By Antonio Sotgiu (CERLIM – Université Sorbonne Nouvelle)
Paolo Conte is among the most successful Italian musicians internationally, especially in France, a sort of adopted homeland for him, and in the United States, where in 2006 his famous “Via con me” was used in a Coca Cola commercial. Perhaps we cannot speak of commercial primacy—pop artists such as Andrea Bocelli, Laura Pausini and Eros Ramazzotti have sold many more records worldwide—but it is difficult to deny his artistic and aesthetic primacy, as decreed by the public, by music critics, by filmmakers who have often used his songs for their films, by specialized studies on his compositions, by his academic awards (in 2003 he received two honorary degrees in Modern Literature and Musicology from the University of Macerata, and in 2017 from the University of Pavia, and one in painting from the University of Catanzaro in 2007), and even in view of the very recent and extraordinary concert which Conte held at La Scala in Milan (Feb. 19, 2023). Paolo Conte’s music is considered cultured, refined and ambitious, not foreign to the tradition of French and Italian songwriting, but at the same time worthy of analysis and appreciation using the same tools with which classical music and jazz are appreciated and analyzed.
Despite all this, he first entered the music scene as a composer for pop performers, initially framing his compositional style around Italian songs that oscillate between the sounds of the new beat music and more typical Italian and popular melodies. “Azzurro,” one of the best-known Italian songs abroad—many versions of which are known in a variety of languages, with the original lyrics signed by Vito Pallavicini, although Conte claimed the actual authorship—is part of the collective imagination of at least three generations of Italians. The version made popular by an already famous Adriano Celentano has been sung regularly in bars, in school buses on field trips, and in cars that in the early 1970s invaded Italian roadways heading to seaside resorts, though these amateur singers perhaps only partially grasp all the complex musical and existential nuances that distinguish the song. Released in 1969, when Conte was already well into his thirties, “Azzurro” constitutes an important but not yet decisive stage in the Asti artist’s career. As a child in the immediate postwar period, Paolo, along with his younger brother Giorgio, grew up in a musical environment that was unusual for children born in the Italian province of those years. In fact, his parents were great jazz fans, and could now play at full volume the records purchased clandestinely during the years of the Fascist cultural embargo. Enraptured by the sounds of Johnny Dodds‘ clarinet and the swirling kaleidoscope of rhythms and instruments that characterized jazz in the first half of the twentieth century, Paolo was truly shaped by this musical heritage, allowing him to access an imaginary, poetic and figurative universe that would guide his later artistic path. This path began with an almost exclusive interest in jazz music, prompting him to study the piano but also less conventional instruments such as the drawstring trombone and especially the vibraphone and kazoo, played in a variety of orchestras with firmly American-inspired names (Original Barrelhouse Jazz Band, I Cinque Tuxedo, I Taxi For Five, the Lazy River Band Society) in the 1950s. It was during the early 1960s that Paolo, having completed his law degree, embarked with his brother on a parallel career as a songwriter, which would lead him to write for well-known Italian and foreign performers and musicians such as Caterina Caselli (“Insieme a te non ci sto più”), Gigliola Cinquetti, Rita Pavone, Bruno Lauzi (“Onda su onda,” “Genova per noi”), Enzo Jannacci (“Messico e Nuvole”), Shirley Bassey, Dalida and Johnny Hallyday, to name but a few. “Azzurro” and other hits prompted his future producer Lilli Greco to propose that Conte record a solo album, but Conte declined the invitation, not yet feeling ready to perform his own songs. In the following years he even turned away from music to devote himself to his legal career. It was not until 1974, once again at Lilli Greco’s urging, that Conte agreed to record a 33-rpm album, simply titled Paolo Conte, within which there are a number of songs that propose themes, harmonic shifts, and poetic imagery that would shape Conte’s later repertoire, such as the melancholic “Una giornata al mare,” co-written with his brother Giorgio, the more lively and lighthearted “Onda