Okay Napulitan!: Social Change and Cultural Identity in the Songs of Renato Carosone

Article excerpt

Renato Carosone was one of the most popular Italian entertainers of the 1950s. His virtuosity as a pianist, his skill as a bandleader and manager, along with the musicianship of the bands he put together made him one of the most sought-after performers. With the popularity of his songs and his performances, his influence extended beyond Italy and continues to be felt today. His world tours included concerts at Carnegie Hall and an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. (2) His hit "Torero," for example, stayed on the charts in Italy for 21 weeks and during that period was translated into twelve different languages. Within a few years it was covered by other artists at least 32 times (Giannelli 2008:84,150). His songs have been used in film soundtracks. Martin Scorzese used "Scapricciatiello" and "Maruzzella" to help create the atmosphere of New York's Little Italy in Mean Streets (1973). Recently "Caravan Petrol" was featured in Passione (2010), John Turturro's musical tour of Naples. "Tu vuo' fa' l'americano" has been sung in several films, including Toto, Peppino e le fanatiche (1958); La baia di Napoli (It Started in Naples) (1960), with Sofia Loren and Clark Gable; and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). And recent recordings of "l'americano" include an English version by American rockabilly artist Brian Setzer (2000) and a version in original Neapolitan by the Anglo-Italian singing group, The Puppini Sisters (2007). (3) Not only does his legacy live on, but in recent years his innovations and his influence has been reevaluated by some of Italy's most important jazz and pop musicians.

Carosone's songs left an indelible mark on Italian popular music and are worth revisiting for various reasons. With his extraordinary ability to blend musical styles and sounds from various national and ethnic traditions, he anticipated what today we refer to as world music (Bollani 2004:37-38). In the postwar period, the popularity of Neapolitan songs was waning, as new musical forms coming from the Americas were all the rage. By using his abilities to blend styles and by coloring his songs with theatrical elements from the Neapolitan macchietta, Carosone helped to revitalize the Neapolitan song, giving it new energy and new direction. A close look at some of the many songs he co-wrote or chose to record presents a snapshot of certain cultural and social changes that were rapidly taking place in postwar Italy during the 1950s. In the satirical tradition of the Neapolitan macchietta, his songs often comment on these changes, and what he intended to convey is highlighted in various ways. One way was by encoding musical statements to color the narratives and underscore his messages. He also blended and contrasted language codes and registers, reflecting the linguistic situation of the period. These and other aspects of his songs will be looked at more closely below.

An important part of Carosone's message was an incentive to modernize Neapolitan/Italian culture, musically and otherwise. He believed this could and should be done without losing one's own cultural heritage. One of his most important contributions was to reinvigorate and transform the venerable tradition of the Neapolitan song, while maintaining a strong sense of his own Neapolitan heritage and ethos. His message--to be open to change while keeping cultural roots--was heeded by some prominent Italian musicians, such as Pino Daniele: "Carosone ci aveva mostrato la via da seguire, aveva insegnato a tutti i futuri rinnovatori della canzone napoletana, e quindi italiana, che Napoli non era mai stata un'isola, che non bisogna fare i paladini della tradizione, ma accettare la scommessa del futuro provando a rivitalizzarla" (Carosone 2000:xii). In 1999, on the cusp of the new millennium and of his eightieth birthday, various Italian musicians paid homage to Carosone on the pages of Naples' Mattino. Edoardo Bennato wrote,

Carosone e stato il primo a cantare in napoletano e ad aprire le porte della nostra canzone al vento che arrivava dagli Stati Uniti. …