Simona Frasca. Italian Birds of Passage: The Diaspora of Neapolitan Musicians in New York.
Simona Frasca's Italian Birds of Passage analyzes the fruitful exchange between two musical repertoires, traditional Neapolitan song and commercial American music. The Neapolitan song was an established musical genre when mass migration to the United States started in the 1880s. According to Frasca, the Neapolitan repertoire was reimagined in the context of transatlantic migration. Emigration, as seen (and sung) from those who experienced it, heightened the themes that were at the core of this musical tradition: love, loss, nostalgia, and displacement. It also allowed for a hybrid language created from English and Italian dialects. Within this context, these themes acquired a deeper significance, which allowed this musical genre to overcome the local context in which it was conceived (Naples, and more generally the region of Campania), reaching an international resonance that also boosted its popularity throughout Italy. Frasca's text, a translation from the Italian published with Libreria musicale italiana, uses multiple interdisciplinary sources to investigate a crucial component of the social life of North American Little Italies, paying particular attention to the places where music was composed, recorded, and performed--such as studios, radio stations, vaudeville houses, dance halls, restaurants and theaters.
Among the most compelling threads analyzed in Italian Birds of Passage is the seminal role played by the music industry in rehabilitating the image of Italian-American immigrants. This section is crucial to the structure of the book and makes a valuable addition to the debate on Italian emigration. According to Frasca, singers and musicians such as tenor Enrico Caruso created a new and positive image of the Italian-American immigrant, one that countered the dominant narrative of Italians as primitive and uneducable to American values and standards of living. In his fame, Caruso became a model for "an immigrant as a self-made man," connecting Italians to one of strongest tropes in the American narrative (42). According to Frasca, Caruso solved a paradox posed by the Italian community: how could descendants from the cradle of civilization be classified as undesirable as they arrived in the United States? The widespread anti-Italian prejudice in the United States, most of which referred particularly to Southerners, clashed with the notion of Italy as la mere des arts. As argued by Eliot Lord (The Italian in America. New York: B.F. Buck, 1905) in the early twentieth century, "[u]pon what examination worthy of the same has the Southern Latin stock, as exhibited in Italy, been stamped as 'undesirable'? Is it undesirable to perpetuate the blood, the memorials and traditions of the greatest empire of antiquity, which spread the light of its civilization from the Mediterranean to the North Sea and the Baltic?" (232). After all, American Italophiles were still crossing the Atlantic to visit Rome, Florence, and Venice.
While singers like Caruso played a fundamental role in changing the perception of Italians in the United States, other Italian musicians and actors built their routines on sketches that confirmed stereotypical imaginary of their community. The successful performer Eduardo Migliaccio, known by the stage name of Fanfariello, is a typical example: he would often appear in costume as an ancient Roman. Writing macchiette (sketches) around the tragicomic figure of the poor immigrant, he "provided an avant-garde glimpse deep into the recess of Italian immigration," (83) experimenting linguistically during his performances by modifying dialect sounds into Anglicized variations used by immigrants. In addition to experimenting linguistically, Fanfariello mixed different musical repertoires. Sketches such as '"Mpareme a via d' 'a casa mia" was an adaptation of the successful "Show me the way to go home," by Irving King, in dialect. Fanfariello's version maintained the Dixieland style in its performance, allowing it to reach a wider audience and join the popular musical panorama.
Italian Birds of Passage belongs to a larger debate on the relationship between music and Italian emigration, one inaugurated by historians such Anna Maria Martellone ["La rappresentazione dell'identita italoamericana: teatro e feste nelle Little Italy statunitensi" in Sergio Bertelli (ed,), La chioma della vittoria. Firenze: Ponte alle Grazie, 1997, 357-391; and "The Formation of an Italian-American Identity Through Popular Theatre" in Werner Sollors (ed.), Multilingual America: Transnationalism, Ethnicity and the Language of American Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1998, 240-245], Although Frasca builds upon this literature, she does not use its methodology--instead, she privileges philological readings of musical texts, which constitutes a large section of the book. This approach is a valuable addition, but at times it falls short in contextualizing her close readings with the general historical context. For example, her aforementioned analysis of Caruso would have benefited from an investigation of the responses of the Italian-American community to the changes in its perception. Nevertheless, Frasca advances an ongoing lively debate on music and migration--a field that has recently attracted other texts such as Eugenio Marino's Andarsene sognando: l'emigrazione nella canzone italiana (Isernia: Editore Cosmo Iannone, 2014)--and opens up new fields of inquiry.
Mount Holyoke College
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2015|
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