su onda,” and the first episode of the Mocambo saga, “Sono qui con te sempre più solo.” A year later a second LP was released, again with the same title, featuring other famous songs such as “La ricostruzione del Mocambo,” the second episode of the saga, and “Genova per noi.” As in the case of the first record, this is a live recording session, of less than excellent sound quality, with sparse arrangements created mostly with a piano played based on instinct as Conte defines among other things the variety show piano technique of his father Luigi, known as Gigi, along with a few other instruments accompanying his voice with its strong theatrical expressiveness, sometimes deliberately emphatic, almost boisterous and outside his vocal register. A prime example is the famous “La Topolino amaranto,” also written with his brother Giorgio, where Paolo seemingly swings uncontrollably from one octave to the next, almost mimicking the somewhat awkward and reckless driving performances of the song’s excited protagonist. Jazz sonorities are present and fused with the gypsy rhythms of the piano, recalling both a variety-show style and the quick marching rhythm of a local parade, its provincial atmosphere further emphasized by the sound of the accordion, an instrument that will play an important role in recreating the nostalgic and pensive climate of the foggy Po Valley (“La fisarmonica di Stradella”), while the guitar’s pompe manouche rhythm adds a marked swing flavor in “La ricostruzione del Mocambo.” It would be another four years before the release of the third studio album, Gelato al limon (1979), and Paolo Conte’s solo concert debut, with the first of a long and highly successful series of tours that would allow Conte to experiment again with new arrangements capable of energizing earlier songs with new musical and poetic nuances, thanks to an increasingly large, varied, and top-notch instrumental ensemble. The recording techniques on this album are more sophisticated and performative. While largely maintaining the marching band rhythms (“Bartali” and “Sudamerica”) and the predominance of the piano accompaniment over a less shrill but still extremely expressive voice, there are more marked hints of exotic sounds, in “Blue Tangos” (the song “Tango” was already present in the previous album) and in “La donna d’inverno,” which leaves ample room for a virtuoso tango-style guitar.
The 1980s constituted what is likely the Piedmontese artist’s most prolific decade with the release of no less than six albums (four studio and two live recordings). It was this decade that definitively placed him on the international scene, and above all in France where he made his triumphant debut at the Olympia in Paris in 1987. In Paris Milonga, one of Conte’s best-loved records, experimentation, compositional complexity and catchiness joyfully combine with more intimate vocal sounds and a baritone register that time and tobacco would continue to make deeper and more mellow. This is the album of Conte’s maturity, with such masterpieces as “Via con me,” “Madeleine,” “Boogie,” “Alle prese con una verde Milonga.” April 1982 saw the release of Appunti di viaggio, increasingly polished in sound and arrangements, with Jimmy Villotti’s guitar and an increasingly large horn section, particularly prominent in the live versions in later years, where some of the album’s most iconic songs, such as “Hemingway,” “Lo zio,” “Diavolo rosso,” “Dancing,” and “Nord,” were rearranged thanks to the collaboration with saxophonist and composer extraordinaire Antonio Marangolo, who would also be artistic director on the next album in 1984, once again titled Paolo Conte. This record contains the third and musically most accomplished episode (also according to the author) of the Mocambo saga, “The Raincoats,” along with other famous songs such as “Sparring Partner,” “Come di,” and “Come mi vuoi.” Marangolo would follow Conte on tour with his memorable sax solos, and the recordings from his Italian shows in Lodi and Perugia would be released the following year under the simple title Concerti, which also included “Azzurro” performed by Conte. Just two years later, the double album Aguaplano was released, later followed by an international tour with an big-band-like ensemble (six players in the wind section, guitar, double bass, cello, keyboards, drums and piano). The show recorded at the Spectrum in Montréal would give rise to the sixth album of that decade, Paolo Conte Live, released in 1988 and containing Conte’s version of “Messico e nuvole.”
