A conversation with Italian Reggae pioneer Vito War Image

by Federico Di Puma

When you think about Reggae radio shows in Italy the first name that immediately pops up is Vito War. Host of the longest-running Italian Reggae radio show, Vito War is a true pioneer in the Italian Reggae movement.

JAmusic: How did your love affair with Jamaican music begin?
VW: It started, and it’s probably the same for all the guys of forty years ago, listening to Bob Marley. I think I started listening to his music at the end of the ‘70s, before he came to Italy, then that, seeing him live changed everything. For those who were listening his music just because he was on top at the time the passion fade when he passed away, for me he was the way to discover a music that came from a little island in the Caribbean and that was influencing so much the sounds and the music all over the world. We can say he was the light for me!

JAmusic: What do you remember about his show in Milano?
VW: Well I remember it very well, it was a historical moment that became even more historical because he passed away soon afterwards. And it was a very important show for him too because that amount of people for one of his shows was a first time for him. Plus it was the first concert of a real superstar in Milano after a long period of musical darkness due to some political problems. What can I say, it was special, people slept inside the stadium from the day before, pure emotion. A great great memory for me.

JAmusic: From there, what was the process of deciding to be an active part of this world as a DJ and a promoter?
VW: First I started to learn more and more, then I used to go to Leoncavallo (a crucial place for the underground music in Milano, edit.) and I understood it was possible to organize something in Milano because no one else was doing it. In those time the people that were in the reggae business in Italy weren’t that many, we all knew each other, so I knew the people that were creating a reggae scene in Rome and in other parts of Italy and so I started the reggae scene here in Milano. First I organized shows with the local bands, then I was the first one to bring in the city bands like Sud Sound System in 1987 and many more, and from that other people started to organize things too.

JAmusic: You are known to be the host of the longest-running Italian Reggae radio show, Reggae Radio Station Italy, on Radio Popolare. How did you start that?
VW: I was organizing events since a couple of years and a guy who was a dj on the radio, Paolo Minella, asked me to collaborate with him on a new reggae show on Sunday night: I obviously didn’t wait a second and joined him and from there I went on for nearly 27 years now, and still going. After some time he left the show and so I remained in charge, for me is pure passion, it was never a choice of business, it’s simply what I love doing. And since I’ve started I think we can count on the fingers of the hands the occasions when I wasn’t on air on a Sunday night.

JAmusic: How do you prepare a radio show?
VW: I always wanted to play a mix of brand new tunes and classics and since I have the whole night it has never been a problem to combine the two. So I can play the new tunes and keep my audience updated and give them also some information on what’s going on. I’m not the kind of dj that tells the whole story of every artist, I like to give inputs then who wants, especially now with internet, can dig deeper and getting to know and understand more. And I also try to play music that may not be my favourite at the moment, but it’s good to give a full account, as much as possible, on the music. And that’s how I like to have a radio show: keeping everything that’s about the reggae world together, from ska and rocksteady to bashment and the latest sounds.

JAmusic: How has the Italian Reggae scene developed and changed over the years?
VW: First of all there’s much more people that play, listen, promote the music and organize events. For us, pioneers, if before we had to go to London to buy music, now it’s much easier to get it, and we may even have people who promote reggae music without having even bought a 45 or a cd, but it’s ok, it’s just a different way to deal with it. What is important with so many people close to music is to recognize who treats the music with humbleness and respect and then does it because it’s a mission and because it’s a feeling and who does it because it’s a trend. There’s a reason if people like me, like Lampa Dread and many others are still here after more than 30 years: passion. So many people think they can enter this world because it’s a trend, and there’s nothing worse than that, reggae is not a trend, for many it’s a philosophy, a lifestyle, a way to live with others, if you do it for your ego then you won’t last.

JAmusic: In the last years you’ve been organizing a monthly Reggae  Radio Station Night, where you bring in young Italian Reggae bands. How important is it to push them and give them a chance to you?
VW: It’s part of the mission, I try to give space to those who don’t have it. That’s what I can do from my position. Reggae in Italy, beside some very few radio show is still an underground music, it’s very difficult for a reggae band to reach a big audience or to have their tunes aired on the main radios, and plus there are very few clubs that decide to invest their money on a band (especially now with this economic situation) as it’s generally assumed that having just a dj spinning tunes would be the same and it costs less. I personally don’t think it like that, even if  I’m a dj! Having a live band playing changes everything. And organizing these shows I’ve seen bands that are now touring the world like Mellow Mood growing, and it’s a big satisfaction to be able to say that I invited them and believed in them before they were hype. 

JAmusic: Another important factor for the Italian scene was the Rototom Sunsplash Festival, when it still was here...
VW: But Rototom is still here with us! It only changed its location, and unfortunately because of some of our politicians, but the spirit of Rototom is not an Italian thing, it’s a worldwide thing! It belongs to the whole world and not only Italy and we can see from the numbers it draws every year. I’ve seen the Festival in all of his locations, from Gaio di Spilimbergo to Benicassim, and I’m so happy and proud of it. Then I have to say that if it is in Spain it’s because we, no sorry our political class because the people want it here, are ignorant. We let it go but long live Rototom no matter where, Italy, Spain or somewhere else in the world. I would’ve been disappointed if Rototom was not happening anymore, but it’s still there so everything’s good, and maybe it was even a natural part of the life of the Festival to move abroad and grow more and more.

