Enzo Gragnaniello

By Pasquale Scialò (Università Suor Orsola Benincasa, Naples)

Enzo Gragnaniello (Naples, 20 October 1954) is a contemporary singer-songwriter rooted in the places and symbols of Naples. His video Lo chiamavano vient’’e terra (They Called Him Wind of the Earth, 2019) portrays him as he walks along deserted beaches, narrow alleys, past arcades, doors, stairs, ancient churches, votive chapels, and ritual processions linked to the popular cult of the Madonnas. Some of his albums, such as Salita Trinità degli Spagnoli (1985), are named after the streets of the city where the author has always resided.

In school at the beginning of the 1960s, Gragnaniello had as a classmate a chubby teenager with penetrating and kind eyes, tidy and not an urchin like himself: Pino Daniele. The two boys shared five years of school together and common experiences that would continue over time.

Ten years later Gragnaniello began his musical career as a self-taught musician, combining his interests in folk and protest music. Enzo joined the band Banchi nuovi and participated in the struggles of the “organized unemployed” (“disoccupati organizzati”), a group that fought for the right to secure jobs and minimum wages. With them, he wrote new, parodical lyrics to traditional songs from southern Italy and famous tunes. For example, he transformed the refrain of The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” into a slogan to sing aloud in street demonstrations (“’O lavoro, ‘o lavoro ai Banchi nuovi” [“Work, work for Banchi nuovi”]). In 1976 he began writing his first original songs, which remain unpublished to this day, with social content such as “’A sciorta d’’o disoccupato” (“The Fate of the Unemployed”) which recounts the vicissitudes of looking for a job; and “’O scippo” (“The Robbery”), which is the confession of a young proletarian who steals to feed his children (“Io nun cerco ’a carità/ voglio sputà ‘nfaccia a chesta società” [“I ain’t looking for charity, / I wanna spit in society’s face”]). It is in this spirit and about these social issues that Gragnianiello published his first, eponymous, record: one of the songs on Enzo Gragnaniello (1983), “Cardone”, tells the true story of a homeless alcoholic who was arrested for stealing a door and setting it on fire to shelter himself from the cold.

After 1985, this first creative phase with strong political hues ends with “antagonistic” songs that tell of social inequalities, sung with a raspy and raucous vocal timbre. This is followed by a more lyrical song, “’E ccriature” (“The Kids”), about the difficult childhood of kids from Naples’ troubled neighborhoods. It is the very same childhood that the street urchin Enzo Gragnaniello had experienced years before.

In 1991 he has his first national hit with the song “Cu mme” (“With Me”), sung by Mia Martini and Roberto Murolo: an engaging poem with a narrative verse and a modulating refrain in which the author is inspired by the sea as a source of deep knowledge and spirituality:

Scinne cu mme, ‘nfunn’ ’o mare a truvà
chello ca nun tenimmo ccà.

(Come down with me to the bottom of the sea
to find what we don’t have here.)

The sea and the wind are two natural elements recurring in many of his songs, as in “Sott’ ‘o mare” (“Under the Sea”), together with many other aspects of contemporary life, from pollution to the multi-ethnicity of the global village, as in “Veleni, mare e ammore” (“Poisons, Sea, and Love,” 1992).

His activity also included the interpretation of traditional Neapolitan songs (“Posteggiatore abusivo” [“Busker[1]”], 1997) and participation in the 1999 edition of the Sanremo Festival, where he sang with Ornella Vanoni “Alberi” (“Trees”), a bilingual Italian-Neapolitan song with a pop feel.

He undertook an intense live concert schedule, always accompanying himself with his inseparable guitar, to which he dedicated a song full of gratitude:

Ringrazio ’a chitarra
ca me fa sunnà e nunme fa pensà.
Ringrazio ’a chitarra
ca me sta vicino e nun me lasse maie.

(Thanks to the guitar
that makes me dream and doesn’t make me think.
I thank the guitar
that is close to me and never leaves me.)

Gragnaniello never abandoned the relationship with his own roots—it is no coincidence that Radice (Roots) is the title of both his 2011 album and a film in which he stars, directed by Carlo Luglio—where he, together with Dario Fo and the Nacchere Rosse, again merges folk and protest songs with social commentary and a new piece entitled “Tammorra ‘a sunagliera” (“Bell-Collared Drum”[2]).

His later production adopts a constructive principle by subtraction which tends towards essentiality, both in terms of construction and arrangement. Gragnianiello often prefers a verse-based song form, without a refrain, as for example in “L’erba cattiva” (“A Bad Penny”).

Elsewhere, the musical invention takes on the character of a psalmody, a spoken song with an intimate, almost religious tone, as in the verse of the autobiographical “Lo Chiamavano vient ’e terra”, contained in the homonymous album, awarded the prestigious Targa Tenco. In that song, Gragnianiello recalls moments from his own life:

Lo chiamavano vient’’e terra
addò passavo careveno ‘nterra
tutt’’e bidune r’’a spazzatura
for’a sti vascie for’’e purtune.

(They called it wind of the earth
where it passed they fell to the ground
all the garbage cans
outside the slums,[3] outside the doors.)

It is an experience that binds him to Naples and to the cultures of the Mediterranean, profoundly and regardless of passing fads, as in Neapolis mantra (1998), which explores ancestral sounds with a wordless song made up of phonemes only. The identity of his production is intimately linked to the potential of his “vocal body,” which refers to an en plein air vocality capable of combining different elements: an ancient timbre with a modern one, a tone as caressing as it is aggressive, an alternation between the sung and spoken word.

His latest single, “Fa caldo” (“It’s Hot”), written in 2020 during the Covid pandemic, is an exhortation to escape superficial passions in favor of deep feelings.

[1] The term “posteggiatore” in Naples has two meanings: in addition to illegal car guard it means “unauthorized street musician”. The latter is certainly the relevant meaning in this context.

[2] A tammorra napoletana is a drum with of a membrane of animal skin stretched on a circular wooden frame. Small cymbals are attached to the wooden frame. A tamorra is similar to a tambourine but larger.

[3] A vascio (or basso napoletano, in Italian) is a ground-level apartment of one or two rooms, with a direct access from the street. It is typical of Naples’ poor neighborhoods.

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