Canzone #7: “Tammurriata Nera” by N.C.C.P. (1981)
Music is everywhere in Naples. There are street performers all along Spaccanapoli, and shops blasting music at full volume on a Sunday morning, even in the sleepiest streets. There’s a piano at the central train station, and on my last visit a group of men – strangers, as far as I could tell – were gathered around the piano, singing traditional Neapolitan folk songs.
“Tammurriata Nera” is a Neapolitan song from the 1940s. Written during the war, it’s an ironic account of a local woman’s affair with a (black) American soldier. She then gives birth to a baby boy. The central theme of the song is the colour of the baby’s skin, which can’t be denied:
Ca tu ‘o chiamme Ciccio o ‘Ntuono,
ca tu ‘o chiamme Peppe o Giro,
chillo, o fatto, è niro, niro,
(Call him Ciccio or Antonio,
Call him Peppe o Giro,
Whoever made him is black)
In other words, you can call him whatever Italian name you like, but that doesn’t change the fact that his father was black.
Is it racist? Well, yes. According to James Senese, child of a Neapolitan woman and a black American solider:
“Tammurriata nera è una canzone razzista, fai attenzione, non sentire la musica, ascolta le parole: offendono una donna bianca che fa un figlio con un nero. Insomma dice che ‘o guaglione è ‘nu figlio ‘e zoccola. Ti dicessi che è stato facile direi bugia. Dovevi conquistarti una tua dimensione e quando sei bambino non è automatico, te lo devi imparare a forza. Io mi guardavo e lo vedevo che non ero come gli altri. Figurati gli altri: “Sî niro”, sei nero, questo era.”
It’s a song where all the focus is on the child’s blackness, and so “otherness”. Yet it’s not entirely negative – although society’s response is to raise a collective eyebrow, there’s no sense of rejection. Just acknowledgement of an undeniable difference.
The lyrics are all in Neapolitan dialect, so unless you’re from Naples you probably won’t understand the majority of it. But even without any knowledge of Neapolitan (or even Italian), you can appreciate that it’s a powerful performance.
This version of “Tamurriata Nera” is performed by the Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare, a group that’s been performing traditional Neapolitan songs since the 1970s. I haven’t really explored their discography yet, but when I first discovered them – listening to a record a palla during a visit to Valeriano’s family home in Cassino – this song also caught my attention. Most of my favourite Italian music tends to be at the poppier end of the spectrum, so it makes a change to listen to something darker, stranger, almost Arabic. Can’t beat a bit of incomprehensible wailing in dialect, where virtually the only word you understand is baccala’ (cod)….