By the 1990s Paolo Conte had become an international star. Increasingly in demand and busy touring around the world, Conte did not shy away from his audience and still kept his creative streak intact, releasing three studio albums and two live albums. Parole d’amore scritte a macchina (1990) bears an album cover designed by Hugo Pratt and features Conte as the official arranger and orchestrator for the production, having ended his collaboration with Marangolo. The album has no drums or percussion, and its rhythmic drive rests mostly on the guitars and double bass of Jino Touché, an important element in Conte’s new direction. With the exception of the fast and brilliant “Happy feet (music for your feet madame),” which along with “Mister Jive” is enriched by the presence of a female choir, or again “Il Maestro” where the choir instead becomes operatic in homage to the great conductors of the past and present, the overall tone is somber and melancholy, the arrangements are dry and the sound nuanced, almost as if searching for the ambience of his early albums. The lyrics harken back to a nostalgic past in shades of blue, as in “Un Vecchio errore,” the Dantean “Eden,” in the title track or in “Ho ballato di tutto,” where an old dancer becomes inebriated with the memory of a “blue hunger” and a “blue love.” The year 1993 saw the release of Tournée, a live album recorded from various European concerts, while 1995 saw the release of 900, the ninth studio album, dedicated to a century (the 1900s) which Conte favors from an aesthetic-musical point of view, especially its first half, the period of classic jazz (represented by the ghost of drummer Chick Webb in “Gong-oh”), avant-garde movements, vaudeville and variety shows.
The tenth studio album, Una faccia in prestito, was released in 1995. Extensive and varied, it consists of no less than 17 tracks. Critics did not consider it one of Conte’s best records, but it contains some well-done songs which met with popular acclaim, such as “Elisir,” “Un fachiro al cinema,” and “Architetture lontane.” The year 2000 saw the release of a major and original art project, combining music, storytelling and visual arts. Razmataz is a video opera, a kind of vaudeville musical that alternates between thirty songs in English and French (with only “Pasta diva” in Italian) accompanied by nearly 2,000 drawings made by Conte himself using different techniques. These visuals guide the listener through a dark story set in 1920s Paris, a musical and cultural meeting point between the old and new continents. It is a story that begins with the disappearance of a dancer who came to the French capital to dance with a group of African-American artists. Here we find Conte with a voice more expressive and theatrical than ever, aspiring to represent the voices of black Americans arriving in Paris and projecting their nostalgia and Edenic ideals onto a homeland that is not the United States, but rather the African countries from which the slave trade began. Such is the case with Mozambique, evoked in “It’s A Green Dream.” Many of the songs also feature beautiful female voices, whether as solos (“La reine noire”), in a duet with Paolo Conte (“La petite tendresse”), or as part of the chorus.
After the great compositional effort of Razzmataz, it would be a four-year wait before another album of unreleased songs would be released (in 2003 Reveries was released, featuring old songs revisited). In 2004 Conte released Elegia, a less experimental album but one of high compositional quality, which was a great critical and public success (it reached number one in the charts in Italy). A delicate elegiac tone is clearly present in the title-track, in “Chissà,” in “Bamboolah,” and in the masterpiece “Molto lontano,” but this tone is somewhat diluted in the more eventful fourth and (for the moment) final episode of the Mocambo saga, “La nostalgia del Mocambo,” where the usual disillusioned and defeated protagonist is enlivened through his memories traveling to the rhythm of rumba. Also worth mentioning is the playful and self-deprecating piece, “La vecchia giacca nuova.”
