It’s 2 below zero and the 25-minute wait at the subway necessitates an unintended Lyft ride, but Monica Cialona, so bundled up that you can barely see her double anti-Omicron masks, is ebullient.
And it’s not only because she managed, despite the delays, to be on time.
No, it’s because she knows – deep in her heart, down in her soul – that 2022 is going to be her breakout year, a period of great possibilities that she’s been rehearsing for her entire life.
When the pandemic all but shut down her life in the music industry, Monica, the singer/songwriter/composer whose professional moniker is Dafney, seized new opportunities.
In addition to setting up a studio in her apartment and recording two albums, Dafney enrolled in the New York School of Interior Design.
“I saw it as a chance to finish what I started,” she says. “It’s just two years – I graduate in May.”
What Dafney started began in Kuwait City, Kuwait, where she was born and spent the first three years of her life while her father, a structural engineer, was working there.
Her parents were born and raised in Eritrea, a country on the Horn of Africa that was colonized by Italians at the end of the 19th century, and had moved to Italy in their 20s.
“I’m half Italian, half African – my grandmas are African, and my grandfathers are Sicilian,” Dafney says.
Shortly before the 1991 Gulf War, her family returned to Milan, Italy.
That’s where the future of the woman who would style herself as Dafney started to take shape.
“I’ve always loved music,” she says. “I used to sing along to this kids’ talent competition show on TV. My parents noticed my interest and enrolled me in the contest when I was 6. I didn’t win but placed very well. I still smile when I look back at the video.”
It wasn’t long after that that Dafney started taking piano lessons, studying classical compositions.
“We didn’t own a piano, so we rented one,” she says. “I didn’t think it could take my heart, but it did, and I understood right away that I wanted to be a musician. And I’ve never stopped.”
Dafney, who grew up listening to Stevie Wonder, Queen and Michael Jackson, found her voice when she heard Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” from the 1992 film The Bodyguard.
“The song blew me away – I listened non-stop,” she says. “At 11, I asked to take singing lessons.”
Although her parents were supportive of her artistic pursuits, her teachers were not.
“The schools in Italy do not place much emphasis on music,” she says. “My professors told me I would not get a serious job or go anywhere with this. I knew I would have to have something to fall back on.”
The first of her four degrees (she has two bachelor’s and will have two master’s when she graduates this year) was in architecture.
“At the same time I was working on it, I was attending the academy of music,” she says. “I worked from 6:30 a.m. until 8 p.m. every day. It was difficult, but I managed.”
She got her second degree, in contemporary writing and production, from Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“I auditioned as a singer, because my voice was my main instrument by that time,” she says. “I was in tears when I was accepted and got a scholarship.”
It was, she says, the best time of her life.
“I met musicians from all over the world, and I’m still friends with many of them,” she says. “And I worked a lot in music as an independent musician when I finished school.”
In 2013, Dafney moved to New York City to work on a master’s degree in music at New York University.
Since then, between singing, composing and teaching private piano and voice lessons, she has more than made a living doing what she loves. (She once had the honor of performing as a background vocalist for tenor Andrea Bocelli.)
During her time at the New York School of Interior Design, Dafney has been further exploring the relationship of music to architecture and other artistic disciplines.
For her thesis project, she is designing a music therapy center that helps people improve their quality of life as well as their health.
“My research showed that there are only two such independent centers in the world,” she says.
Dafney hasn’t had much time to think about her future beyond finishing her latest degree, but she is sure that music will be a significant part of whatever endeavor she pursues.
“I’ll keep working on my music, and I’ll still keep singing and writing songs,” she says. “I’m already thinking of creating a line of furniture connected to music.”
She smiles as she puts on one mask then the other and heads out into the cold again.
Copyright 2022 by Nancy A. Ruhling