“Oooo-waaaaa” are the first magical sounds that come out of the speakers when I put Joe Diverio’s “Lebanon 80” album on. The whole album plays through, refreshing the listener with lush, rich music and singing.
Joe Diverio is an internationally well-known and loved Italian musician whose repertoire includes songs in five different languages. He spent a large portion of his life performing in Beirut, most notably at the legendary Caves Du Roy nightclub in 1970’s Beirut and in Summerland after the beginning of the Civil War. After years of listening to his music, Joe sat down with Outlook to share his story for posterity.
When Did You First Come To Beirut?
It’s a love story between Lebanon and I, between Beirut and I. The first time I came here was about fifty years ago, in 1965 with my band – it was by coincidence, as my manager used to move us […] all over Europe as well. And one day he asked, “Joe, do you want to go to Beirut?” I said why not, and we made a contract for four months. So I came in February and left end of May. I came back to Lebanon in ’67. But at that time, I was in a band, and slowly, many people liked the way we were playing. We used to play in English, French, and Italian – I sing in five languages. From end of ’70 to ’74 I was in Lebanon – I passed through Lebanon before, during, and after the war.
Can You Tell Me A Little Bit About Your Artistic Life?
It started when I was very young. I started with the accordion, and then I learned the chromonica, not the blues harmonica – they’re different. So with this, I could do any melody in any key. I started with the accordion, which at the time wasn’t taught at the conservatoire, although now it is. So I went to a school that gave diplomas for learning instruments [like the conservatoire] and received it – and when I was 16 years old, I represented Italy at the Harmonica World Championship in 1955 and in 1956 as well. During the championships, we were obliged to learn one piece while for the second, we would choose. I chose Concerto Di Vivaldi in A Minor, in partition for the violins because the harmonica is like the violin. It creates a melody and needs somebody to accompany it – so somebody played piano and I played along. I didn’t win but I represented Italy – I was young! The first time, I was 15, while the second time, I was 16. After that, I liked the idea of gaining experience with the band. So in 1961 I started with a band and began to tour. I find a lot of satisfaction in what I do.
What About Your Band In Beirut?
I used to sing at the Cave Du Roy. When my original Italian band was in total disagreement, I created a new one with four Armenians and one Lebanese person and we started to rehearse. They were very young and inexperienced, but had a lot of potential – I saw it straight away. But you know, the way of singing at the Cave was all about work, so it was a matter of teaching the band how to be presentable on stage, with things like clean shoes, fingernails, how to dress, stand on stage and all these small things. I mean, some of them were eighteen at the time. Eventually at some point during the war, they all went to Los Angeles, California. Vahe, one of the band members, visited me in Paris one time, and it is always good to see old friends. He told me, “Joe I used to hate you, because all you used to tell us was to be on time, to do this and that! Now I’m leading a band in California, and what you told me… You were so right!”
How Would You Describe Your Cave Du Roy Days? You Used To Play Often In The Cave?
Cave du Roy was a fantastic place with fantastic people. Many people ask, “Why don’t you open the cave again?” Many called me Le Roi De Cave. But it would never be the same. It’s still closed, and the Hotel Excelsior is a disaster. Imagine that at that time in Lebanon in the early 70s, the people were coming to Cave Du Roy from Iran, Egypt, Europe, the crowd at St George etc. It was opened again in ‘82 for one night – you should have seen it. They contacted me, I rehearsed quickly, and played. It was a great evening. Again, you should have the number of people. If someone was to come in and just take the women’s jewelry, they would have made a fortune!
You Made A Record With Georgina Rizk?
Yes I did. We did Parole, Parole which was originally sung by Mina and Alberto Lupo. This was a song that was very up to date at that time. I knew Georgina very well, we were very good friends. We decided to do it in the opposite way, where the man would sing and the woman would talk. She is half-Italian so she spoke the language. It was nice because I didn’t just need someone who spoke Italian, I wanted somebody well-known as well. At the time the song was released, she was freshly-crowned Miss Universe – the song was a big success.
Can You Tell Me About Your Musical Influences?