In 2008 came Psyche, less joyful than the previous album from a compositional point of view but interesting for the more frequent and original use of synth, which creates soft atmospheres of great impact, as in the case of “Coup de Théâtre,” where he duets in French with the delightful Emma Shapplin, or in the use of the drum machine in “Omicron.” Electronics are also present in the subsequent 2010 album, Nelson, as for instance in the interesting “C’est beau,” where Conte almost seems to assume a certain Serge Gainsbourg sound, as well as in “Massaggiatrice” and “Los amantes del Mambo,” all in Spanish. “L’orchestrina” is a light and amused [BP1] reprise of old Conte melodies, chosen as the single leading up to the album’s release. His fifteenth album, Snob, was released in 2014 and is (at this time) Conte’s last album as a chansonnier, since his Amazing game (2016) is an entirely instrumental record. As with the previous two discs, critics tend to emphasize a loss of creative drive, and the tired reprise of past rhythms and cadences. In spite of this judgment, there is no shortage of pleasant and finely-crafted songs, such as “Tropical” with its self-deprecating overtones, or “Tutti a casa,” very similar to Conte’s earliest songs while not representing a mere repetition. The more recent chronology of these albums, and the rigidity of certain critics in establishing a Contean canon that reaches roughly to the end of the twentieth century, do not allow for a full appreciation of his latest discographic labors. Still, it should by no means to be ruled out that they may be reevaluated and rediscovered in the years to come.
The Mocambo Man
We have mentioned the Mocambo saga several times, but the term “saga” is perhaps not the most appropriate to characterize Paolo Conte’s four songs that evoke the vicissitudes of a bar of the same name. However, in various interviews, Conte himself speaks of a “Mocambo man,” to characterize not only the voice that expresses itself in “Sono qui con te sempre più solo,” “La ricostruzione del Mocambo,” “Gli impermeabili,” and “La nostalgia del Mocambo,” but more generally, and in various instances, that no-longer-young, problematic male character who narrates or is described or evoked in numerous songs by the Asti singer-songwriter. This is not a true saga but a rather meager fictional world, which we can access thanks to music and words that are largely allusive and elliptical, through a voice containing an ethos and a universe of images, forms, drives, expectations, and beliefs that open to other more fleeting worlds, evoked not so much by the author’s encyclopedia of references as the vocabulary he attributes to the character. In fact, it is important to clarify that the man in Mocambo is not an alter ego of Paolo Conte, but a human type to whom Conte lends his theatrical voice, his harmonies, his rhythms, in order to represent his existential and historical instability, a kind of bipolarity that has him perpetually poised between the bitter acceptance of reality, an unrealistic impetus, and the need for escape. Mocambo is an exotic, high-sounding name that, as Conte has repeatedly explained, was a small provincial bar struggling to stay open in the difficult years after World War II. The protagonist is an uneducated but rather handsome, elegant man, attracted by a certain gallant worldliness, but struggling to manage the bar (which closes, reopens, closes again) and even more so his romantic relationships hampered by incommunicability, as highlighted by the foreign origins of at least two of his partners mentioned in the various songs: one an Austrian woman and the other likely French, named Janine. The Mocambo man is a kind of provincial ex-seducer, turning in on himself[BP2] [g3] , who finds a sense of understanding and empathetic participation in his bankruptcy liquidator, while his own partner instead looks at him “with cold irony,” is always “jealous,” “distant,” and “bitter” in the silent “brown dinette” in which the two live as if imprisoned there. But the character is also capable of great zeal, enthusiasm and resilience, sustained by one of the most popular melodies in Conte’s entire repertoire, which can be heard in “Gli impermeabili,” enhanced by synth but also accompanied by the kazoo, an instrument with a simultaneously exotic flavor, given its African-American origins, but also a comic-popular sound, as it is not “played” but “sung” or “spoken,” and it distorts the voice much like the pivetta, a sort of whistle, which the Neapolitan puppet master uses to reproduce Pulcinella’s “non-voice.” The Mocambo man is a comic and sometimes humorous character, and the kazoo represents that unknown language that does not express a clearly articulated and stable meaning, but rather a funny, energetic but also excruciating life drive. The Mocambo man always falls on his feet, and in those difficult postwar years he experienced moments of great enthusiasm, exaltation, creative frenzy. The protagonist from “Topolino amaranto” can be seen as a primary embodiment of the Mocambo man. In that summer of ’46, when “six out of ten houses have gone down” due to a thunderstorm that reveals the fragility of the buildings bombed during the war, the protagonist invites a generic “blonde” to distract him, turning his gaze toward the sky thanks to his convertible car. We are dealing with a kind of playboy viveur who can nevertheless be found, in a more cultured and brilliant version, in such songs as “Lo zio,” also