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Sanremo Music Festival: 70 and Still in Shape

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

From 2 to 6 March the top names in Italian music descend on the seaside town of Sanremo. Petra Hall reminisces on the cultural sensation.

Andrea Raffin/

Festival di Sanremo: That means the scent of mimosas, that means spring on the Riviera.

70 years of Italian culture, fashion, lifestyle and also a mirror of the history of this wonderful country that, despite the chaos, always manages to enjoy existence to the full.

It has been going strong for 70 years, one year younger than I am. I look forward to this event every year when the whole of Italy is in suspense and excitement. Perhaps it has lost a little of its glamour today, thanks to the internet and over-stimulation by media of all kinds. Tickets have long since been bought mostly online, unlike in the past when the bagarini, or ticket scalpers, loitered in front of the Ariston Theatre and, until 1976, in front of the casino, selling their tickets at outrageous prices because not everyone had good relations with the mayor or with the directors of the all-powerful RAI television company, which has always organised the festival.

At the time, I was one of the lucky ones to get such tickets. Not in the front row, where the mink-clad ladies flaunted their glittering jewellery, but still there.

The year 1984 is unforgettable with several historic performances: a touchingly young Eros Ramazzotti won in the young talent category with "Terra Promessa", Romina Power and Al Bano sang their way to the top with "Ci sarà" and the already legendary group Queen as guest stars turned the theatre into pandemonium with their hit "Radio Ga Ga". Wow!

Emotions that have not faded, even today. In 1986, Eros celebrated an even greater success: with "Adesso tu" he became the winner of the "36th Festival della canzone italiana di Sanremo". I saw him, more self-confident than before, beaming on stage: he had hit the jackpot!

In 1990, the festival, which incidentally served as the inspiration for the Eurovision Song Contest, was exceptionally held in Sanremo's flower market. Although the location had lost some of its charm, I was enraptured by my idol Tina Turner with her "Steamy Windows". What fire, what an overwhelming personality!

The list of world stars who have been guests here over the years is impressive and reflects numerous eras of international music culture: Louis Armstrong, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Elton John are just a few among them. The incredible number of VIPs also has its very own history: from 1953 to 1971, each song was sung twice by two different artists, each performing their version with an individual orchestral accompaniment. This was to show that it was not a singing competition but a composing competition. One was an Italian singer and one an international singer. Thus, many stars like those mentioned above also started their careers in the Italian market. But also Paul Anka, Marianne Faithfull, Shirley Bassey and many others took advantage of this unique opportunity.

The secret of the guest star is always revealed only at the last moment and was not yet known at the time of going to press. The 2021 show will be hosted by the Italian TV presenter Amadeus, with co-host Fiorello. In 1978 it was the comedian Beppe Grillo, who has since mutated into a politician as the founder of the Movimento 5 Stelle party.

For some years now, the Sanremo Festival has not been without politics, either with the appearance of satirists who take aim at the current situation of the country and its government, or with protest actions by militants who want to profit from the media attention.

The first event in 1951, when Nilla Pizzi won the festival with "Grazie dei Fiori" and only three artists took part, nobody wanted to hear about politics. Only a few years after the Second World War, people were only interested in beauty, fun and la dolce vita.

Today, Sanremo's most important event is a tough business, and yet it still inspires millions of Italians. Like me, who has Italian nationality. I wish a long life to this nostalgic festival! And me too, of course ...

-Petra Hall

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