You’d probably think that a two-time Emmy nominee who goes by just his caps-locked first name—as if he were the likes of Beyoncé, but bolder somehow—would compulsively seek glory or attention. You might assume that such a musician, who’s taken the stage in four continents, would readily spill every drop of his personal life to his audience.
Visitors to the Landmark in Port Washington on the first Friday evening of September will likely discover that Alfio Bonanno, better known as ALFIO, shatters such expectations.
“It’s not about my business,” he said. “It’s about the music. It’s about the stories. It’s about connecting with people.”
Although the songs ALFIO writes are inspired by his own experiences, he explained that, through careful word choices, he ensures that his lyrics are evocative for everyone.
“I do my very best to make sure each individual person in the audience feels like I’m singing just to them,” he said. “The key to writing songs with a story that appeals to as many people as possible is to keep it ambiguous…That’s the beauty of music—you can interpret a song the way you feel fit to have it in your life.”
Accompanying himself on the guitar or piano, ALFIO sings in English, Italian and Spanish, sometimes simultaneously. While at a concert in China, to the audience’s surprise, he sang in Mandarin.
“I’ve always been a person that’s tried to say a couple of words in as many languages as possible,” he said. “It just breaks down that barrier. It makes people feel comfortable.”
You might wonder if ALFIO would be able to resonate with his concertgoers at this level if he were a full-fledged tenor and not, as he jokes, a “nine-and-a-halfer”—if he’d arrived at a different revelation while studying voice in Parma, Italy.
“To become a tenor, you have to sing arias and operas. I didn’t want to be a tenor who has to sing by the book,” he said. “I’m constantly trying to please my audience, and the best way to please your audience is to give them what they want, but what you love to do at the same time. You can’t give them what they want if you don’t like it. You have to love it.”
ALFIO’s influences include Andrea Bocelli, Elton John, Luciano Pavarotti, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, and also his parents. He reasons that he inherited his “emotional side” from his mother, a vocalist, and his “showmanship” from his father, an accordionist and organist, of the same “very unique name.”
ALFIO’s parents, both born in southern Italy, emigrated to Australia in the 1950s and first met in Sydney, where ALFIO, 42, and his four older siblings, also musicians, were subsequently born and raised. ALFIO had just finished a gig there in 2001 when he learned of the terrorist attacks at the Twin Towers.
“I didn’t even know what the World Trade Center was. I hadn’t been to America at that stage,” he said. “From then on, my life was not the same. My father always told me, ‘Son, keep your hands to yourself, keep your head straight, mind your own business and no one’s going to hurt you; no one will touch you.’ That all changed, just overnight. All of a sudden, everyone felt vulnerable.”
In 2008, ALFIO attended a 9/11 memorial service, where he first heard the poem “One” by Dr. Cheryl Sawyer. He was touched by the beauty of its bittersweet message. “When it comes down to it, at the end of the line, it doesn’t matter what color you are,” he said; we are all susceptible to attack, but we are also all united in the face of common adversity.
With Sawyer’s permission, ALFIO composed music to accompany the poem, imagining a lone cello in the middle of Manhattan playing a “melancholic, heartstring-pulling melody,” he said. He mentioned that he hadn’t wanted to put his name on “The Power of One: 9/11 Unity and Hope” because it wasn’t about him. The music tribute, released on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, features the voices of family members of individuals who were killed at Ground Zero.
“That was one of the hardest things I ever did—to go to these people’s houses, to have them record a line of the poem and put that over the music,” he said.
His upcoming live appearance may also prove to be emotional. In the past, he warns, big crescendos at the ends of his songs have left showgoers in tears. But he also promises comedic banter. Attendees will get to listen to his renditions of classic hits, along with his own original music. ALFIO in Concert, his PBS special, was nominated in 2016 for two Emmy Awards.
ALFIO emphasized how humbled he feels to entertain those who decide to go to his shows.
“When you have an innate and true passion for something and you’re up on stage, doing what you love to do, and you’re seeing the radiance emanating from the audience, there’s a connection,” he said. “Come out and have a great time.”
Visit alfio.eventbrite.com or call 914-361-9333 to purchase tickets for ALFIO’s performance on Friday, Sept. 6, from 8 to 10 p.m. in the Jeanne Rimsky Theater at the Landmark at 232 Main St., Port Washington. The Landmark box office is not selling tickets.