martedì 2 luglio 2013

An interview with Michelangelo Verso, Jr.

Father & son, on Copacabana Beach (Rio de Janeiro).
Photo: Michelangelo Verso, Jr.
It seems very natural that, every so often, Leonardo & Michelangelo should come together!

One of my favorite, and I mean FAVORITE, Sicilian songs is “Vitti ’na crozza.” The first person in the world ever to record it was the famous singer from Palermo, Michelangelo Verso. I feel very honored that his son, Michelangelo Verso, Jr., has agreed to do an interview with me for Pensieri Meridionali. (The following interview has been translated from Italian to English.)

* * *

Michelangelo Verso, Jr.
MV: First of all, thank you for this interview and for the honor and the opportunity that it gives me to recount a small part of my father's career, and to share with you the facts surrounding “Vitti ’na crozza,” of which my father made the world-premiere recording, in its original version, for CETRA in 1951.

LC: How is it that he was chosen to be the first person to sing it? 
MV: I will share with you the following information from my biography of my father (which I still have to publish ...) entitled: “Michelangelo Verso, un tenore, un Siciliano nel mondo, il primo interprete di ‘‘Vitti ’na crozza’’”.

My father was a soloist in the Coro Polifonico della Conca d’Oro, directed by Maestro Carmelo Giacchino, which in those days performed regularly at the Temple of Concord in Agrigento and at the Teatro Pirandello for the sagra (religious feast), "Mandorlo in Fiore" ("Almond Trees in Bloom"). As a soloist from within the group, he performed Sicilian folk songs. One evening, during one of these feasts, Maestro Franco Li Causi heard him.  He immediately liked his clear, limpid, ringing, and incisive voice, as well as his interpretations.  He attended the feast because previously he had heard about my father's prior successes: a radio performance for the EIAR; appearances on the RAI radio shows "Rosso e nero" and "Chicchirichì"; the concert with Beniamino Gigli at the Teatro Massimo in Palermo (in which Gigli himself preselected him to participate); the various operas in which he had sung principal roles; the operatic scholarship that he had won from the Accademia Chigiana in Siena; his participation in the big concert commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Verdi's death in the St. Francis's Basilica in Siena, with orchestra, chorus, and soloists conducted by Maestro Andrea Morosini; and other success from which my father had derived a certain fame and notoriety.
Beniamino Gigli & Michelangelo Verso, Sr.

Franco Li Causi and his brother Salvatore (Totò) had already made several recordings (tarantellas and mazurkas) for the record label CETRA of Torino; therefore, they were already rather well-known and appreciated, and not only in Sicily.  They asked my father if he wanted to record with them several songs that they had composed.  Among the songs that they showed him was "Vitti ’na crozza," which Franco Li Causi had recently composed for the sound track of the Pietro Germi film "Il cammino della Speranza", with Raf Vallone and Elena Varzi. After my father heard the songs, he agreed, and they scheduled the recording dates at the CETRA studios in Torino. Thus in October, 1951, my father recorded, for the first time in recording history, "Vitti ’na Crozza".  However, for the first recording, my father suggested changing a couple of words of the text. He wanted to change "Lu vivu chiama e la morti arrispunni" to "U vivu chiama e u morto ‘unn’ arrispunni," which in his opinion sounded better.  Franco Li Causi agreed and very willingly made the change.  The accompaniment was comprised of only three instruments: Franco Li Causi on mandolin, Totò Li Causi on guitar, and on double bass a musician they brought in from the Orchestra Angelini. The song had a great success. The song remains, to this day, one of the most historic, symbolic and meaningful songs of the Sicilian musical tradition.  Li Causi's other songs that my father sang, recorded for CETRA during the same period, were "Notte sul mare," "Dolce sabato," "Ci rivedremo in costiera," "Sospirato tango," and "Ardore."

LC: Describe and contrast your father's two recordings of "Vitti ’na crozza" (1951 & 1963).

