‘Soul is a Language for Everyone:’ the 2024 Porretta Soul Festival


Johnny Rawls

This summer, from Thursday, July 25 to Sunday, July 28, the 36th annual Porretta Soul Festival will grace the small mountain town of Porretta Terme. 

Soul music isn’t just a genre; it’s a way of life. As visitors revel in the rhythmic melodies, savor the street food and bask in the joyous atmosphere, they become a part of a collective experience that transcends language and borders. Unlike other music events boasting headlining acts or chart-topping artists, Porretta Soul Festival thrives on the spirit of discovery, offering a platform for lesser known yet immensely talented voices to shine. The essence of Porretta Soul lies in its commitment to showcasing music in its purest form, forging intimate connections between artists and attendees.

As festival founder Graziano Uliani so aptly puts it, “People come to Porretta to discover.”

The festival will pull together a wide array of extraordinary talent, leading with that of this year’s house band, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame Band. Directed by Kurt “KC” Clayton, the ensemble of 12 was first created to celebrate artists inducted in the Hall of Fame to preserve the rich musical heritage of Memphis, Tennessee. Channeling musicians of the past including ‘The King of Rock and Roll’ Elvis Presley and ‘The Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin, the Memphis Music Hall of Fame Band is comprised of Garry Goin and Steve Bethany on the guitars, Dwight Sanders on bass, Darryl Sanford on the keyboard and organ, Carlos Sargent on the drums, Alan Clayton on the tenor sax, Paul McKinney on the trumpet, Victor Sawyer on the trombone, Shunta Mosby, Dani McGhee and Candy Fox as vocalists, and Clayton as both director and another keyboardist.

The all-star ensemble will be the backing band for Wendy Moten, and for other musicians, including Jonathan Ellison, Gerald Richardson and Jerome Chism.

Moten, who reached the finals of the 2021 edition of The Voice USA, is a multi-talented vocalist who has toured with Faith Hill & Tim McGraw, Martina McBride, and the legendary Vince Gill, winner of 21 Grammy awards. They collaborated on the recent project “I’ve Got You Covered.”

The Sweethearts, a Melbourne-based band whose membership consists of young women ages 13 – 18, is also anticipated to be a memorable performance in this year’s rendition of Porretta Soul. For the past seven years The Sweethearts have captivated audiences with their neo soul entertainment — a subgenre that fuses soul roots with other musical styles like funk, jazz, hip hop, pop and African music. The Sweethearts are scheduled to play this year on Thursday, July 25 alongside American pianist and singer Mitch Woods, who will have his own concert on Friday, July 26. 

Other artists being showcased at this year’s Porretta Soul include Johnny Rawls, Dublin Soul, Miss Bee and the Bullfrogs, Alabama Mike and Soul Shot Band, and others, such Andrew Strong, the original front man of the soul music band cult film”The Commitments,” (screened at the festival on July 28) in addition to Billy Vera.  An American singer, songwriter, actor, author, and music historian, Vera’s most successful record was “At This Moment,” a US number 1 hit in 1987; the recipient of a Grammy Award in 2013, he continues to headline with his group Billy Vera & The Beaters.  All will live in Porretta Terme for the extent of the nearly week-long event, providing the opportunity to connect with audiences and other musicians alike. With a lack of security barriers, lovers of soul music can experience a sense of camaraderie, sharing autographs or participating in discussions about their profound musical experiences.

Hailed as a cultural cornerstone for the small Italian town, Poretta Soul regularly draws in more than 40,000 guests across four days of revelry. The sounds of soul have echoed through Porretta since the festival’s founding in 1988, forever changing the community’s landscape. As a result of the festival, alleyways are lined with murals devoted to famous names in soul music, from Otis Redding to Sam Cooke, and artists that have graced the Porretta stage with their talent, like Wilson Pickett and Booker T & The M.G.’s. The town has also dedicated infrastructure to soul music, such as Otis Redding Street and the Solomon Burke Bridge.

The roots of the Porretta Soul Festival can be traced back to the legendary Otis Redding, whose raw and powerful voice left an indelible mark on Uliani in his youth. Uliani began his career by selling ads for the Yellow Pages, but when he attended the 20th anniversary of Redding’s passing as a fan in 1987, Uliani promised Redding’s widow Zelma Atwood that he would find a way to honor Redding’s legacy in Italy. The following year, the Soul Festival was born. 

The people of Porretta Terme were at first skeptical about the attention that such a music festival might bring to the tight-knit community. However, with the successes of the long-running soul spectacle, Uliani is now regarded as a hero. And, despite the linguistic barriers, the town has since turned into a sanctum of soul, music resonating with heartfelt emotion and feeling. 

“Many people don’t speak English, but soul music is a language for everyone,” Uliani said. 

Tickets are €44 for a single day pass, €105 for all four days and €89.25 for a three-day pass. Tickets and information like daily programming can be found on the Porretta Soul Festival website. (Maura Marshall/additional reporting by Kyla Pehr)