1. The Mediterranean and Naples

It is difficult to imagine a more ‘Mediterranean’ repertoire than that of Neapolitan song. Not only for Italians, I believe. Many of the clichés on Italy and Italians - which include abundant references to the sun, the sea, unmistakably ‘Mediterranean’ food such as spaghetti or pizza - are tied to the Neapolitan song. In the last few weeks France 2 showed an advert that utilized magnificent sunny images of Venice commented by ‘O sole mio (or was it maybe Torna a Surriento? What matters is that there were mandolins) to support the promoted product. The French advertisers’ ignorance of the regional specificity of songs in Italy comes as no surprise. Firstly, France 2’s audience would not know how to interpret a more geographically correct soundtrack such as La biondina in gondoleta, and, what is more, for decades even Venetian gondola singers have learned to intone ‘O sole mio for American newly-weds or Japanese tour parties, putting on, at least musically, Southern clothes otherwise not always appreciated in the area. The Neapolitan song is identified with Italy: it is still considered abroad as an integral part of the mainstream of Italian popular music, rather than one of the regional, dialectal repertoires. Indeed, popular texts on ‘World Music’ generally do not refer to it, just as they would generally not refer to Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley when discussing the United States, or the Beatles in relation to England. In fact, in the first edition of World Music. The Rough Guide (Broughton et al. 1994) there was no entry on Italy. In the new 1999-2000 two-volume edition, little more than a single page is dedicated to Naples; that is, less than what is granted to the discussion of the nonetheless very interesting Sardinian traditions. Neapolitan song is allocated approximately twenty lines. Evidently, Neapolitan song is not acknowledged as having those requirements of otherness vis-a-vis the mainstream which are considered essential in ‘World Music’ ideology. While this is a rather significant symptom of the fragility of that ideology, it nonetheless reveals a common feeling certainly preceding this particular ideological formation. Fado (even Lisboa antigua) is ‘roots’, tango (even La cumparsita) is ‘roots’, but the Neapolitan song is mainstream. After all, Caruso and Beniamino Gigli used to sing it.

But this is not the fault of foreigners. Even Italians – who express surprise that their image abroad is that of short southerners with little black moustaches who gesticulate and eat garlic from morning to night – think the same of the Neapolitan song. It would be difficult to understand the history of Italian popular music in the last forty or so years without considering as a given this common feeling, this form of identification, and the resulting need to re-locate the ‘Mediterranean’ components of Italian popular music – whichever these may be - outside of the mainstream, to rescue them from the mark of conservatism.


2. ‘Urlatori’ and ‘melodici’. And ‘cantautori’.

Towards the end of the 1950s the signs of change manifested themselves strongly with the emergence of the ‘urlatori’, or ‘shouters’ (the name that the critics of the time gave to local rockers), and the ‘cantautori’, or singers-songwriters (who were influenced both by the French chansonniers and rock’n’roll: the name was suggested by a record producer, Vincenzo Micocci) (1).
In this period, the press attributed great importance to the juxtaposition of these representatives of an explicit renovation of the Italian ‘musica leggera’ (popular music), and their conservative opponents, the ‘melodici’ (melodists). This confrontation was embodied in, respectively, the persons of Domenico Modugno (who was certainly far from being a traditionalist in his vocal style, though at the same time distant from the real ‘urlatori’ or the early timid examples of ‘cantautori’), and Claudio Villa, the ‘little king of song’.

Domenico Modugno as a ‘cantautore’

Resta cu’mmé (mp3 file, 376 kb, 2.05 min)

The fact that Modugno’s repertoire featured songs in dialect, although composed by the singer himself, and that Claudio Villa referred mainly to his Roman origins (he was from Rome’s neighborhood of Trastevere) complicates, but does not really interfere with the ideological implication of this confrontation, which rapidly assumed broader dimensions.

Claudio Villa, The Little King

While the southern dialectal song was intoned, tenor-like, at the top of one’s voice, and was considered to be ‘conservate’, song in the Italian language - interpreted with the crooner’s or the chansonnier’s quotidian voice, and earlier on Modugno’s curious, cabaret-style drawl - was considered to be ‘innovative’. The representatives of the Neapolitan song (authors, singers, publishers, record producers) consciously sheltered behind this hostile position against ‘innovation’ increasingly making the festival of Neapolitan song (threatened by the competition of the Sanremo festival whose rules excluded songs in dialect) the sanctuary of tradition. Furthermore, they contributed decisively to the identification of Neapolitan song with the conservative past. As ‘byproducts of the dialectic’, to adapt Adorno’s useful notion to a different kind of music, always emerge; that is to say, musics and musicians eluding categorization, whose existence challenged a polarity that had already come to constitute common sense. Renato Carosone’s parodistic genius confirmed that very same dialectic, especially since it redeemed Neapolitan-ness through parody.

On the other hand, the treatment reserved for E la barca tornò sola (a song in the language but modeled on the rhetorical examples of the Neapolitan tradition) could no longer allow for doubts as to whether Carosone should be listed among the ‘innovators’.

Renato Carosone (center) at his best

E la barca tornò sola (mp3 file, 335 kb, 1.52 min)

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