Vinicio Capossela (By Paolo Di Motoli, Università di Padova)
If we were to confer an honorary doctorate upon singer-songwriter Vinicio Capossela, the choice would be quite easy and the degree would surely be in Anthropology. As if to confirm our conviction, the author mentioned in one of his books (Nel paese dei coppoloni, Feltrinelli 2015) Ernesto De Martino, one of the most prominent Italian anthropologists whose studies on southern Italy still act as a roadmap to guide us through the myths, the roots, the symbols and rituals of that part of the world. The south, where the roots of our author lie embedded, is the hinterland, as he says, the Irpinia by which to orient ourselves on the colored map of Italy, the birthplace of his parents, while he himself was born in Hanover, Germany.
If we were to mention one of Vinicio’s first “participant observations” (a method often used by anthropologists) in music, we can’t help but cite the song “All’una e trentacinque circa” (At About One Thirty-Five) from the album of the same name produced in 1990. The world which our pianist observes, probably from a locale in Emilia-Romagna where he began his career, is that of a bar. His vantage point is privileged because it allows him to describe a series of customers with scant adjectives that nevertheless suffice to recreate the place and the characters who haunt it.
Capossela then surprises us and changes position and genre, recounting the final days in the life of the painter Amedeo Modigliani through the eyes of his beloved Jeanne Hébuterne (who later committed suicide). The song is called “Modì” and gives its name to his second album, released in 1991.
Capossela is always looking south, whether it be the southern US, mixing his own acoustics with popular jazz and swing sounds, or the south of Italy with its dances and its folk songs that emerge as powerfully as the smell of bonfires in village festivals on the album Il ballo di San Vito (Saint Vitus’s Dance). This album, from 1996, makes mention of those affected with tarantism, a disorder which Ernesto De Martino examined in his 1959 book entitled La terra del rimorso (The Land of Remorse).
There are numerous literary references in his songs, to Homer, Dante, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Federico Fellini, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Fante, Louis Férdinand Celine, Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville.
This latter is the inevitable reference point for the album Marinai profeti e balene (Sailors, Prophets, and Whales; 2011) which is conceived entirely around the notion of adventure, of the search for the sacred and the mystery evoked by the sea and by Melville’s literary epic. The richness of the album’s sounds makes it a sort of encyclopedic/all-encompassing work on the sea and its strength.
This theme was already present in the gloomy and spectral piece entitled “Santissima dei naufragati” (Most Holy Mother of the Shipwrecked; from the album Ovunque proteggi, 2006), inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. One song on the album deserves a special mention: the vertiginous “Moskavalza,” a history of Russia from the Tsars to Chruščev, orchestrated with hard and steely sounds that give the feel of Eastern European techno.
The return to anthropology is marked by incursions into the music of Greek rebetiko in the album Rebetiko Gymnastas from 2012, which for the most part offers retakes of songs from previous albums set to the sounds of the baglamas, the lyra and the bouzouki, all typical of this genre, which became popular in Greece during the 1940s.
We arrive at the culmination of Capossela’s return to his roots, and the growing self-awareness of an artist who has long been much more than a mere musician or songwriter, with the double album of 2016 entitled Canzoni della cupa (Songs of the Dark), dedicated to the language, environment, and popular music of Irpinia, the birthplace of Vinicio’s parents and the land of his mother tongue. Myth, religion, and biblical figures mix with ancient and modern sounds, both strange and familiar (with echoes of Ennio Morricone from the Sergio Leone soundtracks) like the land of Herodias in the song “La notte di San Giovanni” (The Night of San Giovanni). It is an album featuring the collaboration of Los Lobos and Flaco Jimenez, bringing music from yet another “south” into a disorientating but wonderful mélange.
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