Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Music and Naples and John Turturro.


The film Passione, directed by John Turturro, is a dramatized documentary about Neapolitan music. It blends spoken word, songs and playful vignettes all set in the streets and boudoirs of Naples in an attempt to reintroduce American and international audiences to a music that they used to know or believed that they knew, and then forgot. The film takes an unusual approach: instead of focusing on the legacy of the music and the far reaching influence that it has had over the years, Turturro and his artistic collaborators in Naples present the state of the music and the city today. It is a jarring collection of images and sounds, the faces and voices of local people who are extraordinary in their oddities. Interspliced with the music are interludes of people from the most humble backgrounds doing strange

Pietra Montecorvino. Click here for more info

street theater type things. It is a film that had to be made by an Italian American rather than an Italian because it is unafraid turn an unflinching camera on the injured souls of Naples, with their uninhibited extroversion, something that is inextricably part of the music, but which is intensely embarrassing to most Italians. And being a part of the independent film community, which thrives on this type of stuff, Turturro perhaps errs on the side of enthusiasm: the film celebrates the deformities and gap-tooth decadence of Naples almost to the exclusion of any images of the more civilized aspects of Neapolitan culture, which also have had much to do with the development of this music. Baroque facades are only shown splashed with graffitti and teeming marketplaces with heaping garbage are more important than all the concert halls and theaters of the city. There is much text about the sexual passion of histrionic lovers, and several songs that correspond to this, but little room for the musical expressions of true love. However, the music is excellent, it is a pot-pourri of songs that run the gamut from old standards to jazz improvisation, to modern popular songs. The best of them showcase the evolving sounds of a newly cosmopolitan Naples that has recently regained the stature of a Mediterranean melting pot that it lost for a couple of centuries. Even such traditional songs as O Sole Mio are presented in various unusual ways, in this case as a medley beginning with old footage of Sergio Bruni singing it in its standard form, then on to a young Massimo Ranieri singing

M'Barka Ben Taleb. Click here for more info

it with a large pop orchestra in the 1960s and then the Tunisian-Neapolitan singer M’Barka Ben-Taleb interpreting it today in a bilingual Arabic-Italian rendition. The singers are also a surprise: they are mostly accomplished musicians but they are not among the most famous – there is no Gigi D’Alessio, no Lucio Dalla, or Anna Oxa (though there is a very talented Loredana Bertè sound-alike in Pietra Montecorvina). The only well known singers are the Portuguese singer Misia, whose soulful fado style gives a beautiful resonance to the melodies, and Massimo Ranieri, the veteran singer who has been dedicating himself in recent years to a reinterpretation of Neapolitan music in a new context.

As I said, this film had to be made by an Italian American and not an Italian. And it had to be a modern, independent minded Italian American who has come to revisit his heritage after a long journey everywhere else. Neapolitan music does not have many champions in the larger community of Italians either inside Italy or out. It wasn’t always that way: The music has been developing for centuries and has had a lot of success in the past. It influenced classical music through opera and other musical styles that were developing during the 17th and 18th centuries when Naples was a rich musical center. In the nineteenth century the Neapolitan song became the prototype of modern pop music. Sheet music for the latest popular songs were sold on the streets and in shops in the city, creating a dynamic of hit songs, singing stars and standard repertoires. In the early twentieth century this pop style spread internationally through the many songs that gained worldwide currency because of this early pop music infrastructure and because of the wealth of talented and highly trained composers, singers and performers that recorded and traveled throughout Europe and the Americas. And the tradition has never faltered. Neapolitan music has been developing and enriching its repertoire of music, its pantheon of composers and artists throughout the past century, and is as alive and vibrant today as ever in the past.

The CD at Amazon

Yet, in New York City during the last few decades, where one could find stacks and stacks of world music recordings in the great music emporiums like Tower Records or J & R Music World, it was always nearly impossible to find anything from Naples, other than tacky “souvenirs of Santa Lucia” type compilations by pop orchestras – this, in a metropolitan area with over a million people of Southern Italian descent. Now that music buying has moved on-line, the situation is much the same at the big american websites. Just see what you get if you search “Neapolitan” on any of the music store websites. Why is this? Why don’t Americans and Italian Americans in particular have any taste for Neapolitan music? One could point to the Anglo-conformist pressures which were particularly ferocious in the case of Southern and Eastern Europeans in the xenophobic hysteria of the first half of the Twentieth Century. But to put the blame there would be a cop-out. The fact is, it is nearly impossible to find Neapolitan music anywhere outside of Naples nowadays, in cities like Paris or Berlin, where there are large Italian communities. Even in Milan or Florence, in Italy itself, one has to search hard for more than just a smattering of the most famous singers. So obviously, the problem goes much deeper.

