

The Youth Center is a really interesting place, with a snack bar in the front and a large yard in the back for games or gathering. The breakfast was delicious, and like most of the breakfasts we had so far in Italy, consisted mostly of pastry and cafe (cappuccino) and juice. After a while, we pulled out our instruments and played a 25 minute set, aided by Bruno, our friend and impromptu translator/emcee, who helped us pimp our CDs and the gig that evening.

This is one of the best features of being a duo, particularly a duo that’s as loud as we are– we can enter a new situation, and after a little bit of time to size up the location and the environmental noise, we’re ready to go. No mess, no long set-up or sound check, just unpack the instruments and play.

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Leather Shoes and a Few CDs

Energized by the events of the morning, Sean and I headed back to the center of Brescia, ready to play. On previous visits we had seen a few buskers playing under the covered walkways surrounding the shops in the center of the city, so we were pretty sure that this was the place to busk. We walked around the center a bit, tipped a busker who was singing Italian songs into a microphone, karaoke style, accompanied by prerecorded music blaring from his case, and chose a spot just far enough away from him to be out of earshot, in front of a display window of fancy Italian shoes.

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Another local Brescia busker, not far from “our” spot.

A little nervous and unsure of what to expect, we started off with a slow instrumental tune, “Ashokan Farewell” which is always a hit in the U.S. Much to our relief, our music was met with smiles, nods, and coins tossed into our case. We played instrumental tunes until we felt more comfortable, and then launched into one of our favorite songs, “Androgynous.” A woman stopped and asked to buy our CD right away! “How much?” she asked in English. “Dieche euro” I replied, excited to use the few Italian words I had prepared. “How much?” she asked again, looking puzzled. “Oh, ten.” I said, realizing that of course she knew I spoke English, seeing it was the language we were currently singing in.

We played for a couple of hours, selling a few more CDs and stopping every once in a while to have a chat with someone who was listening. We stopped mid-song to talk with a doctor from Brescia who said that he had been to Seattle a few times for conferences, and that he thought it was a very beautiful place. He told us that he loved listening to music , and downloads 20 songs a day. He bought our CD and seemed excited to listen to it.

There are police everywhere in Brescia, and while we were pretty sure busking was legal and we wouldn’t get hassled, we were still a little anxious. A few songs into our set, we exchanged an uneasy glance as we noticed a pair of police officers approaching. Our anxiety quickly turned to relief, as they nodded politely and walked on by. They walked by again a bit later, this time smiling and bobbing their heads to the music, and even later we were waved at by police officers from the window of their car as they drove by on the street below. The police in Brescia liked us and didn’t plan on throwing us in jail! We were thrilled. We packed up our instruments and walked back to meet Gwen, tired, happy, and ready for more.

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A Trumpet, a Guitar, and Elvis, Kung Fu Maestro

Seattle to Leno.

Rachel and I have been playing together for about fourteen months now. Like many of the best things about our partnership, it started spontaneously—after our second “date”, i.e. all-day gab fest and bicycling extravaganza, we sat in the back yard of Rachel’s house and she taught me eight or nine fiddle tunes over the course of an hour. Two days later, duly educated and armed with another five or six tunes I learned from a recording, we made our debut at the Pike Place Market.

We’re a world away from all that now, a world away from Seattle, staying in the house of our friends Gwen and Giaccomo in Leno, a little town in Northern Italy that features one stop light, a thousand-year-old church, and happens to bear a striking resemblance to Iowa. “This region is the Iowa of Italy” Gwen assured me on our ride from the airport six days ago.

How did we end up here?

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Pike Place Market, fall of 2011

The past year has been a blur of activity—you wouldn’t believe it all if I told you– but the musical portion is a little easier to explain. Rachel and I learned dozens of fiddle tunes from various sources, began to sing together and refine our joint sensibilities and interests. In the winter we incorporated the singing into our sets, and segments of fiddle tunes into these songs, in a desperate attempt to make our sets have some kind of coherence, even if it was a coherence that only we were privy to. We learned more songs, and then more, always testing what was working, what wasn’t working, which songs or tunes were right for which kind of situations or crowds. Since we primarily played at Pike Place up until this summer, our sets were geared to that noisy, competitive environment. As we gradually began busking other venues a little less fast-paced, we added ballads and instrumental waltzes, learned to stretch out or shorten the tunes on the fly if need be. We recorded two albums. We wrote songs together for the first time, saw the first outlines of our collaboration. And, this summer, we played. We played and we played and we played, sometimes as much as four and a half hours in a single day.

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