In conversation with the visual artist Matteo Anselmo, on the Italian music scene

Jun 22, 2020
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There is a special perspective in seeing the energy of a country’s music industry through the eyes of a visual artist involved in as many genres as Matteo Anselmo of Genoa. 

Anselmo is a teacher at the Genoa International School of Comics – Academy of Visual Arts and new media, and co-founder of the Rebigo Illustration Studio. He has developed a unique style of digital painting and visuals. His aesthetic is iconic and contemporary, usually duo-color, sometimes in a full chromatic explosion, always filtering and representing the electricity and personality of the music represented. In between workshops, presentations, exhibitions, and performances, Anselmo has found the time to give something back in the community collaborating with the homeless aid service of San Marcellino Association.

The interview explores Matteo’s passion for music, his upbringing, Italian cinema, and his love for dub and reggae.

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How is Genoa as an artistic inspiration?

Genoa is a port city, full of contradictions. Our characteristic is being closed, but there is also a great cultural melting pot. On one side, we have the mountains that protect us, and, on the other, there is the sea, with its boundless horizon. It is not always easy to make art in this city, but together with our Illustration Studio, Rebigo (which in Genoese dialect means both a stroke of the pen and a tiny place), we try to go against the current.

| You have done a lot of visual work for Italian music artists and events. Can you share your perspective on the Italian music scene?

Yes, it will be my pleasure! I constantly draw and don't consider I have the necessary skills to give you a broad perspective on the Italian music scene. But if I really have to try, I can tell you that what I see is that the media emphasize the mainstream artists (and the San Remo Festival), talented people are losing support and exposure. 

Rappers are the spokesmen of the new generations, indie music is dead and has reborn several times. The reggae scene is in a slightly narrower niche than a few years ago. I grew up preferring live music and social centers to discos. I had my first contracts there (the first commission ever had was the artwork for a CD of a group of young Ecuadorian rappers). Having a great passion for reggae and black music in general, I looked for collaborations there. Reggae and its variations over the years have taken root in every region of Italy; from the Sud Sound System to Africa Unite, from the rap / raggamuffin of the 99 Posse and Almamegretta up to that in the Genoese dialect of Sensasciou (breathless). As a teenager, I followed the Eazy Skankers, a band of my peers from Savona, their lives were incredible. Although they no longer exist, I continue to follow the deeds of their frontman, Raphael, and their bassist, Andrea Bottaro aka The Atheist, now dubmaster and producer.

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Frida Kahlo by Matteo Anselmo

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| What are your latest collaborations with music artists?

One of my latest is a band called Klasse Kriminale, a group that has made history and plays a genre ranging from punk rock to oi! and ska/reggae. They are an institution, and it was a great honor to be able to take care of the graphics of their latest album released for the German label Randale Records. I collaborated with several bands, but I also happened to make posters for music and local festivals. Years ago, I even did live painting shows during the solo concerts of Zibba, a great Italian songwriter. It was he who put me in contact with the Raindogs, a fantastic place where genuine music is played and where the owner still entrusts event posters in the hands of illustrators, which sadly, is very rare in Italy.


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You have also worked recently for Paolo Baldini DubFiles, an artwork for La Tempesta Dub label. How did it come about, and what was the process working on the art with them?

I love Paolo's music and productions, I wrote to him by sending him my portfolio, and he replied. The power of the web! I created for him a couple of graphics that remained on standby for a couple of years, then we started talking again, and he asked me to take care of the graphics for an album. He had been working for a while on Dolomites Rockers, a record of dub music, contaminated by more electronic parts made together with his friend Dan I, singer and soundman of the Imperial Sound Army, one of the top sound systems on the European scene. These two artists have a close link with the mountain, so Paolo's idea was already clear from the start. On the image cover should be a mountain: the Dolomites (Mount Pelmo), had to appear. Paolo has a great aesthetic sense and is a perfectionist, so it took several sketches and several hours on the phone to get to the final result, but we managed to do it!

Paolo Baldini DubFiles - Dolomites Rockers
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| I also love the DubSon Spark of Life/ Rebirth Steps artwork. What’s the story of this?

Ah, you must know that I teach illustration at the International Comics School of Genoa, a module that I follow is dedicated to poster art and more generally to the relationship between music and images. One of the exercises proposed to my students consists of creating an imaginary band, defining the musical genre, and the graphic/aesthetic part. DubSon is actually not a real project, it is what I invented as an example, a dubmaster child in a post-apocalyptic world (a little crazy, I know!)


| One of the bands I love the artwork from is Tre Allegri Ragazzi Morti, who has made a dub album, Primitivi del dub, even though they play indie-folk. How do you translate their relevance in the Italian music industry? 

 I began to get passionate about the music of the Tre Allegri Ragazzi Morti after having devoured Primitivi del futuro, their first album heavily influenced by reggae and produced by Paolo Baldini. I discovered the previous albums and the influence of this band on the Italian independent music scene. Since 2000, La Tempesta record label (created by Davide Toffolo, the singer of the Tre Allegri, who is also an incredible cartoonist and designer, he takes care of the graphic part of the band) produces practically 90% of the Italian music I listen to. In 2016, I was lucky enough to take care of the graphics for their tour I magnifici 6, a series of winter dates during which the three were accompanied by as many incredible musicians, Andrea Maglia, Monique Mizrahi, and one of my favorite guitarists, Adriano Viterbini.

| What was the incentive behind the dubmaster all-stars series?

Yes, that work was commissioned again by a private client. I find the approach of dubmasters to music extremely creative; it is a method that I often also use in drawing, letting myself influenced, cut, sewn. 

