July 19, 2019
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
John Domini's new novel The Color Inside a Melon captivates with its clever postmodern noir.
The Washington Post wrote of the book:
"The narrative has its requisite share of mobsters, cops and bloodshed, but for Domini these are mainly pegs upon which to explore Risto’s sense of displacement and belonging. ... Domini’s novel is determined to push the noir―and us―out of well-worn ruts."
Over in Naples, some evenings the ancient centro seems held together by sheer talk. The tangy local shorthand seems itself the essential glue keeping these streets vital for going on 3000 years. This sets me a special challenge, as I return to Largehearted Boy, thanks to the generous David Gutowski. His lovely offer demands a different approach from what I used for MOVIEOLA! or The Sea-God’s Herb. This time, I’ve got to work up the soundtrack for an entire complicated city.
That complication, of course, itself owes a lot to language, the multiple languages of cultures from all around the Mediterranean. An astonishing variety of peoples have been drawn to this breathtaking seaport, starting back in Minoan times. The latest arrivals of course would be those Franz Fanon termed “the wretched of the earth,” the desperate souls of the African diaspora, fleeing horrors like famine and genocide. One of them— a lucky exception, a man who’s achieved success in “the North”— is my protagonist, Risto.
In other words, just as walking the piazzas can feel like a rave, with a fresh groove at every turn, my list can’t be mere research. It needs the rhythm and drive of folks who’ve barely made it to shore and yet hop once more to their feet.
“Brigante se more/Suddd:” Raiz/Alamegretta & Pietra Montecorvino, Passione Tour
John Turturro’s celebration of Naples was Passione, his 2010 documentary on the rich local heritage of song. In the States, the actor had to fund screenings himself, but in Italy it lead to a hit tour and album. This cut, like all the set’s best, is a catchy cultural mashup, pairing a folksong of musician-outlaws with a new quasi-rap about life in Europe’s troubled, Africa-inflected “Sud-d-d.”
“Tezeta, (Nostalgia):” Mulatu Atstatke
The Ethiopian culture reaches back further than the Neapolitan, and the country looms alongside Somalia, my protagonist’s homeland. No question the phat and infectious sounds of Addis Ababa could be heard in Mogadishu as well, including a good handful of tunes called tezeta; a decent quck translation for the Amharic would be “the blues.”
“Police On My Back,” The Clash
Here’s one that at first seems to have nothing to do with Naples or its newest wave of arrivals. Nevertheless, few songs make such a good fit for the situation of a dark-skinned stranger in a society nominally “white,” with its breathless gallop through the week and its recurring outcry, “what have I done?” Joe Strummer and Mick Jones often cited the influence of refugee culture in The Clash’s work.
“’O Sole Mio:” Massimo Ranieri
Inescapable Neapolitan pop, this gem is now closing in on its 150th birthday, and has treatments by everyone from Enrico Caruso on down. Best known to Americans in its Elvis cover, “It’s Now or Never,” the tune has proven sturdily adaptable, as in this recent live take, in which the light of love bursts like a solar flare.
“Una Notte a Napoli,” Pink Martini
Pink Martini, with its singer China Forbes, regard themselves as the lounge act for the world’s Happy Hour. This story of a brief but transcendent love was swiftly embraced by locals, though its marimbas and chorus sound as much Mexican as Neapolitan. Its “angel” may be “without wings,” but boy, does it fly.
“Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine’” James Brown
My novel alludes to the music of the old city, and the stories they tell, but the lone tune mentioned by name is American— insofar as Funkmaster James belongs to any one culture. Get up, get up, speaks to refugees everywhere, and my protagonist Risto thinks “Sex Machine” might be the one song to get lots of play both in his wife’s hometown, Naples, and his own ruined Mogadishu.
“Medina,” Pino Daniele
Daniele, native to one of the city’s nastiest slums, could be a playlist to himself. In the ‘70s and ‘80s he singlehandedly established the local dialect as the voice of Italian rock, and his early “Napule è” is regarded as a city hymn. For my purposes, however, I’ve selected one of his later forays into an Afro-Arab palette, its melody and sock terrifically ear-pleasing. The second vocal is the Tunisian Lotfi Bushnaq.
“Sukora,” Ali Farka Touré & Ry Cooder
This number too may not seem to belong, since the genius multi-instrumentalist Touré came from the Atlantic side of Risto’s continent, and his hypnotic, Hookeresque guitar is rooted in the Niger Delta. On the other hand, by now you hear such riffs everywhere, and there may be no better example of Euro and Afro coming together beautifully than this set of jams with Ry Cooder.
Known throughout Italy as La Signora Ciccone, this woman may still claim the title Queen of Pop, and much of the reason is her sharp perception of how such music depends on aspiration. Dreaming big and then somehow climbing up into that dream, that’s Madonna in hit after hit, and “Vogue” may be that sentiment’s most perfect embodiment— and as such, an anthem for refugees determined to reinvent themselves. My novel both begins and ends on the dance floor.
“È amore un ladrocello,” Ludwig Amadeus Mozart, Cosi fan tutte
It’s not far, is it, from glam disco to the musical spectaculars of Mozart? His Cosi fan tutte translates nicely as “all the girls do it,” and he set it in Naples at a time when the loose morals of its Borbon court were the talk of Europe. Here one of the opera’s conniving sisters complains that “love is a little thief”— but the music’s alive with a gaiety and brio that belie her laments.
“Nun te scurda’,” Almamegretta, Pietra Montecorvino, M’Barka Ben Taleb, Passione Tour
For our closer we return to John Turturro’s labor of love, Passione. This song is surprisingly recent, out of 1990s, yet it ranks already among the city’s touchstone themes. Its dub-step feels native, natural, and its story speaks for the hardscrabble that shapes so many Neapolitans on the fringes. A woman forced to sell her body warns us: “Don’t you forget”— she too is a part of this urban hive. In a brilliant stroke, this concert performance features a verse in Arabic, sung the Tunisian artist M’Barka Ben Taleb.
John Domini and The Color Inside a Melon links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists