What does Bella Ciao mean ?

The Song From The Italian Rice Fields Has Invaded Public Conscience And Our Streets

Last week, on May 20, residents in several districts in the Turkish city of Izmir were stunned by an unexpected “call for prayer” from atop minarets of several mosques ahead of Eid celebrations. The speakers were blaring with the Italian resistance song “Bella Ciao”, now popularised by the Netflix series Money Heist. It was claimed that a few hackers broke into the sound system of these mosques, which were closed due to the pandemic, to broadcast this song. The Italian song expresses solidarity with workers , but in this Turkish city the incident happened at a time when political polarisation ran deep between the conservative and the secular groups.

 

The history behind 'Bella Ciao' is quite interesting. The song originally traces back to the struggles of women riceweeders called ‘Mondine’, in the northern Italian region, in the first half of the 20th century. The earliest version of the song was sung in 1906, but this fact is contested. The song “summarizes decades of oppression and struggles for work, freedom, justice and equality for all”. One of its lines goes “in risaia mi tocca andar. E tra gli insetti e le zanzare.” Which means, “In the morning just awakened , And among the insects and the mosquitoes”

 

A second version of the song, which came later, and now has turned popular, has completely different lyrics. This new avatar was sung during the Second World War while resisting against the Italian Social Republic and the Germans. The song talks of the possibility of dying in the mountains (the Italian Alps). “Una mattina mi son svegliato, e ho trovato l’invasor,” goes one line, which means “One morning I awakened, and I found the invader.”

 

But first, let’s head to Italy’s rice fields where the song was born

 

 

Bella ciao' is the story of the everyday life of a Mondine, the female rice weeders who were annually contracted for 40 days for agricultural work in Northern Italy. The song, it is believed was written somewhere in the 1930s. The lyrics draw attention to the emotionally significant moments of this form of labour, which is gender centric. At dawn, the Mondina  , the bella of “Bella Ciao” accepts her family’s painful goodbye as she leaves for the rice fields where she will be employed for more than a month. During the day she is at work in the paddy fields with other Mondine like her, bent over in front, while the overseer (male supervisor/ owner) with his stick/cane --almost a phallic symbol of power and even violence—standing at their backs.

 

Click here to hear the original song ...

 

Alla mattina, appena alzata

{In the morning just got up}

(Coro) O bella ciao, bella ciao,ciao, ciao

 {(chorus) Oh bye beautiful, bye beautiful, bye, bye, bye)}

alla mattina appena alzatta

(In the morning just got up)

in risaia mi tocca andar.

{ In the morning just awakened }

E tra gli insetti e le zanzare

{And among the insects and the mosquitoes}

(coro) O bella ciao, bella ciao,ciao, ciao

{(chorus) Oh bye beautiful, bye beautiful, bye, bye, bye)}

 

un duro lavoro mi tocca a far.

{ A difficult work I must do }

O mamma mia! o che tormento!

{ Oh mamma mia ! Oh what torment!}

(coro) O bella ciao, bella ciao,ciao, ciao

{(chorus) Oh bye beautiful, bye beautiful, bye, bye, bye)}

E cosi ogni doman!

{ And it goes on like this every day }

 

 

Il capoosquadra col suo bastone

{ The overseer with his stick}

(coro) O bella ciao, bella ciao,ciao, ciao

{(chorus) Oh bye beautiful, bye beautiful, bye, bye, bye)}

e noi curve a lavorar.

{ And us bent over at work.}

Ma verra' un giorno che tutte quante

{ But a day will come when all of us}

lavoreremo in liberta'!

{ will work in liberty!}

(coro e voce principale, insieme) Ma verra' un giorno che tutte quante

lavoreremo in liberta'!

{(chorus and lead , together) But a day will come when all of us will work in liberty!}

 

 

In this song the Mondine’s emotional focus remains on her far away family, whose presence pulses through every chorus in the song. While in the fields, time collapses for these women as the emotional trauma of departure from home transforms into the physical torment of rice weeding –curved spines with hands deep in water and mud. But towards the end of the song as time flies, and the women in a collective sing “We” in chorus, where the Mondine and her family, under a new vision for the future, will work together in liberty.

