The singer and dancer, Rosanna Ticoalu

Text: Artur Kowalski

The singer and dancer, Rosanna Ticoalu shares her longing for belonging. Half Indonesian, a quarter Polish, a quarter Italian and raised in Sweden, she is as international as they come and her music embodies that. Who better to remind us that we’re all connected?

Rosanna is sitting by a café table in the countryside outside Stockholm. We talk about her background, about her every day life. She’s looking down at her cup, turning around, fidgeting. Then the conversation turns to her music and just like that, she’s perfectly calm, her voice steady, her dark eyes fixed on mine. Full presence.

Why do you sing?

– Because I have to. Otherwise I don’t feel well. I’m a pretty analytical person and I easily get lost in thoughts and emotions. When I sing there aren’t any questions about anything. It’s the space where I feel the most natural. It makes me calm, makes me feel my soul expanding. Singing is better than sex, better than chocolate. It’s better than most anything else, really.

How would you describe your music to someone who hasn’t heard it?

– I sing and comp myself on guitar and piano. They’re melodic songs with a lot of soul and emotion, crossing into country, pop, rock, ethno. My influences are classical singers such as Nat King Cole, Diana Ross, Cat Stevens, Joan Baez, Annie Lennox. I was also very influenced by Italian 60’s pop music. My grandmother had a bunch of Italian records that I would listen to over and over again as a teen. In the end I knew the lyrics by heart, even though I didn’t speak Italian at the time! They just had so much passion in them. I’m also inspired by traditional Polish partisan songs.

Rosanna gets that horizon stare look on her face and starts singing Rozszumiały się wierzby płaczące, a Polish resistance standard popularised during WWII.

– I picked these songs up in the Polish scout camps I attended as a child. That’s how me and my brother would spend every summer of my childhood, all over Poland. We were the only foreigners there, but we were treated just like everyone else. They taught us discipline, crafts, Polish culture, all of that. We walked for miles in the countryside, wearing our uniforms, singing. It was hard, but at the same time it was so much fun. We’d stop by some old people’s house, they’d feed us apples and zupa mleczna [Polish porridge]. I’ve seen all of Poland in this way. The real Poland.

But what’s the attraction of partisan songs?

– They’re so dramatic, so passionate! They feel real. They’re about my grandfather, it’s my heritage.

Rosanna’s grandfather was a Polish officer stationed in Italy towards the end of the war. A handsome man, he caught the eye of a young Italian girl by the name of Firmina. They fell in love and were married in Bologna, where she gave birth to Rosanna’s mother, Irena. When the time came to return to Poland, Firmina followed her husband to a country she knew nothing about. Only 18 years of age, she moved to the little village of Nisko in south Poland. To this day speaking Polish with a heavy Italian accent, she must have seemed pretty exotic to her neighbours. 

Being mixed, Rosanna’s mother was already quite different from the other children she grew up with. But the family’s international story was just beginning. After high school Irena went to the university of Sopot where she met a charming young political refugee from Indonesia – the man that would become Rosannas father. After graduation, the couple married and had two children, Rosanna and her brother.

– We didn’t get to live in Poland for very long. In 1974 our family had to leave for political reasons and we ended up in Sweden. But during my entire childhood we spoke only Polish at home. The culture was Polish, even though Grandma cooked pasta and my father made Indonesian food. Ours was a Christian home, with strong traditions around the holidays. So even though we lived in Sweden, Poland was very present throughout my upbringing.

So where do you feel at home?

– “Home is where I lay my hat, man.” [laughs] Seriously, home to me is in my music. I do feel I belong in a number of situations, amongst different ethnicities, amongst different groups in society, high and low. But never fully, never all the way. And I think you can hear that in my music, too. It’s never a pure bred country song or a pure bred pop song. Because I’m not so pure bred myself… [laughs some more] And there is always a longing, for a place, for a feeling, a longing to be whole.

That longing manifested itself in travel. In her teens, Rosanna started crisscrossing Europe and later her journeys took her to Asia.

– I started InterRailing across Europe when I was 15. I went to Germany, Denmark, Greece, Jugoslavia, Spain, all over. Then, when I turned 17, I went to Indonesia by myself for the first time. When I got to the airport in Jakarta, there were 27 cousins there, waiting for me! It was a really fascinating place and I got to meet so many of my relatives. 

– When I was 18 years old, I moved to Venice with an Italian guy. But I couldn’t stay there, everything was damp and I developed an allergy to the mold. So we moved on to Germany, where we got jobs at an Italian restaurant. We almost exclusively socialised with Italians and spoke only Italian and it wasn’t working out in German society. In the end, we all chipped in to hire a private tutor that would teach us German. So I learned German through Italian…

A polyglot, Rosanna speaks Polish, Swedish, English, Italian, German, Spanish and French. But music and language aren’t Rosanna’s only means of expression. Throughout her entire life, she’s also danced.

– I’ve danced ballet, jazz dance, free dance and a number of other movements. As a child, when the family went celebrating holidays and ceremonies at the Indonesian embassy, my father Benjamin introduced me to a woman who taught me traditional Indonesian temple dances. Once I had learned them, he said “now that you know different ways to dance, mix it up! Make them your own.” I didn’t understand what he meant at the time. Years later I was travelling around Mexico with a group of vagabonds, free spirits that went from place to place in buses and vans. Whenever we made camp, they would play afro-latin rhythms on drums and I would dance. One night it occurred to me that I had been moving my legs and hips in an African manner, my hands were fluttering flamenco style, I would twist in an Arabic manner or bend back as in ballet. Mixing it up. Making it my own.

A recurring message in Rosanna’s music is a loving spirituality. Embracing the world with an open heart can seem a pretty basic concept, but in reality it’s an attitude that often meets with a lot of resistance. Thankfully, music has a way to bypass people’s defences.

–  My message is simple: take care of each other. Be respectful. Feel the love in your heart. When you just say it, it may sound like a cliché. But a sound, a tone, can put you in a state of truth. You sidestep the brain and go straight to the heart. Boom! There’s no need for words, for thoughts. Music is the best weapon of love.