I’ve recently been discovering Neapolitan Music – Canzone Napoletana, or more precisely Neapolitan Song. It’s not that I haven’t heard it before. You can’t live in Naples without hearing Neapolitan music. It’s like a life blood that pumps through their veins. The music can be heard in the shops, the restaurants and on the streets. And at every family gathering, sooner or later someone will belt out the first Neapolitan song. That is usually followed by another and another, and for us, the token Americans at these gatherings, they will always sing Tu vuò fà l’americano. On any given day, in any given shop around my neighborhood, one of my Neapolitan friends is humming or singing a Neapolitan song. It’s just their nature.
I understand few words of Neapolitan, the language of the people, or of these songs, but the emotion, in their voices, on their face, in their gestures – that I get. Be it pain or joy, the music and the way the words are sung transcend language. But like all good music of the people, Neapolitan songs are not just beautiful music, they tell a story – the story of the Neapolitan experience, their lives, their hopes, and their dreams. Neapolitan poetry set to music, it has a deep meaning to those who understand it. And while I may never be able to feel the same connection a Neapolitan feels to his music, that can only come from being born and raised in this culture, I do hope to gain a deeper understanding someday.
I couldn’t think of a better place to start than with one of the most famous, if not the most famous Neapolitan songs in history, ‘O Sole Mio. Written by the Neapolitan poet Giovanni Capurro in 1898, it was set to music by Eduardo di Capua, a Neapolitan composer. It may have only taken second place at the annual Festa di Piedigrotta song-writing competition, but it became an international phenomenon.
If you’ve ever hummed along or found yourself tearing up listening to it, yet never knew quite knew what it meant, being moved only by the beauty of the music and the emotion of the singer, you’re not alone. Until I sat down to translate it, I didn’t know what it meant either.
I found the Neapolitan to Italian translation for ‘O Sole Mio, which translates to Il Sole Mio in Italian and My Sun in English, on Wikipedia.it. The English version is my take on the song in collaboration with Marco M. of Italian Lessons Online.
As I was translating, I got stuck on the line sta in fronte a te, which in Italian translates to “is in front of you,” which made little sense to me. Some of the English translations I read translated the phrase as upon your face, as in – the sun… my sun upon your face. This is closer to the meaning of the phrase sta nfronte a te in Neapolitan, which means something like on your face or is your face. But what I think the sentiment is meant to convey is something more like the sun… my sun is your eyes.
‘O Sole Mio has been performed by many, many artists throughout the world. Neapolitan tenor Enrico Caruso brought ‘O Sole Mio to the New York Metropolitan Opera. Luciano Pavoratti won a Grammy Award for his rendition in 1980 and went on to sing it with artists such as Bryan Adams and Darren Hayes and his counterparts in the Three Tenors. Andrea Bocelli has done it as has mezzo-soprano Katherine Jenkins. Elton John did an instrumental version at his concert in Naples Piazza del Plebiscito in 2009 that had the audience singing the words for him. And then there was a young boy named Alex Prior, at least he was young at the time when he sang it to Meryl Streep in 2005.
But my favorite rendition thus far has been by Pasquale – an ordinary guy going about his ordinary day, when he stops in the middle of Galleria Umberto I to entertain his friends and passersby with what is clearly a beloved song. If you’ve already seen this on the Napoli Unplugged Website Home Page or through twitter or Facebook, I apologize, but this version is so representative of the Neapolitan spirit, their warmth, their love for their culture, their sense of humor, and their true showmanship that it just had to be shared again.
What is your favorite version of ‘O Sole Mio?