Finally, there is a new flick about the mouth harp out. Sicilian movie maker Diego Pascal Panarello was working more than 7 years on “The Strange Sound of Happiness”. The fantasy documentary celebrated its world premiere at the DOK Festival 2017 in Leipzig, Germany. DAN MOI met Diego in the foyer of the cinema in Leipzig only minutes away from the start of the premiere. He is not only revealing his jaw harp collection on the bar table in front of us, but is also revealing some exciting legends such as the connection of the jaw harp to the mafia, the story of losing his favourite jaw harp and naturally his first personal encounter with those items that take away all sorrows.
Diego Pascal Panarello (DPP): My home is in Sicily between Syracuse and Catania, the exact name is Augusta. It’s a navy place and a fisherman place. I got the first jaw harp by chance. I don’t know why, but one day I woke up and wanted to play it. So I went to a souvenir shop and bought one. When I started to play this instrument, I didn’t stop for one week. There came a lot of blood from my lips, because I wasn’t able to play. I wasn’t feeling bad, though. Actually I was feeling very good when playing it. This was some 12 or 15 years ago and afterwards I forgot about the instrument. I only played it every now and then. When I started to play a little bit better I felt pleasure. And I was thinking this little instrument is covering something more mysterious. I was fascinated by the instrument, and I was fascinated by the name it has in Italy. Scaccia Pensieri means something like “worries go away”. And I was thinking maybe there is a reason why, so I got curious about it.
DAN MOI: What would you consider yourself?
DPP: I’m a film director, and a failed musician. I wanted to be a musician, but I never have been able to play any instrument. I’m kind of a wrong choice for music – no rhythm, no tuning, no anything … I became a filmmaker. And now I’m even a tiny little bit of a musician.
DAN MOI: What is the story you are telling in the film?
DPP: It’s the story of a guy who has been going around for 20 years looking for something. At some point he is tired of his failure and his less than perfect life, so he returns to his parents’ house. And by chance he stumbles upon this instrument and starts to follow the sound of this instrument. And in a way he discovers something that he didn’t know before. The film is a mix of reality and fantasy. It’s a documentary with a touch of fantasy. It’s totally a visionary pop trip and it doesn’t pretend to have a historical approach, it’s completely narrative.
This guy who comes back after 20 years discovers a new world through this instrument. And this new world is represented by Yakutia, because it is a completely different from my place in Sicily. To me it was looking like a place that only existed in my mind. In the film I don’t reach that place for real, not by train or plane, but I get to this place with my mind. I was always fascinated of that completely different place. So I developed the film between Sicily and Yakutia, because they are kind of opposite and far away from each other. There are a few more spots than that in the film, like France, Hungary and Austria, but actually when watching nobody knows where we really are.
DAN MOI: How strong is the jaw harp tradition in Sicily?
DPP: It has become a souvenir for tourists that visit Sicily. Sicily is well known through the cinema. People from all over the world get there, because Sicily is known through the Godfather or Salvatore Giuliano, so they buy this instrument. Since about ten years ago a new movement has started in Sicily through the very important Marranzano World Festival in Catania. This festival shows the jaw harp in a new light, and takes it out of this mere tourist context and out of the mafia tradition.
The jaw harp in Sicily was originally connected with the sheep, and with the sheperds. In their loneliness they used to play on the top of the mountain, where they were playing together with the animals. At one point, the mafia came to take control over the territory. To be able to do that, the sheperds were considered an important player. They were the ones moving around with the sheep, so they were a crucial part to take control of. The sheperds became kind of soldiers for the mafia bosses. This is how the connection between the jaw harp and the mafia started. In many films about Salvatore Giuliano there are some sheperds playing this instrument to send signals like “Salvatore, police is coming”. But I think, this was a kind of fantasy of the film director Francesco Rosi.
There are a lot of legends about them sending signals from the top of one mountain to another, but actually this is very difficult due to the low volume of the instrument. That’s the nice thing about this instrument: since there is no history, there is a lot of space for legends. Maybe with my film I have done something, which is close to that point of view. It’s nice, because it’s like a blank canvas, you can put there whatever you want. Everybody is able to create a legend about this instrument.
DAN MOI: Who do you think will watch the movie?
DPP: I hope that this film is watched by the people, who don’t know this instrument. I’d be happy, too, if people who play the jaw harp also see it, but they already know everything without my story. It’s not a classical documentary that tells the history of the instrument. So basically, this film is for everybody. As you know, the instrument is represented as a magic key …
DAN MOI: Was it difficult to film the jaw harp?
DPP: I was telling the camera guys, please shoot always from the right side, never from the left, because the left is covered by the hand. But on the other hand, if you don’t see so much, the instrument becomes even more mysterious. So there is a part in the film, were it’s dark and we played with this feature: if you cover the jaw harp, it could be more interesting, so people wonder, „is it a piece of iron, how is he playing, what does he play?“
DAN MOI: What is your favorite scene in the film?
DPP: You know, there is a moment that actually doesn’t exist in the film. I met a master blacksmith in Yakutia. He gave an instrument to me and since he gave it to me my playing got so much better. I made a big step forward and I thought it was because of the instrument and the blacksmith, who made this instrument. One day I broke the instrument. It happened in Europe, and that was a shocking moment for me. I said: “Ok, I have to go back to Yakutia to repair it.” But when I went back to Yakutia, the master was sick and wasn’t able to repair this instrument. At that very moment I started to cry, because for me it had the same meaning like when we lose a person or something we highly value. It was very symbolic to me. In the film there is a reconstruction of this story, but I actually experienced the true story.
DAN MOI: Do you have a Marranzano with you?
DPP: Yes, I have one very old Marranzano. It was made by a blacksmith that has already died. By chance, I met a girl and we were talking. She told me that her grandfather was a blacksmith from Leonforte, and I said, “Yes, there was one guy from Leonforte who was making jaw harps, but he died.” And she said, “Yes, my grandfather was making those instruments”. So she had five of them and gave one to me.
DAN MOI: Would you play a song on your jaw harp?
DPP: Yes, of cause. This is not the typical sound of Sicily. The Sicilian sound is usually harder. I don’t know why, but this instrument sounds very soft. It’s not common for the Sicilian sound. Its long life is neither usual. Usually the shape of the instrument is bigger. I don’t play a Sicilian song, I play an improvisation. It’s a kind of Tarantella.