 

Diana Garvin, assistant professor of Mediterranean studies at university of Oregon in her essay, “Singing Truth to Power: Melodic Resistance and Bodily Revolt in Italy's Rice Fields,” says,  “Bella Ciao” precipitates three themes of women in agricultural labour in the context of Italy’s Fascist period: the mutually constitutive formulations of women's personal and political identities at collective work sites, the harmonic profusion and diversity of women's voices and concerns, and the primacy of the corporeal in shaping social roles and relations in spaces of food production (the field) and consumption (the home).”

 

She further states, “The song also reveals a paradox , borne out by the Mondine's own words in written and oral testimonials. The risaia (rice field) constituted a key site for the formation of female identity. Absence of normal social contexts (a near exclusively female space) pushed working class women to consider their roles at the level of individual and the group. This exceptional environment provides a case study to examine one specific relationship between the female individual and the Fascist state. Through songs, jokes, dances, and pranks, returning Mondine instructed new arrivals in a dense local culture of class relations and politics.”

 

Diana also points to how a common note rings through each testimony: the Mondine labour not only shapes individuals physical bodies , but also organises the social body into indentifiable classes with specific political goals.

 

Diana argues, songs such as Bella Ciao derive their creative power from the intersection of the body ad the mind, this particular subset of popular Italian music demonstrates how the material conditions of the women's labour and the lived experience of the female body affected and reflected women's cultural creations under Fascism.

 

Themes of gendered body at work link rhyme to reason; both the songs and testimonials suggest that decisions regarding menstruation, abortion miscarriage, birth and breastfeeding emerged as key points of contention between individual women and the regime.

 

The historical specificity of these solos thus underwrites the credibility of the chorus, providing a powerful counter-narrative to the Fascist conceit that the Mondine happily produces rice and children in service to the nation. Ultimately, the Mondine's binary framing of these choices reveals the flaw in the Fascist dream: women could work in the fields or they could have children, but they could not do both at the same time.

 

 

Who wrote Bella Ciao ?

 

Vasco Scansani, an Italian  labourer turned song writer claimed that  ‘Bella Ciao’ was written as part of a song competition “concorso sonoro” for the Festa della Mondina a San Germano Vercellese in 1952. Scansani, it was claimed was the first person to transcribe the lyrics for a public forum.  The issue is still being debated in intellectual circles. Another version claims that Giovanna Daffini, an Italian singer, associated with the Nuovo Canzoniere Italiano movement, had added the last section of the lyrics to Bella Ciao. Today the Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL) Milan's digital audio collections possess multiple version of the song. Similarly, various transcriptions can be found in ethnographic histories such as La Fatica delle donne and Senti le rante che cantano, writes Diana Garvin.

 

Bella Ciao against Germans and the Fascist regime

 

For those familiar with Italian history, April 25 every year is remembered as a day of commemoration and sociability. It marks the 1945 call from the anti-Nazi Committee of National Liberation (CLN) for the final uprising against the German occupiers and Mussolini’s puppet regime, and is celebrated as the Liberation Day, with special emphasis on the Italian Resistance of 1943-45.  It was during this time that “Bella ciao” (“Farewell, my lovely”) came in a new avatar. In this version of the song there is an imagined dialogue between a young partisan leaving to fight in the hills and his beloved.

 

The song goes (Click here to hear the song )...

 

 

Una mattina mi son alzato

{One morning I awakened,}

O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao

{(chorus) Oh bye beautiful, bye beautiful, bye, bye, bye)}

Una mattina mi son alzato

{One morning I awakened}

E ho trovato l'invasor

{And I found the invader}

O partigiano, portami via

{Oh partisan carry me away,}

O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao

{(chorus) Oh bye beautiful, bye beautiful, bye, bye, bye)}

 

O partigiano, portami via

{Oh partisan carry me away,}

Ché mi sento di morir

{Because I feel death approaching.}

E se io muoio da partigiano

{And if I die as a partisan,}

oh bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao

{(chorus) Oh bye beautiful, bye beautiful, bye, bye, bye)}

 