featuring a beautiful kazoo solo that over the years has become one of the highlights of his concert performances. In “Lo zio” the character is inspired by the singer-songwriter’s real-life Uncle Gino, a provincial Dongiovanni with an inexhaustible taste for novelties that come from afar, such as cinema and jazz, a passion he would share with his nephew by accompanying him to his first jazz concerts. With more popular tastes than the refined Uncle Gino, Mocambo man follows the typical sporting passions of Italians of that era. His love of cycling expresses itself in all its boisterous excitement in “Bartali,” in which he takes the liberty of rudely approaching an unidentified woman who would have rather gone to the movies, all so that he would not miss his favorite cyclist passing by. In his more popular guises (like “Bartali”), but also in his more refined ones (“La donna d’inverno”), and in the songs of the saga, the Mocambo man shows traits of outspoken misogyny, which should not be attributed to the author; it is instead the combined result of ancestral taboos, petty-bourgeois conventions and new emancipatory drives that further increase the contradiction between the “lady’s man” model of the time—the Mocambo man, according to Conte, was inspired by Humphrey Bogart—and real provincial life. The narrator in many of Paolo Conte’s songs is a man in perpetual distress who turns to women in search of a second chance, reminiscing about his sad past of youthful mistakes and selfishness (“Un Vecchio errore,” “Chiamami adesso”) or continuing to lament the loneliness of the dandy (“Nessuno mi ama”). Sometimes he instead turns to a new lover, whom he invites to shelter in the warmth of a hotel room (“Paris,” “Come vi vuoi”) while awkwardly spitting out catchphrases and nonsense in rough but rhythmically effective English (“Via con me”). Sometimes these characters are losers, though not entirely without hope (“Colleghi trascurati,” “Lupi spelacchiati”), snatched up at the last by women who generously accept their awkward and rough qualities.
Many of Conte’s songs are built on actual scenes of seduction, described either by the narrator as he directly or indirectly addresses the woman he desires, or by an outside observer, a hypothetical patron of a provincial club (“Boogie”) or an unidentified voyeur, who witnesses a seduction scene in a soft, minimal musical atmosphere enhanced by soft cello (“Hesitation”). The former is classic Conte, focusing on a particularly close-knit pair of dancers in a club that might be provincial but is also transfigured by its exotic similarities to a black American dance hall, as Conte later suggested. The smug narrator enjoys evoking the atmosphere of the place—its colors, smells, noises—and sketching out the gestures, intentions, and expressions of all its patrons. The description feels cinematic, as if a camera is frantically moving through the various areas of the venue. The dancer’s body “was sending African flushes,” the orchestra “was rocking like a palm tree/before a revered sea.” We witness the shift change of two cashiers, both described with precision: the first, “Peking-faced,” “smoked menthol” while the second “had wolf’s eyes / and chewed Alaskan candy”). After the dancers reach their climactic moment, with the orchestra following their unbridled lead, space remains for a fleeting mention of a “fifth character,” a patron, a possible “Mocambo man” in the guise of the dragueur who clumsily makes his move on a woman and then retreats into the shadows, which allows Conte to close the song with the famous sentence: “It was a grown-up world / we made mistakes as professionals.” Mention should also be made of the more melancholy tones in the now classic “Paris,” and the poignant “Come mi vuoi,” where the changing rhythm in the various sections of the song signals the development of its seductive dialogue. The slower, suffused phase of uncertain questioning about how to proceed, the more pronounced, rapid, and willful expression of desire, with the famous line “give me a sandwich and a little indecency / And some Turkish music too,” which, however, quickly dissipates and returns to the initial questioning phase, but with heightened complicity, signaled by the intonation of the voice, then leaving it to the tenor sax to express the more erotic and visceral emotions. A somewhat separate discourse should be made for “Gelato al limon,” a song with unusually broad and complex lyrics. Although it cannot properly be said to be autobiographical, it is a song written on the heels of the author’s wedding engagement, in which a couple about to share their life together find themselves immersed in a scorching summer in the city, trying to get through it on a walk together, where the woman still carries her “suitcase of perplexity.” The narrator directly addresses her, trying to reassure her by listing all the qualities he will provide, borrowing them from unexpected characters and places in everyday city life, such as electricians and daytime bathhouses. These images of the somber and problematic attempts at seduction by Conte’s male characters are still present—like the “sad hotels” we find in “Paris”—but the tone, though set in a context of veiled melancholy, is not the resigned one of the Mocambo man, but rather that of a more confident and resolved figure, good-naturedly but firmly signaling the seriousness of his commitment. (“And a firm grip of my hand / For you, woman, who can no longer escape me.”)
