3. The eclipsing of the Neapolitan song

The persistence of the idea that nothing new could be done to the Neapolitan song is demonstrated by the clearly articulated position towards it taken by those Neapolitan musicians who have obtained recent national success. These successes took place after an eclipse that lasted at least a decade, during which the only pop hits of Neapolitan inspiration were those - largely Americanized in their sound and adapted to the vocal style and musical logic of the singer-songwriter - by Peppino di Capri. The so-called 'Neapolitan school' advertised by record companies at the beginning of the Seventies was formed by musicians for whom references to jazz and soul music were stronger than any regional reference, despite the use of their dialect: southern-ness consisted of a metonymic play with blackness.

Arab imagery on Pino Daniele's latest album cover

The southerners are the oppressed ones, the marginalized of Italy, and thus they sing and play a blues of their own. Vague notions such as 'sunniness' and 'Mediterranean-ness' were a part of these ideological constructions. However, there were no specific references to any specific musical traditions that might - however remotely - be connected to such concepts. It was not until 2001 that Pino Daniele - the most important representative of this genre - managed to insert explicit references to some musical traditions of the Mediterranean in his music, and these are Arab references (2).

In the first half of the 1970s, the Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare affirmed itself nationwide, proceeding to recover, decidedly and explicitly, the repertoires, instruments and expressive methods of the Neapolitan tradition although – according to some – their efforts were mostly focused on written sources.

The Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare live in the Seventies

Vurria addeventare (mp3 file, 175 kb, 0.59 min)

It was no coincidence that new groups that privileged the relationship with the still living or revitalized oral tradition, such as the Gruppo Operaio E’ Zezi di Pomigliano d’Arco, were soon opposed to them.

A Flobert (mp3 file, 283 kb, 1.35 min)

Both were cases of work of great quality whose nationwide success is particularly significant: nonetheless, one must note how the repertoire of Neapolitan song was again considered as an ‘other’ to whom one could be compared, in a manner reminiscent of the urban popular vs. peasant dialectics of Bartòkian origin.

The period between 1964 (the year of the scandal-causing presence of the Nuovo Canzoniere Italiano at the Spoleto Festival) and 1978 (the year of the assassination of Aldo Moro and the end of the political movement known as ‘il Sessantotto’, or ‘Sixty-eight’) is characterized by the strong presence of popular music, and the recovery of the oral tradition on the musical scene and in the conscience of Italian musicians, even of those committed to song and popular music. At times the revival took on commercial connotations that disturbed its scholars and most serious practitioners, such as when ‘folk music’ ended up being performed on the TV program, Canzonissima, the epitome of television consumerism. What is of interest is that in those years a great deal of popular music circulated in Italy. Singer-songwriter and rock groups declared that they wanted to escape American influences in order to be inspired by the ‘authentic roots’ of Italian song. Since the Istituto De Martino was at the height of its activity – there was no difficulty in learning its sources, from the Genoese trallallero and Sardinian choirs to the dances of the tarantolati, to quote but a few of the musics unequivocally Mediterranean on the basis of their geographic location. Italy is a country that stretches into the center of the Mediterranean, whose repertoire of songs in dialect has been identified worldwide with the sun and the sea of Naples (and Venice, and all of Italy), and had a recently rediscovered heritage of oral tradition. One could reasonably have predicted that a search for authenticity (if the meaning of the word is what it seems to be) in musica leggera, or in Italian popular music, would take place through a relationship with these repertoires and traditions.


4. A tradition to be invented

But this did not happen. There were sporadic, limited cases in which this was the case, such as the explicit arrangements that the Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) made of some of Fabrizio De André’s songs for a tour in 1979. However, one must not forget that – as the author himself admitted - De André’s tarantellas were derived from Brassens, and not Naples.

Don Raffaè (mp3 file, 284 kb, 1.35 min)

The Italian Mediterranean, as seen by singers and authors, was holographic, touristy, maybe a little fascistic. Gradually, thus, the idea of another Mediterranean - the ‘real’ one deemed to live beyond known Italian traditions - established itself. Maybe it resided magically in a tradition still unknown. Or maybe it was to be found in some tradition yet to be invented. Area are one of the groups who claimed Mediterranean inspiration. Their singer, Demetrio Stratos, was born in Alexandria, Egypt, of Greek parents. Their greatest hit, Luglio, agosto, settembre (nero) [(Black) July, August, September] begins with a ‘pirate recording in a museum in Cairo’ in Arabic. The song that opens their second album is entitled Cometa rossa (Red comet) and has a text in Greek: nevertheless, the instrumental part preceding and following the sung part is a Bulgarian dance that was taken note by note from an anthology published by Nonesuch.

The late Demetrio Stratos, Area’s frontman

Cometa rossa (mp3 file, 316 kb, 1.46 min)

1981 saw the release also in Italy of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts by Brian Eno and David Byrne, and 1983 saw that of Peter Gabriel’s fourth album. It is beyond any doubt that these were very influential albums, also consumed and devoured in Italy by all involved in popular music. Piero Milesi, the producer of Fabrizio De André’s last album, Anime Salve (1996), relates how at one of the early meetings to start recording De André came along with an album by Peter Gabriel to indicate the sound that he would have liked to recreate. My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, with its editing and superimposition of Arab melodies upon the vocals, and basses à la Talking Heads, suggested a starting point to armies of ‘DIY enthusiasts’ armed with 4-track recorders and collections of Unesco records. The album might be said to have initiated the World Music sound in the most ideologically explicit way: by uprooting music from outside of the Anglo-Saxon and/or economically advanced world and transplanting it in a context of digital delays and sequencers.

In short, at the beginning of the 1980s, all of the premises required to create a Mediterranean that did not exist, or that had not yet been imagined in existing Italian music were in place. This was a non-existent Mediterranean, not the first and not even the last in a series of musical genres or categories (the first that springs to mind is that of ‘Italian rock’) created out of an ideological postulate, but for this reason not any less real, less solid. It was, in this respect, much like a character from one of Italo Calvino’s novels who was born out of the will of the people, animating an empty armor and making it undertake extraordinary deeds.

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