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Porretta Soul Festival
The Italian Woodstock of black American music
Born from Graziano Uliani’s love of soul and R&B, the festival, this year in its twenty-ninth edition, has become the most prestigious soul music event outside the US.
And this year in Porretta there is also the “Soul Museum”
by Vincenzo Zagà
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Porretta Terme (Bologna). Porretta Soul Festival 2016

The Porretta Soul Festival, Tribute to Otis Redding, is a soul festival usually held in the last ten days of July in the Rufus Thomas Park at Porretta Terme, near Bologna, and since 1988 it has become the most prestigious European event entirely devoted to soul music and rhythm & blues. Special homage is paid to the music of Memphis, the Memphis Sound, the school of the great Otis Redding, to whom the festival is dedicated and who has a street named in his honor in Porretta. 

The official birth date of the festival was 10 December 1987. It was started up by Graziano Uliani, a dyed-in-the-wool Porettan, with a great love for soul music, who, after participating in the celebrations for the twentieth anniversary of Otis Redding’s death at Macon, in Georgia (USA), decided to organize a festival in his honor in Italy, at Porretta Terme, a spa town in the Appennines near Bologna. The merit of Uliani, the event’s patron and deus ex-machina, is that he managed to transform an irrepressible love for this music into a successful event, which has become the most credible and authentic outpost of soul music beyond the borders of America. The event’s traditional location is the Porretta park named after Rufus Thomas, its most important honorary citizen.

In these twenty-eight years the greatest names of soul and rhythm & blues have passed through Porretta, many of them coming to Europe for the first time just for the festival, others that Uliani discovered working in obscure localities in the deep South of the States and then introduced to the Italian public and to the international press. Porretta has made such a name for itself in the encyclopedias and official biographies of the great soul performers that it has earned a place in the prestigious Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis, metropolis of Tennessee, acknowledged capital of rhythm & blues as well as of rock, where B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Rufus Thomas, Al Green and many other black music stars came to fame.

In over a quarter of a century, besides the great Rufus Thomas, Porretta has seen Rufus’ direct descendants like his son Marvell, keyboard player and arranger, his daughters Carla and Vaneese, sublime vocalists, and hundreds of artists from North America, from Italy (Zucchero Fornaciari, Renzo Arbore, Andrea Mingardi, Giorgia and others) and from other parts of the world. All of them mad about soul music, an explosive mixture of blues, gospel and religious sermons turned into music, which originated at the end of the Fifties in the South of the United States. The fans pack this event as if it were a Woodstock of black American music, helping to transform the quiet mountain locality of Porretta, best known for its healthy air and its spa waters, into a miniature Memphis.

This year the festival reached its 29th edition. The 29 candles were blown out in the jam-packed evening concerts held from 21 to 24 July 2016. The house band was the Bey Paule Band from San Francisco, which accompanied Stan Mosley, Toni Green, Stacey Merino, Falisa Janaye, Jerry Jones, Theo Huff, James & Black and Vasti Jackson, leading up to the night’s star acts where in a crescendo worthy of Rossini the stage hosted an unforgettable final jam session with John Ellison. Another big name was Bobby Rush, 83-year-old living legend of rhythm & blues, celebrated by Martin Scorsese in his documentary The blues. He chose the stage in the park named after Rufus Thomas for the absolute premier presentation of his new album, Porcupinemeat.

Before the rip-roaring final jam session it was the turn of George McCrae, who in 1974 shot up the hit parades all round the world with Rock your baby, opening the disco era and holding the number one position for two weeks in the Pop and R&B charts.

The event of events was the official opening of the Porretta Soul Museum, a new space with a huge archive of material to document and tell the story of the festival from 1988 to today, how from a mere concert it became an international reference point.

For next year, and the 30th anniversary celebrations, there are big surprises in the pipeline.

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