A native of Bari, the capital of the Apulia region, he was a professional drummer from Italy who had never set foot on American soil. “A telex had come with a message for me, and at a time of no cell phones, when international communication was super expensive, when a telex came, it was usually bad news,” he retells. “So at first I got worried. Also, since it was in English, and my English was not yet that great, I had the ship’s hostess read it out loud and translate it for me. It was the acceptance letter from Berklee College of Music, which I had applied for a year earlier and had totally forgotten about it.
“I remember we stopped rehearsing (I even remember the song: ‘How will I know’ by the late Whitney Houston – how appropriate!) and we all went to celebrate at the bar with some of the best champagne they had,” he continues. “We toasted to my future, then the leader of the band fired me. Right there on the spot. He did it because I was actually having a blast — playing and traveling the world while being paid for it — and he knew it. He assured me that there would always be place for me if I needed it, but that now it was my time to make it big.
“Berklee had been in my dreams and in the band members’ dreams, too,” he explains. “Now I had the chance to make it come true and they wanted to see me try… really try!”
Sergio never took advantage of the bandleader’s open offer to return. He went to Berklee (“with only the money for the first semester,” as he likes to point out), graduating in 1998 while working as an assistant teacher and playing gigs around Boston. He performed 200 nights a year on the Odyssey Boston alone, later becoming the the harbor cruise ship’s musical director, and earning the nickname “the hardest working man in Boston” from his music instructors.
Judging by his current schedule, the same nickname could still apply. On top of being a full professor at Berklee, Sergio owns and manages the largest drum and percussion specialty store in Massachusetts. And at night, he still performs with different bands, including every Tuesday at Blades, a temple for rhythm and blues aficionados on the South End Roxbury line. Also, he is repeatedly invited to festivals, workshops and clinics across Europe, and especially in his homeland of Italy where he teaches four to five times a year on average.
“I have found the right balance,” says Sergio who, at 43 years of age, with his long hair and deliberately uncultivated beard, still looks like a teenage drummer getting ready for for his next gig. “My workweek is evenly split between teaching, playing and running the store for a total of about 55 hours.
“It would have been 60,” he adds with a sly smile, ” but I saved on the commute.” He did so by setting up shop in Winchester, one of Boston’s most affluent suburbs, literally across the street from where he lives with his wife, Lucia, also a native of Bari, and his two daughters, Adriana (9) and Marina (10). “After wanting to go back to Italy for many years, I have finally found the perfect dimension,” he explains. “Everything in Winchester is walking distance, people hang out in the little square, there is a real sense of community. Moving here made me miss Italy less.”
The land of his birth remains in his bloodstream, however, from the instruments he sells to the music he plays. One of his ongoing projects for instance is Spajazzy, a jazz band with an Italian flavor he formed at Berklee with schoolmate and lifelong friend Tino D’Agostino, a trumpet and bass guitar virtuoso who originally haled from the Naples area. They have two albums out and, to hear Sergio talks about it, probably many more to come. Also Italian in spirit is his collaboration with Alessandra Belloni, a New York-based performer of world renown with whom he experiments with and performs Taranta, the typical Apulian rhythm and dance.
“For the last 30 years, I have been waking up every morning looking for something to tap on,” says Sergio, totally at ease, in his store, surrounded by various colorful and shiny devices that allow him to do exactly that. “At age 15, a cousin of mine showed me his drum set in the basement, it was love at first sight. Then came the negotiations with my father — and the neighbors — to get my first set; the garage bands; the buying and selling of used instruments; the playing in a band from Turin in casinos and night clubs; the cruise ships; Berklee; the opening of my first store five days before September 11, 2001; the teaching; the gigs … and I am far from tired!”
Transforming his passion into a career, “with students becoming customers, customers becoming fans and vice versa,” could only be possible in America, he reckons, a land that makes that makes it so easy for people with an entrepreneurial spirit to get things accomplished. Unfortunately, he concludes, the starting line isn’t exactly the same for everyone. “With a decent health care and public school system, in other words truly equal opportunities, this would really be the best country in the world.”
247 Drums is located at 22 Park St. in Winchester. For more, call 781-218-3350 or visit www.247drums.com.