I’m quite conservative with this issue. I never followed up with groups, bands, heavy metal and so on. I’m more Beatles than Rolling Stones. I’ll never criticize the Rolling Stones […] but I mean for me, the Beatles, they changed the world, they changed the music in the world. At that time, us Italians suffered more than anybody, because we were selling Italian music all over the world. The problem was that when somebody became a-la-mode, they were followed, and the problem of Italy, and France especially, was that they would take western music, and add Italian and French lyrics over it. So, people with potential lost some of their creativity. For example, Fabrizio De André, one of Italy’s greatest poets, was a musician who could not travel, because his songs were written with the text being the main focus. The melody became poorer as a result. Music is a melody. For example when Toto Cutugno released the song L’italiano, it was a worldwide hit, while in Italy it wasn’t popular.
The Waiter: Are You Interested In The Dish Of The Day, Spaghetti And Meatballs?
When one says “spaghetti and meatballs” to an Italian, they get a red card right away! I opened my restaurant, here in Hotel Cavalier, when I didn’t feel like singing anymore. It felt like selling ice cream in Alaska. So one time, this man came to my restaurant and asked: “Why is there no spaghetti and meatballs here?” I said, “I’m sorry but it doesn’t exist in Italy!” He answered, “No, no, you cannot be Italian.” I told him, “In Italy, if you ask for spaghetti and meatballs, they’ll look at you as though you’ve come from Mars!”
How Is It To Play Live?
Well, for example, sometimes artists get upset if they are playing in a piano bar; they want to be heard. I remember there was one concert I did in Washington DC in 1997 – it’s a funny story. The embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington contacted me to play for a party they were holding – so I went. The prince was in London with his plane, and he wanted me to go to London and Washington with him, but there was really no way to find a plane to reach London at the time. So they arranged it for me, I arrived in Washington DC, they toured me around in a limousine – I didn’t object, why not, it didn’t bother me! Afterwards, we saw the residence of Prince Bandar. The idea of the party that evening was that there were two rooms to entertain the guests. The guests were composed of 70 people, 35 ambassadors and their spouses, and I remember Colin Powell was also there. They would have dinner in one room, then move to the next room where there was a piano. This wasn’t the kind of thing one did every day – so when the time came, I was sitting at the piano with 70 people distributed very quietly and attentively around me. Up until then I was having a good time – tourism, pictures, and fun! I looked around the room and noticed some people who were familiar with me and my music. Knowing this, I started with a good first song. By the way, never mess up the first song, it is the “Hi, nice to meet you,” and so I did an Italian, Spanish, and French song. I started with Que Sera, Sera, and then said a few words to welcome them. Afterwards, I went with the most popular songs in the world. Volare, Al Italiano, La Vie En Rose, My Way, New York New York, and so on. I was trying to collect all the keys to open all the doors! The funny thing was that at one point, Colin Powell stood up, I thought that he was gonna put me in jail at that momernt. Instead, he said, “Sorry I don’t want to disturb you, but can I sing a small piece with you?” So I said please go ahead, and he sang the chorus of “Volare Oh Oh, Cantare Oh Oh Oh Oh” and got a big applause – this is just to tell you how to smell out what to play for who!
Where Do You Live Currently?
In Italy. I returned because we are discussing making an album – well these days it’s called a CD, even though the album was much more authentic really, it’s like reading the news online versus reading the newspaper. It’s a very different experience really, but maybe I’m just used to this. It might be a double-album. I will pour my life into it and leave a nice souvenir. I have a contact, and if it works out that will be wonderful. Anyway, a few friends and I were talking, and we said, “Why don’t we go to Lebanon, contact a few people and try to get this album going.” If not, then we see friends and rest anyway!
What Are You Doing These Days? Are You Still Singing?
Yes, yes of course. This is important to me. I’m working on – and this is more heavy because it needs more planning – a comedia musicale. I would like to return to instances from my childhood. The place I spent my childhood in famous granite quarry, which was also used in constructing the Milan Duomo, so there were some people working on it. My father was a chef-de-cuisine and he had opened a kind of Tratorria, and I met the kind of people who would come and drink and sing. So, I will go back to this story, which is part of where I am from – Lago di Maggiore. At that time there was a kind of contraband, you know the kind that passes the border which would go to Switzerland at night, get cigarettes, and bring them back to Italy to sell them in the morning. Things like this are also nice things to remember.