The DVD at Barnes & Noble

In reality, Naples itself is an embarrassment to Italians. Many people see it almost as a festering wound that drains the economy and the civil society of the country as a whole with its corruption, inefficiency and Camorra organized crime. It has come to symbolize something retrogressive, decadent, dirty and perhaps worst of all, a place with trashy bad taste – in a country that wants to see itself as modern, sophisticated and progressive. And it gets worse: the people who listen to ethnic and world music both inside Italy and out, are generally multiculturalists, on the left and progressive politically. For them, it is difficult to relate to Neapolitans politically, as the Parthenopean city has a reputation for revanchist attitudes and conservative reflexes. There are constant tales of intolerance and xenophobic violence coming out of Naples and the surrounding region even today and they feed a prejudice that already existed about the city. Whereas it is very PC and trendy to listen to Bulgarian monks and Andean pan-flutes, the music of Naples has a decidedly reactionary stink to it.

Then on top of this, the problem is compounded by the negative effects of the success of the past: Neapolitan music has come to mean smaltzy tunes warbled by someone’s tipsy old Uncle Mario at family gatherings, some treacly cliches of nostalgia.  Funiculi, Funicula! The combined weight of all these negative attitudes has made the music almost a pariah in the modern world.

Even the Neapolitans have a love/hate relationship with their tragic and beautiful, culturally rich and tacky city. The film ends with the song Napul’e by Pino Daniele. This iconic song from the 1970s has become a modern anthem for many Neapolitans. It is sung at San Paolo Stadium the way Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York is sung at Yankee Stadium. Here are the lyrics, with their melancholy and ambiguity, in Neapolitan dialect and in English:

Napule E’ :

Napule è mille culure

Napule è mille paure

Napule è a voce de’ criature che

saglie chianu chianu

e tu sai ca’ nun si sulo

Napule è nu sole amaro

Napule è addore e’ mare

Napule è na’ carta sporca e nisciuno

se ne importa e

ognuno aspetta a’ sciorta

Napule è na’ camminata

int’ e viche miezo all’ate

Napule è tutto nu suonno e a’ sape tutto o’ munno ma

nun sanno a’ verità.

Napule è mille culure..

 Naples Is

Naples is a thousand colors

Naples is a thousand fears

Naples is the voice of a child

that slowly slowly rises up

and then you know you’re not alone.

Naples is a bitter sun

Naples is the smell of the sea,

Naples is a dirty scrap of paper

and no one could care less,

they’re just waiting for the turn of luck.

Naples is a stroll through the crowded narrow alleys.

Naples is a dream that everyone knows so well,

but they don’t know the truth.

Naples is a thousand colors.

A film like Passione, helps to show a more nuanced and culturally evolving Naples than we are used to seeing. This beautiful tribute to Neapolitan music can go a long way toward changing hardened attitudes. But a vicious cycle must be broken first. There is no proven market for such a film and so it is a hard sell to get it into local art houses, and there is no young audience for Neapolitan music, so the new artists remain unknown. Hopefully, the situation can be changed one small step at a time. In the meantime, there is always the internet for those who, like John Turturro can move outside the box, pass through all the Bulgarian monks and Andean pan-flutists and reconnect with this culture in a new, 21st century way.

Other Links:

About the Soundtrack

A great interview with John Turturro at Sundance

Other posts about Naples on my blogs:

The photography of Norma Rossetti

The photography of Federico Garolla

The Last Pulcinella

Pappi Corsicato: Il seme della discordia

Scampia and South Bronx: Gomorra


August 25, 2011 Posted by | cinema, music | , , , , | Leave a comment

Brooklyn Museum’s new entrance pavilion: Democracy Now?

My first memory of the Brooklyn Museum was that brutally truncated entrance. When I was 12 or so, my older sister had a boyfriend with a car. We would ride around Brooklyn in his Mustang and one day we drove up to the Brooklyn Museum. The Beaux Arts building was certainly awe-inspiring, but what were those forbidding stone walls that rose up out of the concrete sidewalk? Those high Ionic columns that started way up above your head and the statues that perched on blocks of granite as high as a house? Even with my limited experience, I knew something was wrong.

The Museum after its shearing in 1934

The Brooklyn Museum website explains that the original monumental steps of the McKim, Meade & White building had been removed in 1934. They were deteriorating badly after several decades of deferred maintenance, and the city decided at that time that a more “democratic” entrance would be appropriate. This democratic aesthetic dictated a disproportionately small entry door because it was felt that large, pompous entries were intimidating. (Fortunately, it was not a style that caught on much in the U.S., but one can still find public buildings handicapped with these tiny entrances in the former Soviet Union.)

The Museum in 1906 with its original entrance

It was clear to many that the supposedly democratic entrance never looked quite right. In 2004 a new entrance pavilion was opened. Now the imbalances were rectified, the oddity erased – but by something just as odd. I was curious to see this modern glass and metal entrance after reading all the strong reactions (many of them quite negative) on internet blogs.

The 2004 entrance was designed by James Stewart Polshek. He made no attempt to recreate the original stairway or fake a classical entrance that might seem to blend in. Instead he took a bold approach, crafting a modern sweep of open glass that seems like a growth of cityscape that has attached itself to the building. It is smooth but broken up concentrically, like a digital hiccup or interference on a TV screen. The semicircle of greenish glass supported by metal masts rise up at an angle from the ground, in direct contrast to the rectangular classicism of the historic facade – but in doing so, they evoke the memory of the bulk and the striations of those original monumental steps.

