ROVING EYE/ SERIES BY ELIZABETH BULL
After years of playing in back rows in Queensland, David Carroll moved to Melbourne and, through the brotherhood of tuba players, broadened his musical and cultural experience through a banda musicale Italiana.
“You come back next week or we kill you!” These words, spoken in jest, made it clear to me that I was becoming a member of an unusual extended family. No, not a clandestine crime syndicate or an outlaw bikie gang but, rather, an Italian concert band named ‘Vincenzo Bellini’ in suburban Melbourne.
I had been playing tuba in bands since I was at primary school in regional Queensland. Having spent nearly two decades performing as both a professional and enthusiastic amateur I thought that I had ‘been there, done that’ as far as music was concerned.
The Bellini band proved I could not have been more wrong.
Within five minutes of sitting down in my customary seat in the back row I was offered a drink from an espresso cup. Assuming that this was a rite of passage into the band I quickly drank it. Instead of the espresso coffee that I was expecting, the cup contained grappa, an Italian concoction that tasted like a blend of plum juice and lighter-fluid.
It very quickly became clear that rehearsals were conducted in Italian. At one point the conductor threw his arms in the air and exclaimed “Mamma mia!” A fellow member of the brotherhood of tuba players, Renato, offered his services as an Italian–English translator. “That means that he’s unhappy with how we were playing,” he explained. I didn’t have the heart to tell Renato that the conductor’s passionate expression and hand gestures had already made his message pretty clear.
At this point the rehearsal gave way to one of the few things more important than music – espresso coffee and homemade Italian biscuits. It all seemed a million miles away from the rock-hard scones and cups of instant coffee served during band rehearsals back in Toowoomba.
During the break I started talking with some of the bandmembers – making a conscious effort to avoid slipping into my Marlon Brando impersonation – and discovered that, beneath their gruff exteriors, they were a wonderful, magnanimous group of people who seemed to take pleasure in leading me into their world. I left my first rehearsal with a stomach full of cake, a navy blue uniform that made me look like a tram conductor, a dozen words of Italian and plenty of you’ll-never-believe-what-happened stories.
For many weeks my newfound friends showed concern about me rehearsing on Fridays and in a Catholic church. They had assumed I was Jewish because my name is David. They couldn’t believe I was just David from Queensland. I had to be “something”, and at least have some exotic religious background. When I corrected their error, I was fondly given the nickname ‘Skip’. Despite the significant differences in age, appearance and cultural background I’ve never felt so welcome.
One night, my wife (Lizzy) and I accepted a dinner invitation from one of the bandmembers, Emi, a kind-hearted saxophone player who emigrated from Malta as a young man. As we sat in his living room, drinking his homemade wine, he leaned over to me and said: “David, you are here tonight for two reasons. The first reason: I like you. The second reason is because I, too, know what it is like to move far away from your home. It is an honour and a pleasure to return to you some of the hospitality that I received when I first arrived in Australia all those years ago.”
It was only then that I understood what really kept this group of people coming together to play music and drink every Friday night. When they are together, home probably doesn’t feel so far away.
These photos were taken by Elizabeth Bull, from Lizzy C Photography (lizzyc.com.au), one Sunday afternoon at a Catholic Feast Day in Melbourne. David Carroll is still playing in the Bellini band and has also added a Maltese and an additional Italian band to his gigging schedule.