MV: My father's two recordings of "Vitti ’na crozza", 1951 and 1963, were completely different, recorded during two different technological eras.  The 1951 recording was a 78 r.p.m. disc made by CETRA in Torino, while the 1963 recording was a 45 r.p.m. disc, recorded by PHONOTYPE in Naples.  The only thing they had in common was that they were each recorded in a single take. Therefore, they may be called "live" recordings.  In the first recording the music was arranged by Franco Li Causi, while the second, more modern arrangement was by Maestro Mario Festa.  Even the two accompaniments were totally different.  The first version had only mandolin, acoustic guitar, and double bass, while the second version had electric guitar, drum set, tambourine, saxophone, and flute.  This second version of  "Vitti ’na crozza" was part of a series of six songs that were all recorded with the same ensemble (Femar) and arranger.  The other songs were: "Ciuri, ciuri", "A lu mercatu", "Tutte si maritaru", "Giorno di nozze" and "Canto la mia canzone". These last two were composed, words and music, by my father. "Giorno di nozze" he dedicated to me, his son, and "Canto la mia canzone" was to an extent an autobiographical song, recounting part of his own life. These songs that were recorded on single 45 disks for PHONOTYPE were destined for the jukeboxes that in those days were very common in cafés and discotheques. On the front of the sleeve of each of these records, one could clearly see a tagliando (a rectangular area, like a coupon that one would cut out), on which was printed the disk's two titles (side A and B), together with the name of the singer. This was so that the jukebox installers could easily cut out these titles and insert them into the jukebox. Obviously this is another reason why the arrangements of these songs were done in a more commercial way, appropriate for the "jukebox audience," i.e., those who put coins in the jukebox and selected the singles that they wanted to hear.

LC: Explain the origin of the coda “la-la-la-LE-lu-la-LA-la-la-LE-lu-la-LA,” etc., which they tacked onto the song later, in the '60s.

MV: I believe that it was Rosanna Fratello, in the late ’60s, who first recorded a 45 of the "Modified Vitti ’na crozza", that is, with this coda tacked on.  In my opinion the recording labels did it for purely commercial reasons, to make the song more catchy, dancelike, "happy," in the hopes that the song would sell more records.  All this in absolute contradiction and opposition to the meaning of the text!  Many have considered this a real sacrilege ...

LC:  There is much confusion over the true meaning of the word  “cannuni.Does it mean a cannon, a tower, a mine shaft ...?

MV:  I must say that the meaning of the word “cannuni” has made more than a few people scratch their heads ...
It was a friend of my father, the writer and singer-songwriter Sara Favarò, who wrote various articles on this topic, in order to research it in a thorough way and to learn the true meaning of this ambiguous word.  Thanks to her research, and also to a newspaper article that appeared in L'ORA on February 2, 1978, written by the journalist Gabriello Montemagno (an article that my father saved, containing the reminiscences of  Franco Li Causi and Giuseppe Cibardo Bisaccia) one can reconstruct how the song was born and the true meaning of the word in question.

In 1950 in Agrigento, the director Pietro Germi was filming  "Il cammino della speranza" ("Path of Hope"), and he asked Franco Li Causi if in his repertoire of Sicilian songs there was one with a happy-tragic-sentimental theme that he could use in his film.  Franco Li Causi let him hear some of his compositions, but none of them appealed to him.  However, the director invited him to appear the next day on the set in Favara (a town near Agrigento).  It was there than an old miner, Giuseppe Cibardo Bisaccia, recited to the director a poem that he knew from memory: "Vitti ’na crozza". Pietro Germi immediately liked the meaning of the poem and asked Franco Li Causi if he'd like to set these verses to music for the film. 
At this point we know how the words and the music were born, but the mystery around the meaning of the word  "cannuni" remains to be solved.

