CALL ME GUIDO
When I was a kid, my father played Jimmy Roselli and other Neapolitan singers for me. Back then I hated it. He took me to the Italian novelty store, E. Rossi & Company, on Grand Street in Little Italy as if to impress me with the Neapolitan music they played. It was too Italian for me. Too narrow. I wanted to see the world, not be imprisoned in our family heritage or a national identity.
Twenty-five years later, I’ve amassed a collection of recordings of the Neapolitan singers, and read books and articles on the subject. Now, I go down to E. Rossi & Company to play guitar with Ernie, the owner. I look through his record collection, searching for a Neapolitan singer I don’t know or an album I don’t have.
The fact is I’ve become obsessed with the topic. I’m searching for more than information. I’m resurrecting my father. I’m communicating with him across time and place. When I write these pieces, I’m writing them for him first. To delight him. To share my enthusiasm with him. I know my father would have loved to read them.
When I learned that the first six-stringed guitar is said to have been made in Naples, I wished I could have visited him. The conversation may have gone something like this.
“I have some interesting news for you, Dad.”
“I’m listening,” he’d say, not yet looking up from his crossword puzzle, tapping his foot, snug in a slipper, on the floor.
“Have you heard of Giovanni Battista Fabricatore?”
“I may be dead, but I’m not stupid.”
“Fabricatore, a Neapolitan luthier, made the first six-stringed guitar,” I’d say, proud to have discovered this fact. To share it with him.
“Listen kid, I always told you the Italians were the first in many things. And especially the Neapolitans. Do I have to give you a list of our accomplishments?” he’d say sternly, then smile. The joke was always a breath away with my father.
“You know I’m learning this stuff for you?”
He’d stop being facetious now, his face would soften and his bright eyes would suddenly beam.
“You know I’m busting your chops. This is just like you. You become obsessed about things. It’s one of your strengths. To be honest, it drove me nuts sometimes.” He’d see that I had taken a little offense to what he’d just said. Then he’d add, “But it doesn’t now.”
And he would tell everyone else, when I wasn’t around, what I was writing about. He’d bring copies of my books, essays, and stories around with him wherever he went.
My father’s teasing was his way of saying he liked you. If he teased you, it meant he felt you could take it. I saw him do it with only some of my friends. It was an honor that he bestowed on you. The difference with me is that I teased him back. It was our way of poking at each other. The joking was mixed with honest criticism. It was never bitter. It never went too far.
To tease me, my father told me that he wanted to name me Guido when I was a kid. Guido would have been the worst name possible for a kid from Queens. A Guido was a guy who talked funny, wore gaudy clothes and drove a Camaro. This was the entire point.
“I love the name Guido,” he said.
“It’s stupid, I hate the name Guido,” I replied.
“Why, it’s a great name. You should be proud of it. It’s Italian.”
“A Guido is a guy who slicks his hair and wears white shoes.”
But some of the greatest Italians were Guidos. Among them was Guido Arezzo, who invented modern musical notation in approximately 1025. Guido Arezzo wrote “Micrologus,” a guide that helped singers learn and remember Gregorian chants. “Micrologus” is considered the second most widely read medieval treatise in Europe after the writings of Boethius.
In the 18th century, the control of territories and regions passed between the hands of kings. Naples was under the rule of the Spanish king. And being devout Catholics, the Spanish monarchs opened music conservatories to teach church music to young children. If nothing else, the church was always a patron of the arts. Spanish control of Naples, however, was short lived. In 1806, Napoleon marched into Naples, claiming it as his own. Napoleon’s rule opened conservatories to commercial interests; composers now wrote concertos and compositions in his honor. And despite the turmoil that Napoleon created, music remained central to the culture of Naples. Perhaps because Naples was the stomping ground of multiple nations, it acquired various influences. It is said that Neapolitan music developed a light melodic quality. The Neapolitan dialect became a signature of musical styles in the rest of Europe.
Another interesting development at this time, specifically in Naples, was the emergence of the guitar as a serious instrument.
