Funk music begins to play. It immediately makes you move your body. It’s an unmistakable ride. Then a rather elegant man comes on stage–one hand in his pocket and the other with a lit cigarette–and with a slightly cocky air, he tells of an imaginary flirtation, but his tone is ironic and it’s immediately a worldwide success.
“I caught her at the disco with a snake-like look.
I approached her, she already didn’t understand anything
I looked at her, she looked at me and I went wild
Fred Astaire compared to me was static and clumsy
I blew her a kiss in her mouth, one of those that pops […]”.
Italian music, just like cinema, boasts a huge list of classics and a large number of cult hits, but no song is as much part of both groups as Pino D’Angiò’s 1981 “Ma Quale Idea?”, which catapulted the Campanian artist onto stages and radio stations around the world. It’s a song that is still listened to and danced to today, even by those who weren’t around in the 80s like me. That single uncovered a vast and multifaceted talent, which, even after a forty-year career, has not yet exhausted its creativity. So I called Pino D’Angiò and we had a nice chat.
“I don’t know how it happened. I have no idea,” he explains. “I’ve had other worldwide hits in addition to ‘Ma Quale Idea?’, like ‘Don’t Call Me Baby’ by Madison Avenue and ‘The age of Love’–all danceable and extra Italian. And I had fun doing it. My job is a game. It’s like I’ve never worked in my life. I get paid for things I would do for free.”
It’s impressive to hear that from an artist who has sold 12 million records worldwide, who won a Grammy (which he hasn’t picked up yet), who was called the inventor of trance music by Billboard, who was one of the fathers of European rap, who created a standard for funk and Italo-disco.
“Do you want to know how it all happened? Life came and took me by the hand. Success is called that because it happens [Editor’s Note: the Italian words successo (“success”) and succedere (“to happen”) have the same root]. After it arrives, it’s easy to try to explain it, but that’s just talk.”
Pino D’Angiò didn’t expect success, but neither did he expect to work in music and entertainment. He tried working in the military, studying medicine, and only started performing for fun while studying at Siena. It was there that he was noticed by producer Ezio Leoni who invited him to Milan. When D’Angiò visited Leoni in his studio, Leoni chose “È Libero, Scusi?”, which sold only 3,000 copies. After six months, Leoni called D’Angiò back for another 45 rpm single edit: “Ma Quale Idea?”
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was kicked out of the academy immediately for lack of military aptitude and of respect for my superiors. Then I dropped out of university just a few exams away from graduation. I was at a crossroads: I had to choose whether to go on tour to South America or take the clinical medicine exam. How could I go to the professor and recite things that didn’t interest me at that moment? Today, I would’ve been an ordinary doctor in an ordinary hospital.”
Later, he did actually finish his exams and graduate, but he didn’t dream of being a singer, nor does he like being called one much.
“Singer is the only profession whose name has the present participle, as in descendant, marching [Editor’s Note: Cantante contains the Italian present participle “-nte”]. It’s a limiting title: a singer is someone who just sings, someone who just does that. Anyone can do it; it doesn’t take much, just a microphone attached to a computer.”
Critical, wise, bold, but also profound. You can hear it in songs like “Gente Intelligente”, “Perdoni Lieutenant”, and in more recent years in “Italiani”, an accurate portrait of the entire population. Pino D’Angiò has sung of everything and everyone, but in his own way. Even love: that’s why the great Italian singer Mina asked him to write a love song that was in his style; he wrote “Ma Chi É Quello Lì” (“But Who Is That Guy”), later covered by Monica Vitti. In songs like “Notte D’Amore”, he showed a love that was often light-hearted, but also very intense. His rebellious soul made him unique in the Italian artistic panorama. That low tone, that subtly mocked Mediterranean machismo, that lack of self-seriousness. In the 1982 track “Fammi un Panino”, D’Angiò sang:
“Under a pear tree the songwriters are weeping,
with their broken hearts, with their great loves […]”
D’Angiò’s career had no lack of boutades and provocations. Once, in 1989, he pretended to faint to get out of a performance at Sanremo.
