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My Old Man,The Rock Star
at the Feast of the Assumption

Just as the high point of winter is Christmas, the high point of my summer (well, in addition to the trek to Maine) tends to be The Feast. That's short for the Feast of the Assumption, staged annually for about a century now in Cleveland's Little Italy neighborhood each year on the five days leading up to August 15th.

I love it for the red-brick-tiled road ambiance, for the food (of course), and for the abundant people-watching. With the thousands of people crowding into the streets, it's one of the rare times you can feel New York's density in Cleveland.

Mostly, though, I love it for the music. But then, I'm biased.

Each year, my dad, now 79, plays mandolin in the featured Italian music group, which spreads out at the intersection of Mayfield Road and Murray Hill. Hundreds of fans of authentic ethnic music crowd around these old players in wonder, some even in awe, which never fails to leave me in awe no matter how long I observe it.

Older couples will dance, while some women stand alone, swaying to the music, their far-off look suggesting they're recalling their youth. But the more amazing spectacle is how young people respond. Stubble-bearded hipsters in their early 20s, who look like they just hopped off their skateboards will stop and listen intently, sometimes for a half hour.

Groups of square-jawed guys with weightlifter's shoulders will grin in delight, some making a point to seek out the band members on their breaks, eagerly shaking their hands and thanking them for the music. I couldn't invent these scenes if I tried, so instead I just stand and watch with interest for hours.

John Ettorre's father playing in Italian Choral group at Feast of the Assumption

Rock on!

The drill tends to vary little from year to year. While they're setting up, the band members bicker and kvetch like the older folks they are. The female lead singer will bustle around, taping the dozens of wires to the ground so no one trips, while one of the guys complains that the other isn't pulling his weight on the set-up.

They grumble that none of the shops in the neighborhood would agree to let them stash the equipment overnight, forcing them to lug it to and from the gig each evening. But once they begin playing, harmony reigns.

Each year there's a handful of pleasing plot twists. Last night, as they all began doing sound checks, my dad tuning his instrument, a woman bearing at least a faint resemblance to a middle-aged Raquel Welch approached him, politely asking if she might perch on his lap for a moment while her companion snapped her photo. Naturally, he obliged. Photo duly snapped, she reached over to give him a peck on the cheek. Even from 30 feet away I could see his bushy eyebrows momentarily registering his delight.

The accordion player, Mike, likes to stand and survey the crowd, a big grin generally pasted on his face. My dad, on the other hand, tends to keep his eyes down, focused on the strings. He's a purist, I suppose, and doesn't like to acknowledge the audience during the set.

But after they're through and they take a moment's pause before the next number, as applause begins to swell, he'll sometimes look around at his fellow players, shake his head and say out loud, "wow!" That's about as effusive as he gets.

Perhaps you're familiar with this traditional Italian music, full of peppy clarinet toots and the rolling organ-like sound of the accordion, if for no other reason than you've heard it a couple dozen times playing in the background of this or that wedding scene in one of the Godfather movies.

If you know nothing else, you're probably at least familiar with the Tarantela, a famously upbeat swing-band kind of sound that always gets a crowd jumping, dancing and clapping in rhythm, as it did again last night. It's become a staple at weddings, even some of the non-Italian variety.

This chorale group formed about 25 years ago--during the first Reagan Administration I like to tease them--when my dad and one other player, a guitar guy, got started. They've added some folks through the years, and a few have passed away. They now sometimes play as much as three times a week, earning real money for folks whose average age is perhaps 75.

My old man will sometimes brag to me about the loot he's raking in, years after he retired as an architect. I think he's mostly just amazed to find the group in demand, let alone being paid to do something they love, something which so strongly evokes for him his emotional ties to his own father, long since passed, who used to bring him along as a boy to various events where impromptu musical fests would break out.

Appreciation for music is learned early, and I'm disappointed to say it never took root in me. But my dad, growing up in a culture where music was as much a part of life as food, picked it up by osmosis. To this day, he can't read a word of music, not a note. And yet he can sit down at a piano or pick up any string instrument, and play wonderfully. It gives him joy like almost nothing else.

In some respects, it's an an awful long way from that ancient Abruzzi hill town overlooking the Adriatic, where he grew up and which he left a little over a half century ago, to Cleveland's Little Italy. But of course in other ways it's the shortest possible journey.

If you're interested, tonight's the last night to hear the band in this year's feast. They begin playing around 7 p.m., and pretty women are hereby encouraged to take all the photos they like.

By John Ettorre
August 14, 2006

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