Speak Softly, Love
It was the afternoon of an autumn day. I had just recovered from a bad cold. Looking out from window by the bed, the rays of sunshine were dancing up and down the leaves of a holly tree, as if they were waving to me. Feeling invited, I proposed to go Santana Row to have a walk.
Santana Row was remodeled after a European street. Different restaurants and bars scatter the narrow avenue, emitting an alluringly mixed smell. I heard the indistinct sound of a Mandolin nearby. Tracing the sound to the park, I saw that an old man, short, with Sicilian contours in his face, was playing. Picking a wooden bench, I seated myself and began listening attentively. He was playing a Sicilian-style love song, “Speak Softly, Love”. The song is the theme song of “The “Godfather” and had gained the world-wide fame through the movie.
I have listened to this song played on different instruments, but none of them could compete with the Mandolin. Mandolin originated from southern Italy and has been a popular street instrument in Sicily. It produces short notes of a high, shrill tone that is usually considered a weakness of antique string instruments. However, it is this “weakness” that creates an effect of softly speaking and choked sobbing, a perfect expression of lingering and entangling between lovers, a human voice. The plucking style of Mandolin, along with the melody, reminds me of the Arabic influence on Sicily.
Historically, Sicily was occupied by different nationalities. Among them, mainland Italy and Arabic culture have had the greatest influences. The Arabic scent mixed with Italian flavor shaped a unique form of Sicilian music. In my understanding, this song not only expresses the love between men and women, but also a love towards the island, the Sicily that experienced deep suffering for years through occupation.
The Gita performs its task well. In the movie, it was used to play “Speak Softly, Love”. But I have strong personal reservations against the piano. On one occasion, I listened to this song played by a pianist in a Las Vegas style show and it turned out a disaster to me. There was no warmth to the strike of the keys. I have always stubbornly believed that love is a private affection, an intimate expression, a talk inside two hearts and a murmuring in a quiet night - not a loudly public expression. The piano, epical and full of splendor,could not deliver the concept of the song. Trumpet gives a different experience too. It makes me feel that I am looking down from the sky onto the land and it intrigues a deep pondering toward the rich history of Sicily.
I had heard “Speak Softly, Love” on a Christmas Eve twenty years ago and that was the occasion that moved me most. It was a Palestinian singer who played the song in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Palermo, Sicily. There were only two people who paused to listen: me and Sahra. Sahra was a student of Palermo Medical School from Palestine. Both of us did not have local relatives or even close friends in Sicily on that icy night. Since it was a Christmas Eve, everyone else was in church, making the lobby unusually quiet and cold, even colder than outside. Sahra and I sat down on opposite in two sofas, both listening. The front desk attendant, standing behind a counter about 50 yards away, watched us with curiosity from time to time.
The singer was a friend of Sahra’s brother who had traveled from Palestine. He was a young man with dark skin and an athletic figure who claimed himself a guerilla singer. He played and sang several Middle-eastern songs at first. One of them regarding night time in Jerusalem was very special. Afterward, he played “Speak Softly, Love”, singing in Italian. It was wonderful! It reminded me of a scene in “The Godfather”, where Tony, the only son of Godfather, says timidly, “Father, I bring you something, something really from our native town Corleone.” Then young Tony played this song.
I had been gone from China for more than half a year and due to the slow post service, I only got a couple of letters from my family. I missed my parents, my wife and my daughter so much. Anyone who mentioned anything about his native town could easily make me lose control of my emotions, not mention on that day, in a cold, remote town during a lonely holiday, under such a sad strain of music.
“Speak Softly, Love” has been translated into many languages. The most vivid ones are still Italian or native Sicilian versions. The English version is a bit strong and loud. I prefer the instrumental melody without any singing. Listening to it, I feel my mind surging to grow and to explore.Sometimes, I ignore the words of the song and try to form my own. At this moment, language has no meaning for me at all and the melody is only an environment for my mind to travel.
I was lost deep in thought until my day dream was broken by a light nudging. It was my wife, sitting by me, hurrying me home.
I stood up to leave. A sunset with only one last ray left was casting on a young couple sitting intimately on a bench not far away from us.