street music in naples -- 3/10/23

Today's selection -- from The Serpent Coiled in Naples by Marius Kociejowski. The beauty of the street music in Naples, Italy:
"Any day you choose, walk along the street that leads from Piazza del Gesu Nuovo towards Via Duomo; slow down a little as you enter Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, and you will hear street musicians performing anything from tarantella to jazz to opera. A Botticelli-like woman in a diaphanous sky-blue dress plays the harp at the entrance to Santa Chiara; a bearded man who looks as though he has just stepped down from the mountains, unlaced boots, holes in his trousers, plays tarantella on the accordion and sings with a rustic voice, no touristy confection there; a clean-cut man in a dark suit stands stiffly against a wall singing operatic arias with appropriate hand gestures, a deeply melancholy aspect to him. What's his trouble? Appocundria, [melancholy, nostalgia], I suspect.

"Street music in Naples is a joy not to be passed by with a tight purse.

"So it was in the autumn of 1770 when the music historian Charles Burney visited the place:

This evening hearing in the street some genuine Neapolitan singing, accompanied by a calascioncino, a mandoline, and a violin; I sent for the whole band upstairs, but like other street music, it was best at a distance; in the room it was coarse, out of tune, and out of harmony; whereas, in the street, it seemed the contrary of all this: however, let it be heard where it will, the modulation and accompaniment are very extraordinary.

"Burney, though peevish at times, hit on something: the open air is the street musician's true medium. What happens there will not necessarily fly on stage. There we sacrifice our criti­cal faculties for what moves the heart more. So it was when the Sirens with their bonny voices tried to lure Ulysses to their fatal shore. Ulysses commands the crew to plug their ears while he has himself tied to the mast, ears unplugged, the point being he wants to be seduced by their song but prevented -- some cod psychology here -- from being able to act on his desires. One of the Sirens, Parthenope, in despair over their failure to entice Ulysses, drowns herself, thereby giving her name to the ancient city that would one day arise in her wake, which in turn became Neapolis, then Naples. A song might be said to have given birth to a city. Parthenope would later strike a deal with Christendom. At the church of Santa Caterina della Spina Corona, on Via Guacci Nobile, there is a statue of her with water issuing from her breasts, which, so the Latin inscription -- Dum Vesevi Syrena Incendia Mulcet -- informs us, douses the flames of Vesuvius. The popular, more vulgar, name for la fontana delta Spinaco­rona is la fontana delta Zizze. Neapolitans are never less than familiar with their saints and mythic figures.

Ulysses and the Sirens, painting by John William Waterhouse

"So it is when one goes down to the seaside where one can listen to the fishermen, repairing their nets, singing with their grizzled voices. 'E si nun canto, io moro.' Words close to proverbial, I've heard them uttered several times: 'If I don't sing, I will die.' So it is that in Naples, another assertion we will let fly -- the first assertion, remember, is that melody was born in Naples -- even the deaf sing and are not wanting of tune. What's alive here is a melodic strain that has absented itself from much of Berlusconi's trash culture. It's as if for all their misfortunes, and maybe even because of them, Neapolitans were given a taste of something they are in no hurry to lose. There are spots on the planet where one finds a species of floating excellence -- Istanbul is another such place -- and maybe it's because in order to survive at street level one must always be at the top of one's game. The mediocre hasn't got a chance. It was somehow appropriate that the first street singer I should see in Naples was a stout old woman missing a couple of front teeth, clutching a microphone, and singing a popular canzone in a coarse voice against crackly music coming from a heavily bandaged tape recorder. I would see her again, a couple of months later, a slightly younger version in a yellow track suit, at the beginning of John Turturro's irresistible film, Passione, his personal exploration of Neapolitan music. It was like I'd been greeted by an old friend although we never spoke." 


Marius Kociejowski


The Serpent Coiled in Naples


Armchair Traveller


Copyright Marius Kociejowski, 2022


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