In an era of indifference, intolerance and downright hostility towards external and internal migrants across this supposedly civilised Europe of ours, it is important to remember how much a foreigner can contribute to the cultural life of his or her adopted country.
Yet it seems ironic that while most migrants are marginalised and rejected by societies at large, when a non-native happens to be loved by the wider public for his or her artistic talent (or sports skills) there always erupts a quarrel between the countries of origin and the adoptive ones claiming “ownership” of the artist (or athlete) by imposing this or that nationality onto them.
Two examples come to mind, for different personal reasons: the 19th-century composer, Frédéric Chopin and the 1950s-to-1980s popular music singer, Dalida. The former because he’s an all-time favourite, and the latter because her cultural roots are very close to my own. In the singer’s case, in fact, there are three claimant countries: Italy, France and Egypt.
Many assumed Dalida to be French. Others wanted her to be Egyptian. To this day, there is still some degree of confusion amongst her fans as to her exact origins.
The diva seemed to enjoy playing with this ambiguity: when she sang in French, her Italian accent was enhanced almost artificially and when she spoke in Italian, she sounded French.
Born in Egypt, to Italian parents from Calabria (her father was the lead violinist at the Cairo Opera House), Dalida lived all of her adult life in France, where she became the country’s most beloved chanteuse for a very long time, selling a whopping 170 million albums worldwide.
A naturalised French citizen, the superstar maintained dual nationality: French and Italian; though in one of her interviews on French television she admitted to feeling “complètement française”.
After all, she had never lived in Italy and although born in Cairo, she had grown up in an expat environment and never held Egyptian citizenship.
But Dalida loved her native land; she spoke Arabic and performed several songs in the Afroasiatic language.
Salma Ya Salama (1977), based on a traditional Egyptian folk song, was one of the very first ethnic fusion hits on the popular music scene. Due to its success, it was translated into French, Italian and German.
Three decades after her death, the diva is still revered in Egypt and throughout the Arab world.
Dalida also performed in Japanese, Greek, Spanish, English, Dutch and Hebrew.
Calabrian Jews claim the singer as one of their own; her family name, Gigliotti, being identified as Jewish from Inquisition times. Also her stage name, Dalida, is a Hebrew name meaning “delight”, and when asked why she had chosen to perform the famous Jewish folk song, Hava Nagila, the artist once replied that the melody was in her blood.
With regard to Chopin, the dispute is of course between France and Poland, the Poles being adamant that Fryderyk was Polish through and through.
To be fair, the French have not been too argumentative about it. Probably because the novelist George Sand, Chopin’s companion, once famously described the composer as being “more Polish than Poland”.
But Chopin is no Polish name. Frédéric’s father, Nicolas, was a Frenchman who worked as a language teacher in Poland. And although Polish-born, Frédéric himself settled in Paris aged 21 and never returned to Poland – albeit due to Imperial Russia’s occupation of his homeland rather than by real choice, the painful longing for his lost motherland being very much expressed in his music.
In Chopin’s time, Poland didn’t actually exist as a state. It was a territory divided between three mighty neighbours: Russia, Prussia and Austria. In 1830 an uprising broke out in Warsaw, but it was suppressed brutally by the Russian Empire. In response, anguished and angered by the news, Chopin wrote the famous Revolutionary Étude (or Étude on the Bombardment of Warsaw) in C minor.
As Poland struggled for independence, both in the 19th and 20th centuries, Chopin’s music came to be perceived as a weapon. The great German composer Robert Schumann described it as “cannons buried in flowers”. A hundred years later, the Nazis must have been well aware of the power in Chopin’s music, as they banned it altogether during their occupation of Poland.
Born in a tiny village west of Warsaw, Chopin knew the Polish countryside well. There, he came across peasants playing folk tunes and dancing traditional Polish dances, such as mazurkas and polonaises, which inspired many of his later pieces. Poland undoubtedly ran through his veins.
Nevertheless, Chopin’s music isn’t entirely Slavic. Even some of his most Polish compositions, the Polonaises, have a distinct French and therefore Latin flavour.
Besides, the composer was well known to be a big fan of Italian opera, particularly of Bellini‘s works, and several elements of bel canto are to be found in his piano music: the long-lined melodies, the rubato, the ornate embellishments. I believe it was this magical blend of Slavic and Latin cultures that shaped his unique musical genius.
Chopin died in Paris at the age of 39 and as he lay dying, he made a specific request: for his heart to be returned to his beloved homeland. After being smuggled past Russian border guards, the internal organ was eventually entombed in a pillar at Warsaw’s Holy Cross Church.
In Paris, the rest of his remains lie at the Père-Lachaise Cemetery, along with other migrant and non-migrant stars, including Balzac, Oscar Wilde, Proust, Modigliani, Jim Morrison, and Édith Piaf, who, incidentally, was of Italian, French and Berber descent.
A quote by Chopin: “Bach is an astronomer, discovering the most marvellous stars. Beethoven challenges the Universe. I only try to express the heart and soul of Man.”