Renzo Arbore

La musica che viaggia tra Italia e Stati Uniti

May 22, 2013 5732 ITA ENG

Music has always had an important place in the cultural exchange between Italy and the United States. It played a fundamental role in the lives of the early Italian immigrants at the beginning of the last century, and was later the vehicle through which American enthusiasm and optimism travelled and infected Italy after the war.

Nobody better than Renzo Arbore can describe this phenomenon. Amongst his many merits in promoting friendship between Italy and the United States, Arbore was also involved in making the documentary  “Da Palermo a New Orleans” [From Palermo to New Orleans], dedicated to the Italian influence on the American music genre par excellence: jazz. Almost a decade ago, his fantastic tour – which included a memorable show in New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall – left the Italian-American community enthusiastic – there is still talk of it today.

Renzo – you were one of the key figures in the distribution here in Italy of American music and what it represented. How was Italy affected by the arrival of the American way of making music and its way of tying in with popular culture?

In the 1960s, Boncompagni and I launched British and American music in Italy. In those years, a real musical revolution was happening. It started in London, then from America came rhythm and blues, with the Memphis and Detroit schools. We took great pride in having turned the Italian hit parades “more black”, having introduced for the first time in Italy the likes of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, James Brown. There is a rumor that I was the person who inspired Renato Carosone to write the song “Tu vuò fa l’americano”.

And admittedly, in those years America was a strong point of reference for the progress of Italian popular culture: in terms of cars, home appliances, the TV – all these things that existed first in the United States and then arrived here. When I was growing up, you could already catch some clips of the “Perry Como Show”, broadcast in America. After the years of Fascism and war, watching the extraordinary American movies of the time, we fell in love with the country and its optimism.

Also, the American army who came to liberate us, left behind their V-Discs (V is for Victory) – the records the United States sent to the American armed forces in Europe for them to remember the musical culture of their country. So after the war, we “devoured” that music and fell in love with jazz and swing – this was the vanguard of music at that time.

Conversely, for many Italian immigrants in America, music was a reason of pride and celebration of their identity. You confirmed this with the enormous success of your US tours, contributing to once again increasing the popularity of Italian music and leaving the crowds emotional and enthusiastic.

For the popularity of Italian music, we have the tenors and sopranos of the first half of the past century to thank. They brought the music of Italy all over the world, and not just to the United States. “O sole mio” is the most popular song (and not just Italian, but overall) in the world. Artists such as Enrico Caruso, Tito Schipa, Beniamino Gigli at that time, but also, more recently, Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli today – who also sings his own songs, nturally – were and still are real icons of Italian music and thus of Italian culture, everywhere. Certainly, in the years of the boom of Italian emigration in the world, the first tenors had a meaning that went beyond music, and they represented for Italians a great demonstration of the fact that great talents could emerge – and certainly knew how to – even from Italy.

Personally, together with the Orchestra Italiana, I have the pleasure and honor of bringing Neapolitan music all over the world, which is always a real success.

It is impossible to think about American music without thinking about jazz. You talk about this in the documentary “Da Palermo a New Orleans”, that tells the story of Nick La Rocca ...

I produced this great documentary directed by Riccardo Di Blasi, who sadly recently passed away. Together with him I went to New Orleans, Chicago, New York and then Palermo and Salaparuta.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the American Government offered the land it had bought off France (corresponding to present-day Louisiana) for free to whoever would farm it. Immigrants – real colonizers – started arriving from Sicily and began to work on these lands, planting cotton, among other things. Every week there were ships departing from Palermo to New Orleans. Many Sicilian band musicians also boarded these ships, and once they arrived in America, they began to play music together with the black people from Senegal – who had come with the French and stayed on after the sale of the land – with the Canadians and many other ethnicities they found over there. They would meet and play in a square called Congo Square, which today is inside the Louis Armstrong Park: it was there, in this way, that jazz was born. Nick La Rocca was a Sicilian who created one of the first bands there, the Original Dixieland Jass Band (at the time the “z” wasn’t used yet), and in 1917 recorded the first jazz album in history.

At the age of 13, Louis Armstrong was very impressed by this musical band of Italians, who played this new kind of music that made people dance and be excited like nothing before it. La Rocca was a trumpet player: together with him there were other great Italian artists, such as the drummer Tony Sbarbaro and piano player Frank Signorelli. The first famous guitarist in the history of jazz, Eddie Lang, was really called Tony Massaro, and he came from Abruzzo. And the first musician to introduce the violin as a jazz instrument came from Bergamo – he was called Joe Venuti.

But the Italian influence on jazz is not exhausted in time. Many modern jazz musicians, who have made extraordinary arrangements, have Italian origins: one example is Louis Prima, who was born in America but whose family also came from Salaparuta.


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