Music and words. The words of music
Paolo Conte has explained many times how his compositional process always starts with the music, with the creation of a theme or a mixture of themes and rhythms to which words are then added. The primacy of music implies a greater freedom and variety of cadences, rhythms, and accents, all of which makes the writing of the lyrics difficult, especially at the syntactic and prosodic level. From this point of view, the ethos of the Mocambo man and his peers fits perfectly with Conte’s musical needs. His limited culture and his exotic imagery tends to be superficial, far removed from any form of erudition. The character’s life in quick spurts of energy, fleeting glances, abrupt and clumsy requests, as well as his approximate knowledge of foreign languages allowed Conte to develop a poetics that plays on allusiveness, verbal ellipsis, reticence, multilingualism, rich deictics, use of lists, repetition, paratactic and fringe syntax, and lexical rarities, capable of projecting the listener to distant places and times. In addition to their highly evocative and poetic value, such stylistic choices blend perfectly with the rhythmic and harmonic variety of his songs, whose musical variations and admixtures become motifs that capture the alterations of the characters’ feelings. In this sense, Conte’s verses parallels those of Baudelaire: take, for example, the famous “À une passante,” in which the narrator imagines a hypothetical, unlocated and unlocatable future (“Ailleurs, bien loin d’ici! trop tard! jamais peut-être!” [“Elsewhere, far, far from here! too late! never perhaps!”]) with a mourning-clad, agile, noble, statuesque young woman fleetingly encountered in the screaming street. The “here/elsewhere” dialectic characterizes Cante’s pieces both thematically and rhythmically. The exotic names, often truncated and consonantal, play an evocative but also a rhythmic function. One might think of the places and characters in “Hemingway” (Timbucktu, Babalù, Zanzibar), the South American atmospheres of “Tropical,” the cinematic quotations of “Lo zio,” where words are literally chewed up and fit back into the verse to create rhythmically effective consonances (“è tutto cinema, cinema, cinema, ah / come back to my old Chinatown” [“it’s all cinema, cinema, eh / come back to my own Chinatown”). The here/elsewhere dialectic is exploited not only spatially but also temporally, allowing for musical layering that traces the path of memory, of reverie. Such is the case with “Madeleine,” a clear Proustian reference. The narrator, conversing with the beloved woman who bears the name of the dessert in Proust’s Recherche attempts to recall a common, lost past, but one we might be able to find together, perhaps through song (which would play precisely the role of the madeleine in Proust’s novel), but also thanks to the musical strategy that guides the character’s words, as Stefano Della Via has masterfully shown. The lied-like piano introduction is joined by swing guitars with blues stylings and a relentless drum beat that changes tempo to reach the emotional climax of the song, almost bordering on a bolero. The lyrics start with a repetition of the deictic “here” and then issue an invitation to remember the past with nostalgia. This is followed by a faster part in which the tone becomes more playful and allusive by mentioning the famous fleetingness and unreliability of men who seduce and then vanish “in a fog or a tapestry,” belied at times by someone who, like the song’s protagonist, wants to “tornare stto certe carezze” (“come back to certain caresses”). Lost in a hazy memory or an unfamiliar geographic remoteness, the temporal otherness cannot be minutely described, however. It is therefore common to find in Paolo Conte’s songs the topos of ineffability. We find it in “Madeleine,” (“and there are no words / to explain and intuit…Madeleine / and if ever, to remember”), in “Bartali” to evoke silence (“tra una moto e l’altra c’è un silenzio, che descriverti non saprei” [“between one bike and another there is a silence, which I can’t describe”]), in “Paris,” where the narrator reflects on the ineffectiveness of words, (“Chissà cosa possiamo dirci / in fondo a questa luce… / quali parole?” [“I wonder what we can say to each other / at the end of this light… / what words?”]). It is much easier to talk about music. Several songs mention musicians, rhythms, musical instruments, genres and styles. The youthful passion for jazz is evoked in the famous “Sotto le stelle del Jazz,” where early musical ensembles and their alternating