When I imagine Naples, I think of getting lost in the historical centre, between colourful fruit boxes and wet clothes hanging from balconies. I think of having a pint of beer al fresco on busy streets full of people, eating delicious street food in a loud market, and visiting elegant buildings with colourful facades under the warm Mediterranean sun. The traffic is constantly buzzing, the city is alive, and I am charmed by its charismatic personality, by its friendly people. I can see that what ties together all of these classic Neapolitan sketches is one specific element: music. Naples and its Neapolitans are made with music. So much that when in Naples, I feel like I am breathing music, as if the city itself is on the edge of belting it from its lungs.
Music has always been there in Naples–sometimes spoken (thanks to its melodic language), sometimes sung (the very famous serenades) or even sometimes staged (melodrama, anyone?). Melody has developed hand-in-hand with Neapolitan society: a language used to describe the city and its culture. Like volcanic magma, the history of Neapolitan music is an always-fermenting part of the Italian music legacy, thanks to the many musicians who have made it so peculiar over the years. (There are Fernando De Lucia, Renato Carosone, and Enrico Caruso to name a few classics, but also unorthodox synthpop gems like Hans & Romeo and Italo bangers like Come Closer.)
On this groove, and it should come as no surprise, there has been much noise lately around the new sound coming out of Naples, which goes by the name of “Napoli Sound” and counts a fair number of musicians, labels, producers and DJs as its artists. The sudden fame of Napoli Sound may be due to improved quality in recent years, or perhaps to the fact that these records have a unique sound in the contemporary music panorama. Although the sound is varied and spans many genres, Napoli Sound encompasses a taste for rhythm and beats, namely funk, soul, disco, afrobeat and reggae.
The most influential name of this lot is the band Nu Genea, famous for their brilliant record Nuova Napoli and the soon to be released “Bar Mediterraneo”, which made them famous in every corner of the world for their quintessentially Neapolitan sound in which afrobeat rhythms, north African inputs, funk and disco influences converge into hypnotic grooves. The duo’s fame helped a generation of talented and smart musicians get the recognition they deserve, showing how sparkling the Napoli scene is and just how cool they sound. Just two names from this energetic scene are Pellegrino & Zodyaco and Mystic Jungle, who owns Periodica Records, produces music under the moniker Rio Padice and plays in the supergroup The Mystic Jungle Tribe.
Naples, however, is not new to this injection of grooves: the roots of Napoli Sound go back to post-WWII Italy, when the city was home to one of the biggest NATO military bases in the Mediterranean. At the time, it was a place for cultural exchange between U.S. soldiers and Neapolitans. The urban working class was thrilled to express itself, experimenting with lyrics and music genres, and picked up Afro American sounds left by the soldiers. The result was remarkable music.
Between the 70s and early 80s, Naples defined a sound that became a staple in Italian music history. Among the many names populating the scene, James Senese is one of the pillars of the genre, mashing Neapolitan dialect with prog-jazz in Napoli Centrale. In 1974, drummer and percussionist Tony Esposito released a debut in which jazz and Mediterranean music collided, creating a culture clash halfway between Miles Davis and Neapolitan folklore that still charms after 50 years. It is virtually impossible to choose only one record from the late, great Pino Daniele, whose wise mix of blues, Balearic and Neapolitan roots made him famous worldwide. Just as important is Tullio De Piscopo, whose 1984 masterpiece Stop Bajon has become a classic in every club in the world.
What makes these musicians so important is that they all managed to capture the rules of African and American music, and blend it with a taste for Mediterranean heritage, creating a sound that was innovative and classic at the same time. Approaching the 80s, Neapolitan sound shifted slowly towards pure disco and funk coordinates, with the many floor fillers by Pino d’Angiò, the great Alan Sorrenti (whose late 70s/early 80s production is absolutely remarkable), and Eduardo de Crescenzo’s pop, boosted with funk and soul.
Behind these big names, the Neapolitan sound was also represented by an ocean of lesser-known, sometimes-forgotten, often-brilliant musicians who published obscure, rare disco-funk tunes and then disappeared mysteriously. It’s impossible to mention them all, so I’ll just mention a few I particularly like, such as the catchy disco-pop tune Lingua Biforcuta, the funk banger Guagliù, my absolute favourite reggae Neapoligne Reggae, and the funk explosion of Tonica & Dominante. Thanks to a crew of passionate musicians (namely DNApoli with Famiglia Discocristiana and the above-mentioned Nu Genea), two compilations were released (one in 2018 and one in 2021) with the best rare tunes made in Naples of disco, boogie and funk. The compilations are called “Napoli Segreta vol.1” and “Napoli Segreta vol.2”: both have plenty of floor fillers. Try and prove me wrong while listening to “Calypso” by Tony Verde, “Sasa” by ORO or “Napule Canta E More” by Donatella Viggiano.
The new Neapolitan sound is the flagship of a city that has its roots firmly in its past, but is also a genre that speaks to the contemporary language of international music. I think one of the reasons why Neapolitan sound has become so popular recently is because of its jovial immediacy and freshness. The sound is an anthem against the dark times we are currently living in. It carries the unstoppable and visceral spontaneity of life, rooted to our primordial necessity for dancing and conviviality.