Michael Occhipinti supposes he could be Jewish, in some distant way. People tell him he looks like it. Others say he looks Arab, Egyptian or Italian, and he smiles every time: “All of the above,” he jokes. All he knows for sure is his family hails from Sicily, Italy, a Mediterranean melting pot of cultures, religions and dialects. His surname is very similar to the Italian phrase occhi dipinti, meaning “painted eyes,” leading one man he met to curiously hypothesize that his ancestors were Egyptian rabbis.
Occhipinti finds all this fascinating. “The reality is the food, the culture, the music reflects the influence of everything in Sicily,” he says. “In the context of 800 AD, it was a pretty enlightened place.”
Occhipinti’s eyes are, of course, not painted – in fact, they’re rather sleepy, half-squinted as he dreamily chats about his lineage. To Occhipinti, the bygone Sicily of his ancestors is an almost magical place, a bustling home to Christians, Jews and Muslims. His fascination led him, nearly a decade ago, to found the Sicilian Project, a rotating band of musicians who perform his compositions inspired by ancient Sicilian folk songs.
On June 1, he will bring a Jewish-themed iteration of his touring show to the Rex in downtown Toronto as part of the city’s annual Jewish Music Week festival.
Occhipinti hadn’t specifically focused on the Jewish elements of his music before – Sicilian music is such a deep medley that it’s hard to pinpoint traces of any particular culture – and since Sicily’s Jewish population was expelled after the Spanish Inquisition reached the region in 1493, concrete traces of Jewish culture simply don’t exist there anymore.
“It’s a population that’s gone,” he says. “There are no hard facts. Even trying to find written text is difficult.”
But Occhipinti was down for the challenge of creating a unique version of his show. The idea came from Aliza Spiro, the artistic director of Jewish Music Week, who was looking for an international component for the festival.
Spiro had heard Occhipinti’s name recommended to her twice, months apart, by two separate artists. Then, one night in late March, she decided to look him up and was immediately taken with the vibrance and texture of his music. She contacted him that night, past midnight. To her surprise, he responded immediately. They signed a contract within 24 hours.
“I shy away from the word ‘intellectual,’ because a lot of people hate that, but he approaches his music from another level,” she says. “It’s a different dynamic.”
Occhipinti has indeed taken an almost academic approach to the Sicilian Project, researching the region’s history and contacting experts in the field. For this show, to craft some Jewish links, he’s looking for songs that workers in the garment trade might have sung centuries ago in Messina – an industry and city that many Jews would have known – and tries to recreate an atmosphere similar to what those workers might have felt. He explains that his job as a composer “is not to be a preservationist. I take source material and run with it.”
Besides, he says, it’s unlikely there were ever uniquely Sicilian Jewish songs, as the Jewish and Middle Eastern contributions intermixed with the rest. Occhipinti recalls a pastry his mother used to make called cassata, filled with ricotta cheese and topped with a six-pointed star. The cake’s origins hearken back to the once-Jewish city of Palermo during Muslim rule. So it isn’t Jewish, Muslim or Sicilian – it’s all of the above.
“For me, music is kind of like food,” he says. “Things are brought to a place, and then they become a part of that place, and people forget that they ever weren’t a part of that place.”
The Sicilian Jewish Jazz Project will perform as part of Jewish Music Week at the Rex at 2 p.m. on June 1.