E se io muoio da partigiano

{and if I die as a partisan)

Tu mi devi seppellir

{then you must bury me.}

E seppellire lassù in montagna

{Bury me up in the mountain,}

oh bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao

{(chorus) Oh bye beautiful, bye beautiful, bye, bye, bye)}

E seppellire lassù in montagna

{bury me up in the mountain}

Sotto l'ombra di un bel fior

{under the shade of a beautiful flower.}

E le genti che passeranno

{And all those who shall pass,}

oh bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao

{(chorus) Oh bye beautiful, bye beautiful, bye, bye, bye)}

 

E le genti che passeranno

{and all those who shall pass}

Mi diranno «che bel fior.»

{will tell me “what a beautiful flower.”}

Questo è il fiore del partigiano

{This is the flower of the partisan,}

oh bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao, ciao, ciao

{(chorus) Oh bye beautiful, bye beautiful, bye, bye, bye)}

 

Questo è il fiore del partigiano

{this is the flower of the partisan}

Morto per la libertà

{who died for freedom.}

 

 

The song was modified in to the context of World War II wherein between 1943 and 1945 the Italian partisans cried loudly with hope against the invading soldier who supported the Italian fascist government of Benito Mussolini. In the armed resistance against Mussolini and the Germans, many were killed and murdered. Thus, ‘Bella Ciao’, the song which was once a song of freedom, love and hope now became a repository of memories of injustice and bloodshed.

 

But in the earlier version—the rice field one --one can notice how the intensity of the signature line “Bella Ciao” respects the previous line of the song, where women workers are seen expressing their hope that a day will come when all of them will work in freedom.

 

According to Antonio Francesco Gramsci, an Italian Marxist philosopher, the song emphasizes political manipulation.  Gramsci considers 'Bella Ciao' to a category of songs which is neither written by people, nor for the people, but which people adopt because they conform to their way of thinking and feeling.

 

What Do Italians do on April 25 ?

 

It is a legal holiday. In the morning, normally many Italians go to the solemn laying of wreaths at monuments to Mussolini’s victims and to the partisan fighters against the Germans of 1943-45 who died in the struggle. In larger cities, people join the big demonstrations at Milan or Rome. They  cheer for the few surviving partisans who till this day faithfully come every year. The day is marked by reflection and commitment towards partisans’ struggle.

 

 

Demonstrators singing 'Bella Ciao' in Istanbul in Turkey

Bella Ciao sung during protests recently

 

In Turkey, close to 30 protesters, recently, including a union leader was arrested for organising and taking part in a small march by mask-wearing workers in Istanbul in violation of lockdown measures.

 

Hundreds of Greek workers also took part in a rally outside their parliament under the banner of the Communist-affiliated PAME union, with a small band playing “Bella Ciao”. Red stickers on the ground ensured that picketers remained at a safe distance from each other, many wearing red scarves over their faces or masks bearing messages of solidarity with health workers.

 

In the Philippines, police detained at least three people as small groups of protesters banged on empty pots and held up placards demanding government aid and safe working conditions in defiance of a ban on public gatherings.

Indonesia’s labour unions have called off street rallies, but organised an online protest against a pro-business bill aimed at simplifying layoffs. "Covered mouths still have a voice."

 

 

 

References

 

https://www.jstor.org/stable/26570497?read-now=1&seq=1

 

https://www.academia.edu/29296704/Singing_Truth_to_Power_Melodic_Resistance_and_Bodily_Revolt_in_Italys_Rice_Fields?auto=download

 

 

PICTURES

 

https://www.dailygreen.it/la-prima-volta-di-bella-ciao/ (resistance Bella ciao)

 

https://27esimaora.corriere.it/20_maggio_01/1-maggio-italiano-lotte-mondine-86fb8d12-8b98-11ea-b0cd-a1732823ac8b.shtml

 

https://www.theguardian.com/world/guardianwitness-blog/gallery/2013/jun/10/turkey-demonstrations-images-video-gallery

 

 

 

 

 

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