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Music

Festivalbar: The Singing Contest of the Early Aughts

“I remember slouching over the living room couch after dinners, peach-flavored Esta Thé in hand, tuning in to Canale 5 to enjoy the last bit of sketches from Paperissima Sprint, before switching channels to Italia 1 to watch Festivalbar air.”

To me, more than anything else, Festivalbar was a feeling. The feeling that each edition of this internationally-acclaimed singing contest, performed in some of the most important cities and piazzas in Italy, would unfailingly come to mark the beginning of a new summer filled with bouncy mainstream hits and carefree moments. Stages from Milan’s Piazza del Duomo all the way down to the Piazza del Duomo in Catania were graced by a roster of major Italian and foreign singers in vogue, ready to lip-sync to their debut songs and previously released jams. Gemelli Diversi, R.E.M, Zucchero, Manu Chao, Jamiroquai, Neffa, Las Ketchup, Lùnapop, Anastacia, Kylie Minogue. The fashion was peak Y2K, and high-definition video recording smartphones and Insta-filtered concert selfies were but a distant thought. 

TV writer and presenter Vittorio Salvetti first launched Festivalbar in 1964 after collecting data on the most played summer songs from jukeboxes in Italian bars. Thanks to a counter system attached to every device, he was able to measure how many times each song was selected and played. At the end of the season, the sum of all the coins used for a single song would determine the winner. Festivalbar was initially transmitted on the radio, but in 1966, it landed on TV channel Rai 2. In 1983, the program was acquired by Fininvest networks Canale 5 and Italia 1. 

The show traditionally began at the end of May with an opening gala. The competition continued through June and July, paused for a month in August and closed in September with a final gala and awards ceremony, religiously held at the Arena di Verona. The winner was chosen by the number of radio and television broadcasts obtained and album copies sold.

For a couple of summers in the early aughts, my parents would take me and my younger brother to vacation in Recco at our grandma’s house for a month. Sometimes, they would spend their weekends in the nearby Portofino with friends, leaving us kids in our nanny’s care for a few days. I remember slouching over the living room couch after dinners, peach-flavored Esta Thé in hand, tuning in to Canale 5 to enjoy the last bit of sketches from Paperissima Sprint, before switching channels to Italia 1 to watch Festivalbar air. 

liguria

It was already mid-June, and the sultry night breeze would flow through the dark green Ligurian shutters into the damp space—a soon-to-be repository for a scourge of unnerving mosquitoes that would leave me covered in puffy and itchy bites for weeks to come. “From Arena Alpe Adria, welcome back to the 40th edition of the Festivalbar!” the presenting duo shouted at the beginning of the show, to which I recall thinking to myself, “That’s it, summer has finally started.”

The weekly car rides with our parents to the Bagni Fiore beach in the bay of Paraggi would not have been the same without Festivalbar’s sunflower-logoed blue and red double compilation albums playing in the background on repeat. We sang “Me Gustas Tu” by Manu Chao, “Salirò” by Daniele Silvestri and “La mia signorina” by Neffa at the top of our lungs as the postcard-like, maritime landscape of the Riviera di Levante would unfold before our eyes along the via Aurelia. Occasionally, our cousins from Genova would join us: the car was a full house and “Crying at the Discotequeby Alcazar and “Tell Me Why” by Giorgio Prezioso were some of the go-to songs to stir us up throughout the trip.

At Bagni Fiore, besides spending my mornings playing mermaid in the sea and my afternoons selling handmade scoubidou keychains to passers-by, I would hang out with other girls my age and their older sisters, who’d unconsciously impart on me their impromptu arm swinging dance moves to the notes of Eiffel 65’s “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” which I can still replicate to this day. 

On our way back to Recco, we’d stop for a Pinguino gelato at Santa Margherita Ligure’s Gelateria Centrale, and as soon as we were in the car again, my dad would skip through Festivalbar albums in search of mellower beats to put on after a long day at the beach. “Sunrise” by Simply Red was often a tune of choice, as well as my parents’ favorite love song, I figured, because of the way their eyes would furtively meet during the chorus. 

The remainder of the summer would carry on seamlessly once back home in Lugano. The entire month of August, my brother and I would go on enjoying Festivalbar’s animated tracks while we fooled around in our backyard doing cartwheels and somersaults. Get Get Down” by Paul Johnson and “Hey Boy Hey Girl” by The Chemical Brothers would blast out of the old 2000s stereo system next to our indoor-outdoor swimming pool to keep us entertained.

With Festivalbar, Vittorio Salvetti ultimately came to produce one of the most renowned itinerant music festivals of the peninsula. Its trendy hits would immediately become the soundtrack of our summers until 2007—the year of its last edition—and the up and coming TV personalities hosting the coveted event (including Fiorello, Alessia Marcuzzi, Michelle Hunziker, Vanessa Incontrada and Daniele Bossari) would come to leave their marks not only on the show business, but also on our hearts. 

For my peers and myself, nostalgia for the Festivalbar years is real. For those of us who were lucky enough to grow up at the turn of the century, Festivalbar will forever remain an indelible reminder of blissful idleness and simpler times. The competition created the anthems of a generation of Italian millennials who knew what slow living actually felt like, and who naively thought that flip phones were the future of technology and low-rise jeans could never go out of style.