Jamaican touch to Italian classic

Jamaican dancehall singer Richie Stephens, center, and his Italian ensemble band, The Ska Nation Band.
Federico Giannace

Reggae star Richie Stephens and The Ska Nation band are fusing cultures with their Jamaican-style rendition of an Italian classic.

Stephens and his band have released two versions of “O Sole Mio,” a classic Italian opera written in 1898 sang over a ska rhythm. Stephens says he has always toyed with the idea of combining music of different cultures, and the idea he came upon by chance during his tour in Italy.

“We were in south of Italy, coming from a performance and everything was going well when I heard ‘O Sole Mio’ — a song that everyone knows and love in Italy,” said Richie Stephens, a rhythm and blues and dancehall singer.

“When I heard that version I started singing it. The more I started singing it, the more I kept humming it and my band members wanted to hear how it sounded in person.”

“O Sole Mio” is an opera song by composer Giovanni di Capua. The beloved song which translates to my sunshine in English, is a popular song in Italy, and was famously sung by opera singer Luciano Pavarotti. Stephens — who does not speak Italian — started to grow an interest in the song and decided to learn the full lyrics. Even with the challenge of learning a new language, he found a beauty in it and added his own style.

“I would sing it in Italian, in the same opera style but over a ska beat. In a week’s time I learned the words and went to the studio,” he says. “I had to learn a song in a different language but I love that. I believe in cross-culturalism and learning about different cultures — I truly love those things.”

Stephens and The Ska Nation band recorded two different versions, and debuted their ska style opera at one of their concerts. With the many differences between Italian and Jamaican music, Stephens maintains that a fusion of the cultures is a much needed aspect in music.

“It’s very new and fresh,” said Stephens. “Cross culturalism is a very necessary thing in this world. It brings people together because music has no barriers and no limits — you might not speak the language but you can still understand the meaning.”

Fans in Italy love the song, according to Stephens, with first time listeners taking him for an Italian.

“The reception is excellent and we’ve gotten great feedback from Italian people, and even in America,” he said. “When Italians heard the song, they mistook me for an Italian singer — it is truly flattering.”

Richie Stephens and The Ska Nation Band plan to perform their versions of “O Sole Mio” for their upcoming tours next year, which will also be part of their second international album.

Reach reporter Alexandra Simon at (718) 260–8310 or e-mail her at asimo[email protected]local.com.
Richie Stephens and his Ska Nation band.
Richie Stephens

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