CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Scribbled lyrics of a street musician

HONG KONG (SE): Well known for his persistent support of the downtrodden in Hong Kong, Father Franco Mella showed another side of his persona with a recital of songs of his own composition at the Ngau Chi Civic Centre on the evening of December 26.

The priest with a bent for singing his preaching, believes that life is a constant call for change, which he calls a mission in never-ending-or-beginning flux in the manner expressed by Michel Jean Legrand in the lyrics of his composition, The Windmills of Your Mind.

Father Mella sees a mission dimension to the lives of the street-sleepers, prisoners, refugees, domestic workers and right of abode seekers, as their lives are a continual struggle for change caught up in an Amour Eternel, or revolution of eternal love.

On stage, the well-known face among asylum and right of abode seekers in Hong Kong, as well as at the on-site Masses during Occupy Central, proclaimed the eternal revolution in the scribbled lyrics of a street musician.

The Italian priest from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (pime) gleaned his love for music from his mother during his boyhood days at the family dairy.

His mother would play music and sing in her soprano voice during quiet times of the day. This bred a love for music in the young Mella that led him to join the Milan Cathedral Boys’ Choir in 1958, where he underwent what he himself describes as rigorous and exacting training.

But in introducing Father Mella, his fellow pime missionary, Father Gianni Criveller, said that it was only after he went to the seminary that he began to develop his creative ability and experiment with lyrics, rhythm and rhyme in the composition of his own songs.

“The first one was The Samaritan Woman,” Father Criveller said in introducing his longtime friend to the audience. “It was about his own struggle with faith. But in later days, his songs were about social justice and the struggles of the youth.”

In 1974, when Father Mella came to Hong Kong, he lived and laboured among the city’s workers, the poor and the marginalised, finding inspiration in the life of St. Francis of Assisi and the 1940s to 1960s conscientious objector to the war-mongering Italian state, Father Lorenzo Milani, about whom Father Criveller has written under the title, When obedience is not a virtue.

Together with his friend Lenny, who has recorded his songs in disused churches, chapels and country parks, Father Mella has been a chronicler of the unconventional history of peoples, written and expressed it in his own unique style.

“For decades, he has been playing in streets and squares; in gardens and parks; outside governmental buildings; at gatherings, demonstrations, sit-ins and at hunger strikes... His songs are the oral history of the street-sleepers; of the grassroots people; the lowest among the low,” Father Criveller said.

He described Father Mella’s lyrics as sketches of struggles, action, events, people and groups, places and neighbourhoods.

“They express the suffering and struggle of the poor and marginalised,” Father Criveller said of the unconventional music.

Father Mella sings and plays his hopes and faith in a prayer that people will not despair.

He is spontaneous, disregarding of language, singing in whatever words he hears on the streets or in the alleys of Hong Kong.

“His texts are more like the scribbled pages of a secret diary than a pearly creation of art. This is not music searching to pleasure refined ears, but snap-shots that frame the reality of the streets,” Father Criveller said.

The discord in his music is heard in the broken, staccato cry of the hidden world of the poor, which, as Father Criveller explains, is not to pleasure the ear, but reflect the splintered and fragmented lives of the unwanted, throwaway people of society.

All proceeds from the concert went to the asylum seekers whom Father Mella supports. He has promised a repeat performance for January 15 at a venue yet to be arranged.


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