fortunes are described, as well as the heroes of classic jazz, the aforementioned Chick Webb in “Gong-oh,” Duke Ellington in “Zio.” The orchestra of “Boogie” consists of hypnotized saxophones and a drummer who casts “mean looks” from the shadows; in “Come di” the band is deluded in Naples and scolded in Minneapolis. In “Dancing” the dancer addresses similarities and differences between the Latin rhythms of tango and rumba, and the rumba is the “ritmo sconfinato” (“boundless rhythm”) that bursts in and pulls the protagonist into his nostalgia for Mocambo. The authority of the maestro capable of controlling an orchestra “eccitata e ninfomane / chiusa nel golfo mistico (“excited and nymphomaniacal / closed in the mystic gulf”) is at the heart of “Il Maestro.” But the track that perhaps most fully describes music as it is being made, in a kind of meta-musical composition, is “Alle prese con una verde Milonga,” in which the singer recounts his compositional experience through the performance of the milonga itself. The musician engages in a melee with the Argentinian-Uruguayan musical genre and dance of the milonga, and describes it all the while. He describes the emotions it arouses in him, the hidden desires, along with his artistic gesture of making it into song, bringing it “ad un ritmo più lento” (“to a slower pace,”) so that the milonga itself, personified, will reveal new meanings and emotions.
True and Imagined Escapes. Journeys and Shipwrecks.
The protagonists of Paolo Conte’s songs are often stuck in a reality, in an existential state of melancholy, of closure to the world, of the drama of misunderstanding one’s surroundings or lover. Escape is sometimes an instrument of seduction, a game to break up monotony and convention, to create complicity and to counter the dusty passage of time (“Fuga all’inglese,” “Via con me”). At other times it is an unexpectedly fortunate shipwreck as in “Wave upon Wave,” but also a dramatic metaphor for the unsuccessful transition of a Neapolitan worker to the cold Lombard capital (“Naufragio a Milano”). Escape also takes the form of a temporary outing that allows a group of friends to escape from the mists of the Po Valley (“Chi siamo noi”), in which the protagonist is also immersed at times (“La fisarmonica di Stradella”) in the loneliness of an evening journey through the anonymous towns of southern Piedmont (Broni, Casteggio, Voghera) to accompany his sleeping girlfriend back home after the Sunday dance. When the destination evoked is the sea, it is possible to imagine oneself in the footsteps of great travelers (John Cabot in “Chi siamo noi”), but the sea can also convey an ancestral fear that urges one to return to the rainy plains, despite the unsettling fascination exerted by the “macaia”—a term in the Genoese dialect for the shift to warm, humid weather which occurs in winter in the Gulf of Genoa when the sirocco blows—and all that comes along with it: “monkey of light and madness, mist, fish, Africa, sleep, nausea and fantasy” (“Genova per noi“). Escape is often fantasized about but not acted upon. The song’s protagonist relishes escape as a possibility, but then prefers to give himself over to lonely contemplation (“these are smuggling situations / Better to sit here and watch the sky,” “Messico e nuvole,” or again in “Rebus”: “Ah, it’s better to sit here and watch / the planets swim before me / In the darkness of the rebus / Ah, what a rebus”). The protagonist of “Azzurro” also tries to escape into his imagination by seeking “a little Africa in the garden / Between the oleander and the baobab,” but the everyday noise of people prevents him from doing so. Incommunicability between man and woman is at the heart of the desire for escape in “Blue Haways” (“My face was stunned / by your difficult speech / I had to put on right away / a Hawaiian shirt / and wave contentedly / before a primitive sky). However, the Hawaiian journey is “blue,” melancholy, and is only “a dream within a dream,” a temporary escape that provides for the inexorable return to the uncertain present. And a blue sentiment with existentialist overtones is certainly expressed in the beautiful “Una giornata al mare,” where he dreams about an impossible conversation with a waitress who is obviously a “foreigner,” but even more so with an angel, a “sweet lonely madonna,” anagraphically similar to the observer, and who seems to share that pensive loneliness and nostalgia for a lost and irretrievable time. An almost symmetrical and mirror-like loneliness, which therefore precludes the possibility of any real encounter.
