When Mark Zitti and his Italian swing band, The Fratelli Coltelli, play Bella Ciao in one of their numerous UAE residencies, the reaction is always the same.
The packed crowd leave their tables and head to the make-shift dance floor, their clapping getting louder as the folk song’s locomotive structure gains steam.
While the sight of a happy audience is always welcome, Zitti also casts a quick glance to the older Italians in the crowd. Their response is also consistent: they remain seated and often stare at the jubilant crowd with a slightly bewildered look.
Sometimes, at the end of the gig nothing happens. Other times, however, a few approach Zitti with some candid feedback.
“They will ask why I played that song?” he recalls. “For many Italians, particularly those who are older, this song is not about celebration. It is about war and it brings back many painful memories.”
From World War II to Netflix
This is a fine line Zitti has been treading over the last three years, ever since Bella Ciao was resurrected through the success of the Netflix drama Money Heist.
The song is a key motif of the series. It is often used to underscore the key motivation of resistance for the show's central character - the criminal mastermind The Professor - or to soundtrack celebratory scenes involving a crime score well executed.
With the show’s international success, the song has taken on a new life. Not only has it become a top 10 hit across Europe, but it been covered numerous times from a blazing punk rendition by Hungarian band Aurora to EDM club banger courtesy of Dutch DJ Hardwell.
But underneath the initial celebratory vibe of Bella Ciao, lies a complicated history which includes its own dose of injustice and blood.
The song traces its roots back to the first half of the 20th century to the Northern Italian region of Po Valley. It was in its fertile rice fields that seasonal female workers would sing it as way to cope with work that was both back-breaking and poorly paid.
Among the refrain of "oh bella ciao", which appears almost every second line, the lyrics read almost like a journal entry of normal day’s work out in the fields.
The song begins with “in the morning I got up/ to the paddy rice fields, I have to go,” before moving on to describe the "insects and mosquitoes" and the malevolent presence of the supervisor, who is rendered as the “the boss [is] standing with his cane.”
The song’s lyrical power comes through its unfolding resolve. Each line increases in intensity and illustrates that the unknown composer of the song is no victim. She is in fact resilient and patiently awaiting the time when the tides will turn. This is brought home in its signature last line: “but the day will come when us all will work in freedom.”
It was that quietly devastating final declaration, that saw the song adopted and modified (the field was replaced by an invading soldier, while the last line changed to dying in the cause of freedom) as a rallying cry by Italian partisans between 1943 and 1945. It was a time in which they fought against occupying Nazi forces in World War II and the subsequent civil war against the Italian fascist government of Benito Mussolini.
A song with real feeling
It is the echoes of that harrowing period, in which over 80,000 civilians were killed, that makes Bella Ciao an unwelcome reminder for many Italians.
It was something Zitti realised 33 years ago when, at the age of six, he witnessed his grandfather’s strong reaction when one of the many cover versions of the song came on the radio in the family home in Rome.
“He was not very happy at all,” he says. “You have to understand that the civil war is something that is very close to us in Italy. Nearly every Italian family has been affected by it. There are many grandfathers and their brothers who were involved in both sides of the conflict. It is for this reason you can’t really play that song in Italy. It is not banned, but it would be considered impolite.”
Despite its troubled past, Zitti hails Bella Ciao as a classic of the Italian folk music tradition and will always remain a key song in his band's UAE sets.
More than its associated horrors, he says the song will always stand strong because it has a conviction missing from modern Italian pop songs.
"Bella Ciao came from a time when Italians sang with feeling," he says. "They sang about love, freedom and even war from the heart. You don't hear songs like these anymore from Italy."