Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry June 2003, 2  boxes  added Aug. 2019

ypical Musical Instruments         2.  "Street Music     3. Boom

Two musical instruments closely associated with Naples are the typical Christmas instruments, the zampogna (bagpipe) and the ciaramella (folk oboe). 

Additionally, there is, of course, the Neapolitan mandolin, a selection of which you see in the photo on the left. The 18th-century Neapolitan mandolin is characterized by a pear-shaped resonating chamber, an open sound hole, and an angled top where the tuning pegs are located. The most typical feature is the set-up of the strings: four pairs of double strings, each pair tuned to the same note, allowing for the typical mandolin sound, the tremolo, when struck by the plectrum. The strings are generally tuned to g-d-a-e. 

The instrument developed in Naples in the 18th century and by now has a long history in popular as well as classical music, including a prominent role in Mozart's Don Giovanni (1787). The introduction of steel strings in the mid–19th century in Naples gave the instrument a more piercing sound particularly suited to the virtually non-existent acoustics of outdoor performances of popular songs. (See the above link to the main entry on the madolin.)

Among the percussion instruments widely used in folk and popular music in Naples is the so-called caccavella  (upper-left in photo collage, above). This  term can often be used in a non-musical context to mean "broken down old wreck"—for example, as applied to a car; the instrument is also known as the putipù, onomatopoeia for the "burping" sound the instrument makes when played. The instrument consists of a membrane stretched across a resonating chamber, like a drum. Instead of the membrane being struck, however, a handle is used to compress air rhythmically within the chamber; the air then spurts out of the not-quite-hermetic seal that fastens the membrane to the wooden body of the instrument. The sound is reminiscent of the sound you get when you cup the palm of your hand into your armpit and snap the upper arm down—(not that you would ever do such a thing).

Another percussion instrument is the triccaballacca —a clapper—(bottom right in photo). It has three percussive mallets mounted on a base, the outer two of which are hinged at the base and are moved in to strike the central piece; the rhythmic sound is produced by the clicking of wood on wood and the simultaneous sound of the small metal disks—called "jingles"— mounted on the instrument. 

Typical of Neapolitan folk music and much folk music throughout Europe is the hand drum known as the tambourine or, in Neapolitan, tammorra. It consists of a circular frame with a single drum head stretched across one side of the instrument. There are generally small metal "jingles", as with the triccaballacca, mounted around the perimeter of the instrument, that sound as the tammorra is struck by the knuckles or the open hand.

These photos were taken in the music shop of Giuseppe Miletti (the gentleman in two of the photos) at Via S. Sebastiano 46.

For another example of a typical folk instrument, see this link.

2.  added Aug. 2019. This is a passage from Marius Kociejowski's [MK] forthcoming book, The Serpent Coiled in Naples.

The index reference in the excerpts table (below) is "Street Music." MK's original chapter title is more ample. Thus:

Street Music

with a Cursory Aside on the Sorrowful Demise of the Quarter Tone

The gentleman is playing a 'hammered dulcimer,' a
distant relative of the zither and the etymologically
related Greek cithara, which has given us 'guitar'.  
Any day you choose walk along the street that leads from Piazza del Gesù Nuovo towards Via Duomo, slow down a little as you enter Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, and you will hear street musicians performing anything from tarantella to jazz to opera. A Botticelli-like woman in a diaphanous sky-blue dress plays harp at the entrance to Santa Chiara; a bearded man who looks as though he has just stepped down from the mountains, unlaced boots, holes in his trousers, plays tarantella on the accordion and sings with a rustic voice, no touristy confection there; a clean-cut man in a dark suit stands stiffly against a wall singing operatic arias with appropriate hand gestures, a deeply melancholy aspect to him. What’s his trouble? Appocundria*, I suspect.

Street music in Naples is a joy not to be passed by with a tight purse. So it was in the autumn of 1770 when the music historian Charles Burney visited the place and wrote:

This evening hearing in the street some genuine Neapolitan singing, accompanied by a calascioncino, a mandoline, and a violin; I sent for the whole band upstairs, but like other street music, it was best at a distance; in the room it was coarse, out of tune, and out of harmony; whereas, in the street, it seemed the contrary of all this: however, let it be heard where it will, the modulation and accompaniment are very extraordinary.
Burney, though peevish at times, hit on something: the open air is the street musician’s true medium. What happens there will not necessarily fly on stage. There we sacrifice our critical faculties for what moves the heart more.

So it was when the Sirens with their bonny voices tried to lure Ulysses to their fatal shore. Ulysses commands the crew to plug their ears while he has himself tied to the mast, ears unplugged
the point t being that he wants to be seduced by their song but prevented? some cod psychology here from being able to act on his desires? One of the Sirens, Parthenope, in despair over their failure to entice Ulysses, drowns herself, thereby giving her name to the ancient city that would one day arise in her wake, which in turn became Neapolis, then Naples.

A song might be said to have given birth to a city. Parthenope would later strike a deal with Christendom. At the church of Santa Caterina della Spina Corona, on via Guacci Nobile, there is a statue of her with water issuing from her breasts, which, so the Latin inscription Dum Vesevi Syrena Incendia Mulcet informs us, douses the flames of Vesuvius. The popular, more vulgar, name for la fontana della Spinacorona is la fontana della Zizze. Neapolitans are never less than familiar with their saints and mythic figures.

* An important word the attentive reader will remember from Chapter Three.