Sometimes the journey takes place in the Piedmont countryside, but this is no longer a journey of escapism for the protagonists; it is instead a journey made by the great cyclists who heroically rode the roads, the narrow streets of the Italian provinces and countryside. It may be a journey transfigured by the myth of cyclist Giovanni Gerbi, known as “Diavolo Rosso,” whose nickname is the title of a song on the album Appunti di Viaggio (1982), while in “Bartali” we see the die-hard fan who narrates to the rhythm of Conte’s classic march, the passage of the champion with “that sad nose like a hill climb” and “those cheerful eyes of an Italian on a trip.” But here the landscape is synaesthetically sketched (“the countryside howls, there is a moon at the bottom of the blue”), whereas in “Red Devil” it becomes the focal point of the scene, crossed with unbridled speed by the cyclist in a full competitive trance. His speed finds its parallel in the music with a foxtrot that in live performances is pushed to the extreme thanks to the pressing rhythm of as many as three guitars and various solos, expanding the song’s duration beyond ten minutes. Having created this musical background, which mimetically imitates the frantic pedaling of the cyclist, the wind section (bassoon, clarinet, soprano sax, transverse flute, and the 2013 tour adds violin and accordion as well) joins in with solos, small accent notes, or dissonant chords, all accompanied by a few riffs or chords on the piano which Conte plays with apparent nonchalance. Meanwhile he directs with discreet gestures and oblique glances of complicity and admiration toward his musicians. It is a ride created from a plurality of encounters, however fleeting, with the landscape, the inhabitants and the characters operating within the cycling competition. It outlines the perhaps somewhat Fellini-like physiognomy of those “regine di corriere e paracarri” (“queens of couriers and curbstones”) who dispense practical, moral and even erotic support (“le amanti di pianura” [“the mistresses of the plains”]) with their “ancient discretion.” A carriage-caravan meets a semi-deserted, silent, dark countryside ravaged by hunger and disease: an archaic and mythical Piedmontese countryside, where young brides give birth to “uomini grossi come alberi” (“men as big as trees”). At times, however, the narrator’s point of view is entrenched in the protective element of home as opposed to a journey whose motivations are unclear, as the refrain of “Red Devil” makes explicit (“Ah Diavolo Rosso, dimentica la strada, vieni qui con noi a bere un’aranciata, controluce tutto il tempo se ne va” [“Ah Red Devil, forget the road, come here with us and drink an orange soda, against the light all time disappears”]).
- Ernesto Capasso, Paolo Conte, il viaggiatore
dei Paesaggi cantati. Arcana, 2013.
- Paolo Conte, Si sbagliava da professionisti.
Canzoniere commentato. Einaudi, 2003.
- Enrico Stefano Della Via, Poesia per musica e
musica per poesia. Dai trovatori a Paolo Conte. Carocci, 2020.
- Enrico De Angelis, Tutto un complesso di
cose. Il libro di Paolo Conte, Giunti, 2011.