by Kathy Sherak
I’ve spent several different years of my life living, studying, working, and traveling widely in Italy. For no apparent reason, I had never explored Naples. Happily, that grand oversight was erased a year ago when my husband and I went back to Italy after a long hiatus and in the middle of our nostalgia tour, were offered the ultimate golden opportunity to walk Naples with a dear friend who is Neapolitan.
Walking up Via San Gregorio Armeno as it opens into Piazza San Gaetano, we followed the sound of heavy guitar strumming and a clear deliberate voice belting out a lover’s lament. I remained transfixed by the scene. I had always loved Canzone Napoletana and had amassed an extensive collection of records and sheet music over my years in Italy. I assumed this vast and varied romantic and hauntingly beautiful music was the stuff of recordings.
Standing in front of me that early afternoon was one of Naples last remaining posteggiatori, or public singers, the remnant of a Neapolitan tradition going back several hundred years. He’s Alfredo Imparato and when he isn’t working as a custodian in a middle school in Posillipo, he’s on the streets of the city belting out an endless string of Neapolitan songs accompanied only by his own guitar strumming. I bought his two home-made CD’s and we made our way up the Via dei Tribunali, not fully realizing whom we had just encountered.
When I returned home to San Francisco, I began to listen to Alfredo’s unvarnished versions of classic love songs by Nicolardi, De Curtis, Di Giacomo and many of the other Neapolitan greats, and high-spirited comic songs by Viviani and Cioffi, all from the early 20th century. I realised I had to get to know this man.
Through some sleuthing on Facebook, I tracked down his daughter and began corresponding with Alfredo by e-mail. (Truth be told, his daughter writes for him.) He told me about his many jobs over the years and about his wife and three daughters, but what resonated through our correspondence most was his passion for Neapolitan music and playing and singing in public. The more I saw him in the context of Neapolitan life, the more I fantasized about returning to Naples to experience his world for myself. My fantasy turned to reality when we returned to Naples last March and spent two weeks hanging out with Alfredo while he sang and visiting with him and his family in his home.
Alfredo’s favorite places to hold court are on Via Port’Alba in front of the Amodio Bookstore, on Via Chiaia in the wide area below Teatro Sannazaro, and in the place where I met him a year ago, Piazza San Gaetano.
If you happen by when he’s holding court with his voice and guitar, his presence will immediately draw you in. There might be a crowd of school kids around him begging him to lead them while they all belt out “‘O Sarracino” , one of their favourite anthems, or he might be taking a request from young lovers to sing them the tearjerker, “Carmela”.
If you stay for a couple of songs he’ll chat you up; and during your stay, you’ll enjoy the other show that goes on around him, the Napoletani strolling by and suddenly stopping in their tracks to sing along. They soon realize that he is keeping their spectacular musical treasure alive with the same passion as the Posteggiatori of a hundred years ago.
Kathy Sherak directs the English language program at San Francisco State University. She has lived and traveled extensively in Italy. She spent two weeks exploring Naples in 2011 and will return this spring for more Neapolitan adventures.