Ask average Italians what pops into their head when they think of Naples, and you’ll almost assuredly get the same three things every time: pizza, garbage in the streets, and the most powerful international crime syndicate in the world–the Camorra. It is in this reality that a distinctive genre of music rose to prominence over the past two decades.
Neomelodic music is a strange mixture of techno, pop, Latin American music, and traditional Neapolitan love songs, an entirely singular and totally bizarre form of music that, critics say, is generally performed by ex-criminals who became Camorra minstrels.
Neomelodic singers (ranging in age from 8 to 80) tell stories of love found and lost, of the crime that surrounds them, of dreams of success and escape, and of running away from the law, all in the Neapolitan dialect–a language that is very different from “normal” Italian. The songs are 100 percent cheesy and melodic–not to mention melodramatic–but at the same time they’re incredibly funny and tell stories that resonate with their audience.
Tommy Riccio is an old-school neomelodic star who shoots rays of pure charisma from his eyeballs. Rossella is one of the few female neomelodics. Alessio is a rising star (and a babe) who’s going to break into the mainstream Italian pop world very soon. And Giuseppe Jr. is a “baby” neomelodic singer who first stepped into the limelight when he was 9 years old.
In Naples and most other southern Italian regions, the neomelodics are superstars. They look like quintessential über-Guidos: shaved chests, plucked eyebrows, orange tans, pimped-out cars, skintight Dolce & Gabbana shirts, and an oil tanker’s worth of hair gel. While the people revere them as heroes, the mainstream media largely ignore them–which isn’t surprising. But the neomelodics work hard to break out into the mainstream, where they attempt to reconfigure themselves as friendly Italian products rather than local, Neapolitan ones.
For example, when they are ready to go for the gold on a national level, they drop their Neapolitan dialect and graduate to standard Italian. And they are intense laborers, going as far as playing 10 shows a day, every day, for months, incessantly promoting themselves through the Internet, local TV and radio stations, and countless appearances at weddings, birthday parties, confirmations, restaurants, street parties, town fairs, and pretty much anywhere they are invited.
Federico Vacalebre, the Italian music journalist who coined the term neomelodic, says, “If gangster rap is the CNN of the American ghetto, neomelodics are the CNN of the Neapolitan ghetto.” And though the artists never explicitly speak of the Camorra, Vacalebre adds that “while the criminality of American gangster rap is more of a myth than anything else, our criminality is in fact very real and very scary.”
Excerpted from Vice (Feb. 2009), an arts, fashion, and culture magazine. See more photographs of neomelodic singers at the magazine’s website, www.viceland.com, and view documentary footage and music videos at www.vbs.tv.