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AROUND NAPOLI
Street Musicians in Naples
I don't know quite how to judge the observation I've heard recently that "there don't seem to be as many street musicians in Naples as elsewhere in Europe." In terms of numbers, that may be true when I think of cities in northern Europe such as Amsterdam or Munich. The real difference may be, however, not just in numbers but in the kinds of musicians one sees on the streets.

Elsewhere, I have had the impression of young kids--maybe even conservatory students--out on the streets sort of busking their way through the summer. Two young girls, for example, may set up their music stands, take out their violins and give passers-by some Vivaldi or Mozart. I have heard fine classical guitarists and flautists playing for pennies in the north.

In Naples, I think I would group street musicians into three categories: the truly awful, the very good, and the outlandish. The awful ones include almost all gypsy accordion players, some of whom are as young as six or seven years of age and have simply had a tiny squeeze box pressed into their untrained little hands by their overseers and been sent off onto the cable cars and city buses, where people will give them some coins to go away. The truly awful would also include one particular gentleman with a tenor saxophone who gets on the busses and plays the first 12 measures of In the Mood over and over and over until you are in the mood to get off and wait for the bus carrying the brass section. In both these cases, inflicting trial by dissonance on travellers is illegal in that it constitutes a public nuisance, but I have never seen any bus driver tell them to stop.

The very good musicians on the streets are relatively few, but they are usually the same few, which leads me to believe that they live in Naples and busking is just the job they get up and go to every morning. There is a marvellous young pianist who sets up his battery-powered keyboard and speakers at various spots throughout the city. He plays great jazz and takes requests for classical music. I have heard him go from Thelonious Monk to Chopin. On a good day with a receptive crowd, he does all right. Occasionally, he is accompanied by a bass player, whose instrument looks as if it has been glued together out of unvarnished barrel staves. But he can play. There is also a clarinet, bass, and accordion trio that varies American standards with kletzmer music with equal facility. Some of these groups may actually tour from town to town. There is an obviously professional group of musicians from Peru who appear on the streets in Naples when the weather warms up--seven or eight musicians playing those bamboo pipes of Pan, percussion instruments, and at least one guitar--and even a large-bodied bass guitar. They, of course, are happy if you toss a coin into the guitar case open on the sidewalk, but they also hawk their CDs to the crowd.

The outlandish musicians are more on the order of the one-man (or woman) band. The one I have seen the most over a period of many years (though not recently) is from Germany and apparently now lives in Naples and performs. He sets up a puppet-theater back-drop--usually in Piazza Ges Nuovo--dresses weirdly, works a marionette puppet to recorded music (so maybe he doesn't count as a real musician!) and works the crowd with a microphone. He used to have a dog that would sleep through most of it off to the side. Recently, I have noticed a new musician, a woman (bottom photo) who plays fine accordion. I think she plays Finnish folk music. I deduce that from her dress. She looks as if she has just ridden in on a reindeer.

I do not include as "street musicians" the considerable number of professionals who wander from restaurant to restaurant (and then from table to table). They usually work in twos--guitar and mandolin (with the guitarist singing Neapolitan songs).

Jeff Matthews
9/3/2005
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