The appeal of world music is often based on the sheer exoticism of different cultures, melodies derived from unfamiliar harmonic sources and dynamic rhythms. That's made it challenging for singer-songwriters to connect with audiences who don't speak their language.
A few performers -- Caetano Veloso, Baaba Maal, Chava Alberstein, Cheb Mami come immediately to mind -- overcome that obstacle with the power of their presence, with a capacity to deliver a message that reaches beyond the literal meanings of the words.
Add Gianmaria Testa to the list. The Italian singer-songwriter-guitarist's performance Sunday at the Skirball Cultural Center was a classic example of beyond-verbal musical communication. Performing with clarinetist-saxophonist Piero Ponzo and bassist Enzo Pietropaoli, Testa wove intimate tapestries of emotion, colored with threads of gentle, acoustic sound.
Testa's songs tell quietly lyrical stories, often touched with romantic whimsy. In "Extra-muros" he sang: "Your love ... is a chimney factory brick red.... Your love ... is a piping hot chestnut against the lips." His delivery -- via arrangements filled with open spaces, allowing dramatic starts and stops -- was captivating, beyond the specific messages of the lyrics.
By chance, an Italian-speaking member of the audience volunteered to translate Testa's wry, between-song, off-center tales, paralleling both the lyrical aspects of his songs and their sheer musical effect.
Further enhancing the magical qualities of the evening, Ponzo's dark-toned clarinet provided poignant counter-voice to Testa's singing, while Pietropaoli added the subtle, propulsive lift of jazz rhythms.