With kingdoms and courts came the appetite and the resources for cultural and artistic development. There was an explosion of music conservatories in Naples. And this profusion of major music conservatories drove an industry of instrument production techniques in Naples as well. The making of stringed or bowed instruments, such as the violin, the cello, the mandolin and the guitar, flourished in and around Naples. In addition to Fabricatore, there were other well-known luthiers of the 18th and 19th centuries in Naples, such as Vinaccia, Filano, Calace, and Alessandro Gagliano. Gagliano was an apprentice of Antonio Stradivari in Cremona and was largely responsible for transitioning violin making to Naples. Some of the Neapolitan guitar makers migrated to America, bringing centuries of luthier traditions with them. Among these was John D’Angelico, who opened D’Angelico Guitars in Little Italy in 1932. D’Angelico used the same techniques he learned from his uncle, an expert violin and mandolin maker, to design and build some of the most beautiful guitars the world has ever known. In 1952, D’Angelico then apprenticed Jimmy D’Aquisto in his shop. Some consider D’Aquisto to be the greatest electric guitar maker that ever lived. Thus, the lineage of guitar making can be drawn directly from Cremona, to Naples, and on to New York City’s Little Italy.
And then there were a number of Italian guitar players who would have been influenced by the Neapolitan composers, players, and luthiers who shaped the legacy of the instrument.
Although better known as a violin player, Paganini was said to be a dazzling guitar player. Paganini preferred to give guitar performances in intimate settings. His rapturous style must have been spellbinding. According to contemporary accounts, Paganini performed like a possessed madman. He was among the first rock musicians, with his flamboyant and reckless lifestyle. He was known to exist between bouts of gambling, drinking, and fiery performances. Paganini wasn’t the only major composer to compose for the guitar and perform his guitar compositions. Even Vivaldi wrote compositions for the guitar.
Then there is the litany of other players. I’ll mention a few.
Ferdinando Carulli (1770-1841) was regarded as the leading Italian guitarist of his day. Though from Naples, he lived and settled in Paris and enjoyed great success as a composer, performer, and instrument maker. Carulli wrote the first complete classical guitar instruction book and composed over 400 works for the guitar.
Another well-known guitarist from southern Italy was Mauro Giuliani (born in 1781 in Bari, died in Naples in 1829). Giuliani was originally a cellist, but took up the guitar and emigrated to the north, finally settling in Vienna, where he was considered “the world’s greatest guitarist.” He eventually returned to Naples, composing and performing for the royal house of Naples. Giuliani was also a prolific composer, turning out about 200 compositions, many of which remain standards for guitar repertoire. He composed concertos for guitar and orchestra, fantasies and several sonatas for violin and guitar. He also wrote a guitar instruction method.
Why did these composers and musicians leave Naples? T.F. Heck, in “The Role of Italy in the Early History of the Classic Guitar,” cites a number of potential reasons, political turmoil caused by Napoleon, too many guitar players in Naples, the emergence of opera, and the lack of Neapolitan music publishers among them. In leaving Naples, its composers exported the Neapolitan sound to the rest of the world.
And all of this history found its way to the United States, specifically to New York City’s Little Italy. As I walked the streets of Little Italy with my father when I was a kid, I had no idea that I was strolling in antiquity. When we went to E. Rossi & Company where our family friend Eddie Vecchione worked, I had no idea that the store was once a publishing house that published Neapolitan composers from Italy, Canada, America, and Argentina. I didn’t know that Eddie was the uncle of the current owner, Ernie Rossi, or that our family history was bound up with the history of Neapolitan music.
And so now I talk to my father in the form of essays and stories. I’ve taken a grand tour of the world, having missed the things that were in front of me for most of my childhood. But there’s still time for me to do the excavation. And in this process, my father’s voice emerges. I hear him talking to me even now as I write this.
Mike Fiorito lives in Brooklyn, NY. His stories have appeared in Narratively, Mad Swirl, The Good Men Project and Brownstone Poetry. He is currently working on a short story collection called “Crooners”.