Monday, July 18, 2011

From Naples with Love - Music of the Murder Capital

A few of you might remember a blog post I wrote a while back about Barcelona. In a kind of sequel to that, I want to talk about another great Mediterranean cultural center that you should definitely not sleep on!!! Napoli is a city close to my heart, as I have visited many times, as well as summers in the region as a kid, just like my father did when he was young and his father before that.

Like many great southern Italian cities it's a mix of beauty, rich history, culture, and almost year round sunshine but with its equal share of problems too. For those who have never been, here is a brief history. It's an ancient coastal city, even older then Rome. It sits underneath the famous active volcano "Mount Vesuvius" and it's been a melting pot of cultures, race, and religions for thousands of years. It's also the birthplace of Pizza, and once you've had the real thing there, everything else, even the Yank's beloved slice seems like a cheap imitation.

The city itself is full of medieval small streets and even older tenements crammed together, and exploring them can be hectic but equally rewarding. You may stumble across a church full to the brim of original and priceless Caravaggio paintings, or turn another corner and suddenly you are in the middle of a gangland war zone. It's a city of extremes, in one area, precious historic ruins or artifacts and in the next some of the grimmest projects I have ever seen. In fact, to give you a better idea of how bad it can really get, it makes HBO's "The Wire" seem like Disneyland. This brings me obviously to the "negative" side. Naples, despite its rich cultural inheritance, has been plagued by one of the longest running conflicts between hundreds of rival organized crime families or "clans", as they are called in Naples. It's made the city one of the murder capitals of the world and with shocking statistics, overtaking the number of victims well beyond even the Northern Ireland conflict.

Unfortunately, one can not talk about Naples without talking about the "Camorra", and vice versa. Its influence and power is international, including allegations of dirty money being invested in NYC's new Freedom Tower. In 2008, Roberto Saviano's amazing book "Gomorrah" (which I totally recommend, as it's a masterpiece of modern journalism) exposed the dark underbelly of the city and was later adapted into to the Oscar winning film. He has been living under police protection ever since.

Over the years, my obsession with Neapolitan music has intensified and my understanding of it has also become clearer since coming to terms with its violent and colorful history and how it has influenced the music directly. The music of this great city is split into basically three types. The first, and oldest of course is Neapolitan folk and classical music. It's unique to the rest of the world and completely represents the evolution of the city itself. Much of it has ancient roots, even pre-Roman, but has evolved to include the influences of the city's many conquerors over the centuries, including the Moors, the Normans and the Spanish among many others. The best example of this is the group Spaccanapoli, named after the main avenue that divides the city. Their mix of historic sounds from the ages and contemporary recording techniques brings to life a music that pre-dates even the colonization of the Americas, making it infact, the original "Latin" music.

The second major movement in Neopolitan music is a sound thats called Neomelodici. Its a sound that still to this day is almost unheard of in the rest of the world, due mainly to its origin and the type of people that typically listen to it. It is very popular with Neoplitan wise guys, or "Camorristi" to be correct. Its themes are often love songs, but almost always are more about the outlaw lifestyle, telling stories about clan life, jail, robbing, hustling and what's called "malavita" (the hard life translated). Its roots, again, come from the complex hybrid that is Neopolitan folk but has been greatly influenced by 80s/90s synth pop music, most notably the soundtrack to "Scarface". One of the best and personal favourite example of this music is the artist and convicted Camorrista Tommy Riccio. Tommy is unique in the way that his music charms you - it's often sad, such as "Stanza 39" or "Cell 39" (in English) a song about his time in prison and being away from his family. It can also be uplifting and inspirational, while glamourizing the gangster lifestlye like in "si chill te vo bene".

The last and final style of I want to talk about is Neapolitan contemporary music. Apart from the world famous Reggae sound systems, the most notable form of music to gain popularity and for obvious reasons is hip-hop and rap music. Just like the gritty and tough days that Hip-hop was born into in NYC, the music has found a strong following in the poverty stricken and gangland frontlines of Naples' many ghetto areas. Realistically, Naples has more in common with America's gang capital LA, with both cities having their youth recruited extremely young (from 12 upwards) into the Camorra, making the mortality rate for kids/teens very high. The music reflects this, and has become an outlet for this new generation dealing with the pain and anguish of their situation. At the top of the rap game in Naples, but still relatively unknown worldwide is a group called "CoSang" and also is one of my personal favourites. The crew come from a hood called "Scampia". It's a place famous for being the largest open air drug market in the world, and a part of the city that is at the center of the violence, as well as one of the most terrifying looking places on earth. The crew consists of two MCs and in this video below, a single from last year, they feature Italian rap superstar Marracash (from Milan) and El Koyote (from the Neapolitan Dominican community).

Anyways, thats my little report on Naples! Hope this has opened your ears and mind to sum great new music, Enjoy!
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