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Neapolitan Music – An Italian Musical Expression

Neapolitan music is a blend of culture and modernization. Naples was at its peak as the center of the musical world in the 1700s. Neapolitan songs are still acclaimed the world over, and hold an underpinning story, peculiar, funny or tragic. Napulitanamente, celebrates Neapolitan music scattered all over Europe: evolving since the 15th century— and what started with light-hearted melodies to three voice singing style. It was the power of music that brought social change by promoting the idea of “freedom.” Every song tells a tale about the city, its people or a moment in history.

1st century BC The poet Catullus, in the heartbreaking poem 63 of his Liber describes the celebrations to Cybele, the Great Mother, which took place by beating the drum. As for Cybele and the ancient divinities of the time, so, as still today, for the Madonna of Montevergine (Mamma Schiavona), and for the other Madonnas or even for some saints, the devotees, through singing pray and dance to the fast rhythm of the drum, cymbals and bells. Thus, it can be seen that thanks to the rituals of the Greek tradition, music has always accompanied the Neapolitan people who are also very devoted to the Madonna Schiavona
Subsequently, around 1200, with the birth of the University and the birth of the Neapolitan language which was the official language until the union of Italy, Neapolitan music took off and became known all over the world.

The Beginning and Evolution of Neapolitan Music

In the 18th century and for more than a century Neapolitan music via the Neapolitan School of Music dominated Europe’s music stage. Thomas Jefferson cataloged his personal favorites in 1783, with Piccinni, Hasse and Pergolesi, composers trained in Neapolitan conservatories. Naples attracted lovers of the arts, from across the Mediterranean, even as far as Africa and the Far East.

Traditional Neapolitan Music/ Folk Songs

The tammurriata, or the “dance on the drum”, is a folk dance of Campania: this music is highlighted by the tammorra (typically a leather tambourine) castanets, other traditional instruments and the dancers. It has been passed from generation to generation, and still resonates in the Centro Storico of Naples today.

Roman poet, Gaius Valerius Catullus, (born in Verona, Cisalpine Gaul in 84 BC, and died in 54 BC, Rome), known for the finest lyrical poetry expressing human emotions, writes about the ancient tammurriata, in the heartbreaking poem 63 of his Liber. He describes how Attis comes to Phrygian woods and in frenzy castrates himself becoming in essence Cybele, the Great Mother’s eunuch priest and sings and calls unto her in his/her devotion playing the tammurriata.

Bells are held sacred in prayer across many religions, and the bells of the tammurriata hold the same significance.  From the ancient times of Cybele and other divinities, till today, for feasts of the Madonna of Montevergine (Mamma Schiavona who represents the earth.), other Madonnas and revered saints, love of song and music is part of devotion and prayer. Fervent devotees, display their zeal through song, prayer, dance, and the fast-paced rhythm of drums, cymbalis and bells.

At the end of the 16th century opera, a theatrical piece of music that tells a story originated in Italy soon spread through the rest of Europe. The word opera come from the Latin word “opus” and, later Italian, in noun-form operari, which means “to work.” In fact, opera evolved from boisterous song and dance performances and exciting stage effects meant to entertain Roman crowds in between acts of the actual play and were known as intermezzi.

Modern Neapolitan Music

Neapolitan Folkloric traditions also influenced the 1950s music propagated by Mario Merola, Renato Carasone, and Domenico Modugno with hits such as Tu vou’ fa l’americano and Volare.

Neapolitan songs are now world-famous, taken along by emigrants from Naples and southern Italy between 1880 and 1920, and popularized abroad by performers such as Enrico Caruso, the world-renowned beloved tenor who was also one of the first musicians to be recorded. In his foreign performances he would sing the popular music of his native city as encores.

Jazz was introduced in Napoli by Renato Carosone during the 50s. Rock music soon spread from the United States in the early 1960s. The initial rock songs were mostly cover versions of already existing songs. The 70s brought Neapolitan produced rock to the forefront. The Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare, with Roberto De Simone, Eduardo De Crescenzo and Pino Daniele, are famous names of the times. Pino Daniele brings an innovation by blending Neapolitan folkloric beats with American Blues and by combining English with Neapolitan lyrics.

Initially writing songs in Neapolitan, his lyrics were definitive because of their intermingled use of English, Italian and Neapolitan, and the strong accusations against the social injustices he saw in Naples and Italy.  He called his music “taramblù”, a derivation from tarantella and blues.

The First and Second World Wars may have taken away joy from life but Neapolitan music, became a source of entertainment for the US troops stationed in the Mediterranean, and that is how the melodies and songs reached the world. Today, Neapolitan music is a national treasure immortalized by names such as Renato Carosone, Pino Daniele, and Roberto Murolo, amongst many others, and opera and Neapolitan music in general a gift to the world. Neapolitan songs have influenced many American singers of whom Dean Martin, Perry Como, and Elvis remain the best known, so if you haven’t tried it yet, put your ear pods on and listen in, to discover what makes Neapolitan music so irresistible.