Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Bononia Grass plays with an Italian flavor

Granted, Italy may have three mountain ranges within their borders — the Alps, the Apennines and the Dolomites — but even so, they have little in common with the Appalachians, the origination place of traditional bluegrass. Nevertheless, the band that calls this region home, Bononia Grass, stays true to tradition by creating a sound that reflects the music the various players have long listened to — specifically, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Joe Val, The Bluegrass Album Band, Hot Rize, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band, and more recently, Balsam Range, Alicia Nugent, Alison Krauss & Union Station, and Del McCoury.  

“The band wants to preserve the original sound of bluegrass music with its solid rhythms, hard driving singing style and solos,” Gian Luca Naldi, the group’s founding member, banjo player, and vocalist claims. “It’s a very hard job!”

That may be so, but clearly the band has succeeded. Aside from Naldi, the group currently consists of Chiara Vecchi (vocals), Giovanni Stefanini (mandolin, vocals), Pedro Judkowski (bass and vocals), and Matteo Camera (guitar). They were born from a country and west coast style band Naldi had formed in the late ’80s. At that time, Stefanini was playing bluegrass banjo and guitar with his brothers Bruno and Rafe in an outfit they called The Moonshine Brothers. Naldi had initially reached out to Giovanni for banjo lessons, and he ended up joining Naldi’s band, Country Unit Band, on mandolin

Eventually, Naldi and Stefanini chose to tap into traditional bluegrass music, and Bononia Grass was created via the original line-up that included Naldi, Stefanini, Judkowski, Giovanni Zordan on guitar, and later, Paolo Ercoli on dobro. In time, some of the original band members chose to go in different directions and opted to pursue other possibilities. Giovanni Stefanini and Luca Naldi also co-founded another bluegrass band called 0039, while Judkowski moonlights with various jazz and swing bands. 

In 2021, Bononia Grass reformed with two new members, including Vecchi on lead vocals and Camera on guitar. Vecchi also performs as a vocalist in a Pink Floyd cover band, while Camera has taken a change in tack after previously working with rock and heavy metal outfits. 

“Chiara’s brilliant singing is as much at ease on bluegrass standards as it is on Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss songs,” Naldi insists. “Matteo is a guitar virtuoso who added a new layer of rhythm and lead guitar talent. Together we are ready for the next phase of our musical career.”

For the record, the band’s name was derived from the ancient Roman city of Felsina, which is now known as Bologna and, not surprisingly, is also the band’s hometown. 

Over the years, Bononia Grass has performed in a number of European countries, including Switzerland, Germany, Holland, the UK and, of course, Italy, and has also appeared several times at The European World of Bluegrass in Holland, where in 2006, they were awarded third place in the European band contest. 

They’ve also had opportunity to jam informally with a number of iconic individuals, among them Tim O’Brien, Mike Marshall, Frank Solivan, Bill Keith, Greg Cahill, Kathy Chiavola, and Tom Hanway.

“Bluegrass music in Italy is often confused with, or generalized as, country music,” Naldi says. “So whenever the band performs, it likes to inform the audiences of the history and origin of the material. We find that music lovers always find our performances educational and enjoyable.”

In 2006, the group recorded a CD titled Thinking it Blue, a set of songs consisting of covers by Bill Monroe, Ricky Skaggs, Blue Highway, Joe Val, and Peter Rowan, along with an  original instrumental, Red Fox, which was penned by Naldi. Naldi mentioned that both he and Vecchi are also adept at writing original material. 

Asked why bluegrass maintains such universal appeal, Naldi had an easy answer. “Maybe it’s because it’s popular folk music, with nice rhythms, nice singing and nice harmonies, and nice melodies. The musicians seem to look happy when they’re performing it. Rhythm always captures an audience!”

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.