Otello Profazio

(Rende, 1936 – Reggio Calabria, 2023)

By Jacopo Tomatis (Università di Torino)

From: Jacopo Tomatis. “Otello Profazio in 10 canzoni“, Il Giornale della Musica, 24 July 2023.

Otello Profazio reached the peak of his success between the 1960s and 1970s, performing Calabrian popular music and national folk revival classics. Even in the early 1960s, Profazio assumed a unique role as storyteller, song collector and “popular intellectual”, active both in the town squares of his native Calabria and on the national radio (he collaborated for many years with RAI). He was equally appreciated by the local public and by urban audiences who loved “traditional” music.

Profazio’s repertoire also brings together seemingly irreconcilable extremes: the more “cultured” and politicized social song—with lyrics by the Sicilian poet Ignazio Buttitta, for example—and a “lower” and heavier genre of social satire and goliardic repertoire mixed with religious themes.

It is difficult to make clear sense of his discography, largely made up of local remakes, re-recordings of older songs, and original songs in which he borrows heavily from traditional material.

Here I will offer ten exemplary songs in an attempt to (re)discover the discography of a protagonist of Italian popular music.

1. “Il brigante Musolino,” 1963

After a couple of 78 rpms, Otello Ermanno Profazio records his saga of the brigand Musolino on 33rpm, a Calabrian version of the romanticized outlaw Musolino, a hero of popular literature and the subject of countless ballads.

2. “Lamentu pi la morti di Turiddu Carnivali,” 1964

Profazio’s collaboration with the Sicilian poet Ignazio Buttitta began as early as 1964, culminating in the 33 rpm Profazio sings Buttitta. Among the many famous songs that ended up in the setlists of numerous southern Italian bands, the “Lamentu pi la morti di Turiddu Carnivali” (“Lament for the Death of Turiddu Carnivali”), dedicated to the socialist trade unionist killed by landowners and already in the repertoire of the storyteller Cicciu Busacca.

Ancilu era e nun avia ali
santu non era e miraculi facia,
‘n cielu acchianava senza cordi e scali
e senza appidamenti nni scinniva.
Era l’amuri lu so’ capitali
e ‘sta ricchizza a tutti la spartia:
Turiddu Carnivali nnuminatu
e comu Cristu muriu ammazzatu.

(He was an angel but had no wings
he was no saint but could do miracles
he could climb to the sky without ropes or ladders
and with no effort could come back down.
Love was his only capital
And he shared his wealth with everyone
Turiddu Carnivali was his name,
and he died, slaughtered like Christ.)

3. “La baronessa di Carini,” 1964

In Storie e leggende del Sud Profazio sets out to become the singer representing all of southern Italy, with examples such as the later hit “La baronessa di Carini,” performed here on television in Giorgio Gaber’s TV show Questo e quello.

4. “La leggenda di Colapesce,” 1966

Profazio’s television appearance in which he sings the famous “The legend of Colapesce,” also included in Storie e leggende del Sud.

5. “Governo ’taliano,” 1970

The 1970s are Profazio’s most productive decade: the artist flaunted an unusually fresh polemical and satirical verve. This song, from the collection L’Italia cantata dal Sud, is a reworking of a traditional song that satirizes excessive bureaucracy and taxes which the Italian government imposes on its citizens:

Guvernu ‘talianu ti ringraziu
chi per pisciare non si paga daziu
e chi per farsi ‘na ca-ca-ca cantata
non c’è bisogno di carta bullata. 

(Oh, Italian government, I must thank you
because you don’t charge me a fee to piss,
and for a poo-poo-poor man to sing

you don’t require a notarized permit!)

6. “Giuseppe Emanuele“, 1970

Profazio wrote this piece that features the two protagonists of the Risorgimento, the period of Italy’s unification:  Giuseppe Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel II, the first King of Italy.

7. “Qua si campa d’aria“, 1974

From the eponymous album Qua si campa d’aria (Here People Live on Thin Air), published for the Cetra Folk series, this song is an ironic paradox on the South, where “no one ever dies, there aren’t even any graveyards there!”

Il Sud ha un clima che è strabiliante:
bisogni fisiologici per niente!
È al Nord che si beve e che si mangia,
e c’è bisogno d’evacuar la pancia…
Qui invece – ve lo dico in confidenza –
non la sentiamo, no, quest’esigenza:

qua si campa d’aria

(The South has a climate that is mind-blowing:
and no physiological needs!
It is in the North that people drink and eat,
and need to evacuate the belly…
Here instead—I tell you in confidence—
we don’t have any needs like that at all:
we live on thin air!)

8. “Pilu pilu”, 1976

By the 1970s Profazio had become a well-respected musician. Just as a more “serious” and political folk revival was blooming in Italy, Profazio published an entire album of sex-themed songs, entitled Amuri e pilu (Love and Hair). It is a small masterpiece of an irreverent folk tradition. Warning: today “Pilu pilu,” a traditional piece reworked by Profazio, might not be considered politically correct!

9. “Lu cunigliu“, 1976

Again from Amuri e pilu, the irresistible story of the rabbit that “àvi lu pilu” (“has some hair!”), a nursery rhyme with obvious sexual connotations.

10. “Inno dello statale“, 2018

The 1980s and 1990s saw Profazio’s production dwindle, as he continued to give concerts and performances. In 2018 he made a comeback with an album of unreleased songs, La storia. He appeared as energetic as ever, as demonstrated by his ironic satire in “Inno dello statale” (“Hymn of the Government Employee”).

Bonus Track: Peppe Voltarelli, “Qua si campa d’aria“, 2016 Among those who rediscovered and reinterpreted Profazio’s songs, Peppe Voltarelli stands out: he dedicated an entire album and accompanying book to the Calabrian singer (Voltarelli canta Profazio, published by the label Squilibri) after performing live for years with the “Maestro.”

Translated songs: