Thursday, 5 June 2008


What has to be remembered is that the comparatively recent tradition of the Neapolitan popular song was born out of economic necessity. After the unification of Italy in the 1860s, when Naples was stripped of its capital city status and most of its assets, it became a desperate place; many thousands emigrated. So jolly songs like "O Sole Mio" with its simple sun-as-lover analogy were an attempted magnet to draw back tourists, visitors and maybe some of the emigres; the vibrant sun and sea imagery were as much of a construct as Coca-Cola or the ploughman's lunch.

As things turned out, the Naples influx into the States in particular proved crucial, and not just for the long-term benefit of popular music. "O Sole Mio" ended up as "It's Now Or Never" as though using Presley to illustrate just how far the world had travelled, from impersonations of innocent celebrations of carefree joy to patently truthful, albeit suppressed, lust, and Pavarotti subsequently had no choice but to try to reclaim it.

But I think Pietra Montecorvino made a better job of reclamation. Napoli Mediterranea was her album of 2003, reshaping some of those youngish songs, utilising musicians from the trading African countries (Morocco, Tunisia) as well as some from Greece, France and elsewhere, feeding the pulse back into the bustling port that the city once was. Vocally she sounds like a female Paolo Conte; hoarse, 40 a day habit, raspy, confidential but pitch perfect. She transforms "Guaglione" (more famous in the Guinness-revived Perez Prado version) as a dark throb of sensual starvation. With "O Sole Mio" she preserves the central melody but the harmonies are quarter-tone askew and percussion echoes from all quarters like refloated buoys; you have to work to establish a stable listener's base, but it's more than worth it - she sings it with some sense of mourning, of chances lost and opportunities not to be regained - but finds hope towards the end, and her electrifying "SO-le mio" at 2:06 is as justified and ancient a cry of redemption as the "Jerusalem" which eventually swallows up "It's Grim Up North."