JAmusic: Tell us something about your passion for the Reggae from Britain.
VW: It’s the reggae I’ve been growing with, it’s simply what we could find beside Bob  Marley.  Jamaican reggae was extremely difficult to find in Europe. I used to go to London to buy music, and being there what I listened were bands like Steel Pulse, Misty In Roots, UB40, Aswad. And we didn’t have the musical explosion that happens now, artists didn’t publish a song every week, I remember waiting for months the release of Aswad’s Rebel Souls in the 80s. Plus, we didn’t know the artists, you have no idea how many 45 or lps I bought without knowing who was the artist but just because he had a cool name, thousands! And slowly we got to know Black Uhuru, Jimmy Cliff, Toots and all the others. And I used to go to London with the flycases full of dresses and then leave the dresses in London and come back with the flycases full of music, and I did it so many times! 

JAmusic: Who were your models and inspiration?
VW: Rodigan. Rodigan is my mentor. If there was no Rodigan I would have been doing something else in my life. I used to listen and record his radio show for a while and then one time I was in London checking some music magazine and I saw for the first time his face. He was white! And I remember telling my friends “Rodigan is white, that means we can do it too, we can spread and promote this music too!”. And talking with him he told that the first times he played people were asking “Where is Rodigan? Who is this white boy?” He’s a teacher, without him the reggae radio world would not be the same. And now he goes on air right one hour before me so I can hear what music he plays and sometimes I discover that I played something even before he played it! He’s the boss, the real boss.

JAmusic: What do you think of this new roots movement coming from Jamaica in most recent years? 
VW: We needed it, I mean it’s always a matter of what you like, but for me we needed this fresh air. I think for some time we were missing a new generation: if you go back a few years you find Luciano, Anthony B, Junior Kelly, Capleton, big artists that used to tour with big bands with people like Dean Fraser, Bongo  Herman and so on. Then for a while, for many different reasons, we missed this dimension; the production went more and more on electronics, there was a big influence from the Us, and there were not many artists working on a whole album or touring with a proper band. Nowadays we have a new generation coming in, a generation of people who had more opportunities to study and to see the world before starting their career and so the message is different. Personally this new generation of artists is giving me lots of satisfaction and hopefully they will have to grow and endure in the music business, which is something definitely not easy. But if they keep on doing like that in a few years we might have the new Anthony B, the new Capleton and so on.

JAmusic: In the latest years the homophobia problem in reggae was a big talk in Italy and in Europe, what do you think about that?

VW: There’s a limit I’ve never crossed in my radio show: homophobia. A stain on the reggae movement that we can’t deny happened and that luckily is fading now. It’s something I don’t promote in my selections and in my shows, I don’t need it at all. Even if there was a big hit, I didn’t play it, I didn’t need it: do you know how many hits are out there?

The other problem, here, is that because of that the Italian reggae movement was attacked, because it was said and decided that everything was the same, with no analysis and no will to understand. Reggae music means fighting, rebellion, values, principles, religious messages, so how can we say that if someone says something anti-gay everyone else thinks the same? C’mon! And, again, especially here, the Italian and European reggae movement is definitely made and promoted by people that don’t think it in that way.


JAmusic: Beside the Marley’s concert, in all these years you have surely seen a huge amount of shows. Are there some that stand out in your memory?

VW: First of all, before Bob Marley, in Milan played Peter Tosh! It was the Mystic Man Tour, July 1979 and if I’m not wrong it was the 14th of the month. I still have the poster taken from a wall at home. Burning Spear came to Italy too, I remember his show was attended by no more than 300 people, can you imagine that? Nobody knew who he was when he came for the first time! More recently I have to say that Tarrus Riley was pure art, Beres Hammond of course can give you goose bumps live, but those are real singer, people with a music soul that can stay on stage for hours with lots of beautiful songs to perform, and remaining on the contemporary reggae, Seed did put up really a great show.

Misty In Roots are one of my favourite, and for me it’s always a pleasure to see them live, and another one that just came to mind was a Black Uhuru show! God I may start to cry if I think about that now, Black Uhuru and “King” Sunny Ade in Milano in 1984: with Puma Jones, Duke Simpson and Michael Rose, difficult to get any better than that. It’s been long time but I remember clearly the magic atmosphere of that show, amazing, truly amazing. Bunny Wailer too, it’s difficult to name just a few.


JAmusic: If you had to say a top 3 of live shows you have seen?

VW: Man it’s tough! Ok let’s do like that, let’s keep Bob Marley aside, in a different category. So if I have to do a top 3 I’d say first Black Uhuru, then Bunny Wailer when he come for the first time at Rototom, and then any Misty In Roots gig.

Reggae Radio Station Italy 2014 10 19 by Vitowar on Mixcloud

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