“I make fun of myself by making fun of everyone. Yesterday as today, singer-songwriters were all obsessed with love: enough! I like to talk about love, but in my own way, and I like those who don’t take themselves seriously. When I was a boy, I used to make a mess. I used to liven up the evenings. I used to tell jokes. I basically kept doing the same thing [when I became a singer]. I was already like that before notoriety. I hoped other people would laugh. I like to be in a happy environment. Maybe I never grew up. Even now I’m writing an album that makes people laugh.”
A new album, however, not of rap.
“In rap as they do it today, you can’t understand a damn thing, and besides, it’s something I’ve already done and I don’t want to become a copy of myself. We move on. But I like Franco126. He’s very good. I participated in his single ‘Scandalo’ and we made a version of ‘Gente Intelligente’ that we sang together.”
Pino D’Angiò has created pop, funk, rap, and jazz music (his first passion), but he’s also made poetry, theater, TV and radio programs. He speaks Spanish, English and French. He is among the founders of the Italian National Singers Team, with which he played for twenty-two years, and he was a paratrooper.
“You live many lives in one. We must not waste any of them. Skydiving was just unconsciousness: after a dozen jumps, I stopped. Better not to tempt fate too much. I always enjoyed soccer, but I wasn’t very good at it. I played like Mr. Magoo! I’ve acted, but I’m not a good actor, I just play myself. The fact is that I’ve always been hyperactive. The people in the press office or the legal department in Milan would see me arriving at 10 in the morning all cheerful, jumping around, and they were convinced that I was using cocaine. When I was young, I was doing a job I liked. Why did I have to be gray? I still have so much fun doing concerts today. And in front of a very young audience. I never expected that. They remember my songs better than I do.”
In recent years, cancer has led him to numerous operations, compromising his voice and his career.
“I was working on Radio 1 and in voice acting. All of a sudden, the disease put me out of work. You see, when one is well, one is afraid of being sick. But when one is sick, one is no longer afraid. Suddenly you’re without a voice and you have to deal with it. But don’t say that I fought against the tumor: for now, I’ve had the better of it, but you don’t fight with armor and sword against the disease. You wait: if it goes well, good. If it goes wrong, you’re not there anymore. And in this world, you have to be there. In spite of everything, I believe that we have only one duty in this life: to be happy, or at least to try. To do the things that make us feel good. Only this can save us. We only live once, damn it, and there’s no alternative to living, so we might as well live well.”
And “are you happy?” I asked him.
“I’ve never been happy in life, but I’m not unhappy either. In my opinion, we don’t know happiness. Maybe it’s a euphoric peace that I’ve never experienced. However, you certainly have to train yourself for happiness, day by day, enjoying the little things. Happiness passes us by in every moment and you have to know how to recognize it.”
D’Angiò has traveled a lot since his childhood in Campania, his homeland, following his engineer father and touring for his career in Spain, the United States, South America, and Canada. But he has always returned to Italy.
“I was born in Pompei on August 14, 1952 and when I was six years old, I was walking around the excavations. I grew up in the cradle of archaeology, in a context full of history. I care about my roots, but I’m from Pompei, not Naples. Naples is a beautiful city, but it is not valued. It deserves more. Then I lived on the Amalfi Coast for many years, but for convenience, I moved to Rome. Actually, my life has been full of forced choices because I couldn’t choose the alternative. I didn’t choose to go back to Italy. I just couldn’t stay abroad anymore. I didn’t want to. I didn’t make hard choices, I did the only things I could do.”
A full life, of successes and failures, of joys and of sorrows.
“Life is made according to how good we are at knowing how to live it. We’re a million balls shot out of the air and it all depends on where we bounce. And then the important thing is to have a passion for something. Like music.”
And what does Pino D’Angiò have passion for?
“For life: it amuses me to no end and it’s never-ending to discover.”