The Museum from across Washington Avenue and Eastern Parkway

From across the road the modern structure has the ghostly silhouette of a grand staircase, in some way reprising the dimensions of the original McKim, Meade & White design.

The entrance reaches out to the street

The passarelle above the doors looks out on Eastern Parkway

Inside the glass, one can see that the stone cladding of the lowest level of the structure has been removed, exposing the red brick of the foundation. It is as though the new entrance had not been tacked onto the building but had somehow grown into it, eating away at the base to establish itself there.  What once seemed to me like forbidding blocks of stone rising perpendicular out of the sidewalk (the so-called “democratic” entrance!) have now had their vulnerability exposed, as though the museum were sympathetically laying its whole history bare for all to see.

Looking in at the brickwork foundation

Those large allegorical sculptures of Manhattan and Brooklyn, which had been added in 1964 when they were removed there from the Manhattan Bridge, now seemed to have come down to earth from their heights, riding just above the arcs of green glass, like two sisters sitting comfortably at some wavy Atlantic shore. And now mere mortal New Yorkers can keep them company, as a large segment of the pavilion roof is dressed with sloping steps that serve as seating for people-watching on a sunny afternoon.

Approaching the allegorical girls by stairway

Certainly there are some people who object to this new pavilion, calling it jarring and overdone, but many others with an opposite reaction, including the New York Times architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp who called it “one of the most attractive public spaces to be found anywhere in town.” To me it has just the right feel of confident innovation and reflection. The Brooklyn Museum has turned a misguided, clumsy doctrinaire attempt at democracy into an inviting, modern approach to the same goal that truly opens the museum to the city.

Read about the history here.

August 17, 2011 Posted by | architecture | , , , | Leave a comment

Woodstock Redux at Bethel Woods: Here to stay or gone forever?

Many people believe that Woodstock took place in the town of Woodstock in Ulster County, New York. It didn’t. It was supposed to, but Woodstock, New York would have nothing to do with this enormous kermesse of hippies, yippies and various hangers-on. So the organizers went out and searched for another venue… and eventually found Yazgur’s Farm in Bethel, New York, many miles away, near Monticello in Sullivan County.

The site of the original Woodstock, as it looks today at Bethel Woods

The rest is history, or at least partially history, and a good deal of myth. If it were truly history we might also know that the area around Monticello has gone through a downward spiral economically that has closed all of the big hotels that once thrived in this area. The myth gives us an image of Yazgur’s Farm as some kind of Garden of Eden in the Catskills.

the museum and hall

But myth is important, and powerful too, and it was the power of that myth and the energy that it inspired that led to the rebirth of the Woodstock venue in recent years, as Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a vast, mostly open air celebration of contemporary music, arts and crafts. It includes a museum, and crafts market and conducts outreach and educational programs for the community.

The grounds are immaculately landscaped, the stage modern, acoustic and huge, the seats comfortable, the lawn pristine. And unlike the original Woodstock there are ample food stands, parking, and toilet facilities. On a recent night to see the Goo Goo Dolls, the place was full of happy concert goers on lawn chairs or seated on rocks or on cushioned seats, and the place was rocking. Unfortunately, it wasn’t nearly full, and a few nights later for Janet Jackson, it was still not sold out.

The modern stage and open air amphitheater

Has the damage to tourism in Monticello already been so complete that even Janet Jackson can’t draw a capacity crowd to a state-of-the-art open air venue in mid-summer?

There have been other attempts to revive tourism in this area of the lower western tier of New York State. Proposals have been drawn up to rebuild the Concord Hotel and to build new facilities for horse racing. However, these projects have been stalled by the lack of funding and proven marketability. Now a new nemesis has arisen: the introduction of fracking. This controversial method of extracting natural gas from shale strata below the ground dangerously close to the water table has split the local community. Some farmers who are now barely subsisting on their hard labors have been offered big bucks by oil companies to allow fracking on their property. They may be concerned about the possibilities of potential environmental problems in the future, but they are also concerned about putting food in the mouths of their children and paying their mortgages today. It is inevitable that some of them will be forced to take the money and allow the practice. Thus, the question mark of how this industrial activity will impact Sullivan County and its hopes for a touristic revival. Fracking is done along the Marcellus Shale Formation which extends through much o Appalachia. It has already had disastrous effects elsewhere where it has been loosely regulated and applied in an exploitative way by unscrupulous businesses. New York State hopes to regulate the activity and limit it to “safer” areas. It has its proponents, too, even among environmentalists who point to the possibility of safe methods. In addition, it should be noted that New York’s energy plan needs to find new resources to replace the Indian Point nuclear power plant near New York City (for which it provides up to 30 percent of the electricity), and fracking could help.

The Goo Goo Dolls in concert

The area is at the crossroads between revived tourism and industrial development. But could what appears to be diametrically opposed futures actually come together to lead to future prosperity? If the fracking can be closely monitored, learning from the mistakes in other states, and the large corporations that inevitably get involved can be required to help with touristic development, perhaps some kind of symbiosis can be achieved. That may be a new myth, but one worth striving to make reality.

Click the link to Bethel Woods.

August 10, 2011 Posted by | concerts, music, performances | , , , , , | Leave a comment