The Umbria region of central Italy is known for its picturesque rolling hills and medieval villages, but for the many Moroccan migrants who travel there, Umbria is better known for the tobacco fields, construction sites, small industries and weekly outdoor markets where they work. Marginalized and far from home, these men turn to Moroccan music and poetry traditions that evoke the landscape they left –l-‘arubiyaor the rural.
in the The voice of the ruralmusic professor Alessandra Cucci explores the lives of these Moroccan workers and unveils the way they share a particular style of music to create a sense of home and belonging in a strange, inhospitable nation. In doing so, she discovers how this culture of belonging is not only the product of migratory struggles, but is also linked to the reclaiming of a masculine identity, inaccessible to Moroccan migrants in Italy.
Ciucci talks about her book Columbia Newswhere – and what – she likes to read, which musicians she admires the most and how she wants to spend her summer vacation in Italy.
Q How did this book come about?
A I stumbled across a local idea of rural (l-‘arubiya) in music, poetry and sound through the vicissitudes of field research more than a decade ago in Morocco, in preparation for my dissertation on a class of female performers (Shikhat). There I developed a strong interest in sung poetry and in particular in two related, music-poetic genres (‘aiṭa and ‘abidat r-rma) intended as the embodiment of the rural.
The experience of the rural emerged with an unforeseen intensity in the compelling tropes used by Moroccan migrant workers in Umbria and beyond. I was interested in exploring the listening practices of these migrants, where the rural unfolds in moments of conviviality in both Italy and Morocco. The farmhands and laborers I write about in the book are not performers, and yet if you listen carefully, music, poetry and the voice of country life are omnipresent in their everyday lives. By focusing on how they listen to and understand that voice, I advocate for migrants as active performers, not miserable workers.
As an Italian, born and raised in Rome, I am acutely aware of the deplorable conditions and treatment of migrant workers, particularly Moroccan men. I have focused on men because: (1) Moroccan migration to Italy was predominantly male until at least the mid-1990s, and (2) it was a collective trauma caused by a colonial encounter between the so-called French Expeditionary Force and the Italian population became the end of World War II. This encounter had a profound impact on the stigma, racialization and marginalization of Moroccan immigrant men.
Migration studies must take into account the culture of origin, the circumstances of departure, and attitudes towards migrants in the host society if the lives of migrants are to be understood, musically and non-musically. For these reasons I have also chosen to focus on migrants from the same region (the Atlantic plains and plateaus of central Morocco), a rural population perceived as backward, uncultivated and consequently historically denigrated even in Morocco. At this point, the voice of country life becomes clearly entangled with a construction of masculinity and what it means to be a “real man.”
Ultimately, I chose Umbria – specifically the Alta Valle del Tevere – because I wanted to complicate the perceived bucolic and bucolic green character of the region. Umbria, rarely discussed as a major point of migration, supplies about 30% of Italy’s tobacco, a national product for a multimillion-euro industry in which the country is the largest producer in Europe. However, tobacco could not be produced without the labor of migrants. Tobacco has played a key role in attracting Moroccan men to Umbria as this seasonal crop requires a large labor force (Moroccans make up around 70% of migrant workers). The Umbria I talk about in the book is very different from the touristic image of the green heart of Italy.