These are the chapters in Marius Kociejowski's [MK] The Serpent Coiled in Naples that currently have small excerpts on Naples, Life, Death & Miracles. There is also an extra item (after #15) from MK.

Ch.1 - introduction -   Ch.2 - An Octopus in Forcella Ch.3 - Listening to Naples  - Ch.4 - Lake Averno
Ch.5 - Street Music (above) -  Ch.6 - Leopardi - Ch.7 - R. di Sangro   - Ch.8 - Old Bones - Ch.9- The Devil -
Ch.10- Signor Volcano - Ch.10 (2) (3)Ch.11- Pulcinella - Ch.12. - Boom (below) - Ch.13 - Two women -
Ch.14- The Ghost Palace - Ch.15- An Infintesimal Particle -  (extra) Riccardo Carbone, photographer.

3.  added Aug. 2019. This is another passage from Marius Kociejowski's [MK] forthcoming book, The Serpent Coiled in Naples.

The index reference in the excerpts table (below) is "Boom", the same as the original chapter title in the book Thus:

 Chapter Twelve


An onomatopoetic word: a tourist guide dropping a heavy stone onto the surface of Solfatara, an explosion in a factory making stuff it ought not to, the sound the tammorra makes, a big man’s voice. This journey begins with a familiar thumping against sun-dried goatskin stretchedover a circular wooden frame. This is not to suggest the tammorra was born here. Some variant of it can be found going all the way back through ancient Greek, Egyptian and Sumerian cultures, and it accompanied the Dionysian rites that were alive and well in Magna Graecia.
What those old revellers aimed for in their music and dance may have changed spiritual clothes but not their substance. The distance between the “Great Mother” Cybele, black goddess of the earth, and the Black Madonna of Montevergine is not as great as some Christians might like to think, although if time were to go into reverse, devotees of the former would probably remove some of the latter’s monotheistic traces as not adequately reflecting the plurality of existence.Those ancient dances were ecstatic, sometimes quite beyond the pale. BOOM. Another purpose for the instrument was its employment in physical and spiritual healing ceremonies.
Kociejowski spoke at length with Marcello Colasurdo (image, above) at the latter's home in the town of Pomigliano d'Arco. Colasurdo is widely known as a portatore della tradizione (bearer of the tradition)  of the tommarra. "The flat where Marcello lives seems to belong  to another time and  place. There is a strangely odd sense of being suspended, of there being nothing outside  its walls."

The tammorra was the instrument that addressed, and in turn was addressed by, the soul of the people. So it was then, so it is now. It is at the very heart of the tammurriata, which, as with Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, is a celebration of fertility and sexual love. BOOM BOOM. The dance is as erotic as it is chaste, a dynamic that has been all but forgotten in modern culture, the man’s and the woman’s bodies never touching, although the lyrics to some of the songs they dance to leave no one in doubt as to their sexual import. There are even masculine and feminine approaches to the playing of the instrument, the men holding it in the right hand and the women in the left, which is how the ancients perceived the division of the sexes, the right side for men and the left, the sinister side, for women.*

*[Note that "left" and "sinister" are the same word in Italian and some other languages. jm]

There is another brief passage here, based on MK's discussion with Colasurdo.

Paola Gargiulo at the Officina della Tammorra on Vico San Severino is a maker of the instrument, a seller of it. She also gives musical workshops. Some nights you hear the thumping when you pass her place. Troubling though the idea of such workshops can be, and in many eyes signalling the death-knell of popular culture, there can be no doubting her sincerity. She has a peculiarly Catholic take on the history and playing of the instrument, but her religious exclusivity is not a barrier to absorbing the points she makes. If anything what she says is an amplification of what already resides in this rather pagan heart of mine. She brings the distant past into the present without sacrificing her religious principles. So I feel no contradiction whatsoever between past and present: the tammorra was put in the service of the gods and so
it continues, the only difference maybe that the old gang of deities has been whittled down to a gang of one.
These are my words, not hers: I’ll take the brunt of whatever she wishes to throw at me. She also has a deep distrust of what she calls an intellectual approach to the instrument, which I took to be a quiet warning. We began with the instrument itself and as she spoke, a wealth of experience in her passionate voice, it became incumbent on me to remember I am but a trespasser on an ancient turf she struggles to protect, which she knows is subject to contaminants from outside. One thing bothered me the souvenir tammorras with painted scenes on them that she sells to tourists, but then she told me she needs to do so in order to survive. Anyway they are unplayable and admittedly, at times, I am too much the aesthete at other people’s expense.

These are the chapters in Marius Kociejowski's [MK] The Serpent Coiled in Naples that currently have small excerpts on Naples, Life, Death & Miracles. There is also an extra item (after #15) from MK.

Ch.1 - introduction -     Ch.2 - An Octopus in Forcella Ch.3 - Listening to Naples  - Ch.4 - Lake Averno
Ch.5 - Street Music Ch.6 - Leopardi - Ch.7 - R. di Sangro   - Ch.8 - Old Bones - Ch.9- The Devil -
Ch.10- Signor Volcano - Ch.10 (2)Ch.11- Pulcinella - Ch.12 - Boom1 (above)- Boom (2) - Ch.13-Two Women-
Ch.14- The Ghost Palace - Ch.15- An Infintesimal Particle -       (extra) Riccardo Carbone, photographer.

                        to music portal                    to top of this page

© 2002 - 2023