The collaboration with Paolo Baldini was very formative. For example, I discovered that Alborosie, in addition to being a reggae superstar, is also an incredible dubmaster and has produced some crazy dub albums. In addition to Paolo, I know Gaudi and being a fan of Africa Unite, I love Madaski's dub versions!

Dubmasters All-Stars by Matteo Anselmo
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| How is radio music in Italy? Do you often listen to the radio?

I listen to the radio only when I am driving. Living in Italy, I certainly loved the blues programs conducted by Fabio Treves, a great harmonicist and popularizer of this genre. Rai Radio 2 transmits beautiful programs, I assiduously followed Babylon, a program full of quality music and splendid live performances conducted by Carlo Pastore. I also listen to Virgin Radio for some healthy rock and some of the jazz frequencies. While I draw I like to watch live performances of KEXP radio on YouTube.


| Do you have a preferred Italian music festival(s)?

Here in Genoa, we have the Goa Boa, a festival with a strong tradition that in recent years, despite becoming more commercial, has hosted reggae artists of the caliber of Jimmy Cliff, Kymani Marley, Alborosie and many others. When it took place in Italy, Rototom was number one. Still speaking of my city, various collectives had created the Cresta festival, a splendid stage that gave voice to many artists of the local scene, not only in the music field. Unfortunately, for political reasons, events like these have no housing and investment, politicians are preferring to invest money in mainstream events, that can better capture the attention of the tourists arriving from everywhere in the world on cruise ships.


| What kind of live music did you enjoy the most, before the quarantine and pandemics we are all living? 

I really miss live music, here in Genoa I miss clubs like Raindogs of Savona and Cane di Cornigliano, who although small, they are committed to bringing quality music. Live I happen to really listen to everything: one of my first concerts was Deep Purple, with my parents at the age of 6/7 (I start early!). 

Then I saw so many reggae concerts (The Wailers, Africa Unite, Luciano, Kymani Marley, Alborosie, Toots, and the Maytals). I was struck by Manu Chao in Genoa in 2008, by Lauryn Hill in Paris, and many festivals like Rototom, Pistoia Blues, Arezzo Wave. I saw Ben Harper a few years ago, and for several years, together with a friend, we toured Italy in search of the best blues concerts. Now we are waiting for the musical season to start again.

 

| I see you have a connection with blues, illustrating Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Son House, and Leadbelly. Is this music something you have grown within the family?

 In my family, we mainly listened to punk rock (Ramones, Clash, crazy punk bands like Skiantos) and rock (Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath).

Moreover, my mother was born in Venezuela and adored the Intillimani!

I discovered blues music as a boy after listening to some songs by the Doors. Those were pretty tough years, and blues is one of those genres from when you're in trouble. It can go under your skin for comfort. And from that moment on, I felt like deepening my relationship with the blues, I discovered the connections it had with the music from Africa. And then with all the genres that derived from it. The portraits I have done are tributes to the pioneers of the genre and to their stories.

 

Robert Johnson by Matteo Anselmo
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| On a more social level, what is your perspective on equality between men & women in art and music? You have painted Judy Mowatt and also have illustrated Frida. What other strong women in music and art do you appreciate and follow?

Music and art have the power to break down any barrier, no matter the skin color or gender. I have always perceived male and female figures as equals. In the series of reggae portraits, I inserted Judy Mowatt, because I loved her version of Black Woman she sang at the One Love Peace Concert. 

But the list of my favorite female singers would be infinite: Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Cesaria Evora, Amy Winehouse, Carmen Consoli, Elisa. Even in the world of illustration, women manage to touch my soul deeply, Rebecca Dautremer, Olimpia Zampagnoli, the watercolors of Marina Marcolin, and the splendid images of Chiara Fedele. Of course, I also love the work of my colleagues in the Rebigo Studio, Silvia Venturi, and Arianna Zuppello, go look for their productions!

In your portfolio, I found some classical Italian film stars such as Bud Spencer. What type of movies raises your interest? 

I very much liked the Fantozzi films. I grew up with Paolo Villaggio, with his humor mixed with this Italian melancholy is a typical feature of us Genoese (yes, he was from Genoa!). To stay on the subject of music, I discovered the Beatles when I was very young, and the psychedelia of the cartoon film "Yellow Submarine" remained etched in my mind. 

I also like science fiction films very much, but my favorite films are those that explore the relationship between man and nature-based on classic themes. Here are three contemporary movie titles that I loved: Apocalypto, Into the Wild, and Revenant. 

 

| What are your next steps for you?

I have a couple of projects in the music field that is still top secret. Together with the guys from Studio Rebigo, we are about to come out with a new self-production that will deal with the environmental theme through fairy tales. I recommend you follow our page for more details. 

Together with Ste Tirasso (a friend and great cartoonist), we are thinking of publishing a travel notebook made with four hands during a trip to the USA made last year.

 

| Do you travel or take part in festivals and exhibitions?

Yes. Fruit from Bologna is a festival, and with my illustration studio, we participated there a few times. We are always taking part in several festivals a year, for example, the Andersen of Sestri Levante, the Ratatà of Macerata, the Cotonfioc of Genoa, and many others. Then for those who draw and are interested in publishing, the Lucca Comics and Games festival is an essential appointment. 

One of the most beautiful experiences I had in Alessandria, a small town in Piedmont at Inchiostro Festival, 3 days of exhibitions, workshops, and live painting battles with incredible artists. It was a difficult experience to replicate online where most festivals have moved these days.

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