Our friend Sara Favarò, after much thorough research and study, discovered some very interesting things on the topic.  Here I share only a part of her vast, detailed research, contained in her book, "Il Mito" (Rome: Edizione del Giana, 2011) in the chapter “Vitti ’na crozza” (pp. 10-28).
Few people know that in the Sicilian mines, the term cannuni, meaning a "big mouth," referred to the trap door which was the entrance of the mine.  A big mouth that swallowed men into its depths and, sometimes, did not return them to the living ... There is no doubt that the skull mentioned in the song is in a desperate search for peace for its soul, unattainable until a merciful hand reunites it with the rest of its mortal remains, rings the death bell, and celebrates a Mass in his memory.  Up to the middle of the last century in Italy, respectful burials were denied to certain categories of people. Suicides, homicides, and –-- incredible but true --– actors were permitted neither a funeral Mass in a church nor an interment in a consecrated burial ground. Therefore, people in these categories were buried in the "unconsecrated" earth. And in certain regions of Italy, Sicily being one of them, the sacraments were forbidden, even to miners who perished following an accident! For this last category, with respect to all the other categories to which the church forbade proper funerals, it was even worse, because frequently their remains could not be retrieved and remained buried in the bowels of the earth. In the case of a mining explosion, the remains were all the more tattered. There are various facts related to the solfataras (holes in the earth) that cause us to stretch out our theory and state that this song is about these miners' sad destiny. Men and children for whom life offered only darkness. They left for work when the sun had not yet risen and returned home when the sun had already set. A life of darkness! And one certainly cannot speak of respect for the death of these "poor Christs," apart from the Catholic religious institution. Men who often remained crushed and killed inside the mines, in that bottom of the world so well illustrated by Christian iconography where the middle of the earth is designated as the location of Hell! For the miners who had the bad luck of dying, squashed like a mouse, the death bell was not rung (a custom that was later changed, in recent decades, for the lives of the miners). There are certain facts which cause us to exclude the possibility that the song refers to the war. Even in cases where the soldiers remained unknown and unburied, for them no priest has ever denied the death knell or the celebration of the Mass.
Obviously we must thank Sara Favarò for this thorough research, which has uncovered the true meaning of this poem that had always remained a mystery.

LC: How is it that in the first recording of 1951, on the disk is written "Michele Verso" instead of "Michelangelo"?

MV: Here, a bit of unintentional confusion was created.  My father was officially named  Michelangelo Verso, but when he recorded those songs in 1951, CETRA advised him to put a shorter name on the disks that would be more easily recognized and remembered. So my father agreed to use his familiar name, Michele Verso. But in 1952 when he made records for FONIT in Milan, they preferred to use his full name.  The same happened in 1955 with all of the disks that he recorded for COLUMBIA in Mexico and in 1963 for PHONOTYPE in Napoli, while when he was in the United States, often on the concert posters they shortened his name to "Michael," "Mike," or "Michael Angelo." And in Naples they used still another variante; I still have a poster from 1952 where my father appears in a vocal concert with the name "Angelo Verso," listed together with Mario Abbate, Aurelio Fierro, Di Gilio, Nino Marletti, Franco Ricci, and Ennio Romani.

* * *

Now let us listen to Vitti ’na crozza, sung by Michelangelo Verso, Sr.

(1) 1st Version (1951) (world-premiere recording)

(2) 2nd Version (1963)

For contrast, listen to another recording (singer unknown) with the "sacrilegious" coda.

6 commenti:

  1. Che belle le foto in bianco e nero...!!! Leonardo spero che mi seguirai ancora, perchè ho cambiato nome e link al mio blog :-) Spero di non perderti ..

  2. Ragazzi che post !!! degna dei piu' grandi giornalisti l' intervista al Sig. Verso jr. Si vede tutto l' amore che provi per la tua terra d' origine e che voce quella di Michelangelo Verso calda,solare e forte proprio come la Sicilia. Grazie di avermi fatto conoscere questo fantastico cantante.A presto.

  3. Grazie Veronica per i tuoi complimenti riguardante la voce di mio padre! Sul mio canale YouTube ( troverete tanti altri brani classici siciliani cantati da mio padre come la bellissima serenata "E vui durmiti ancora" che fu la prima registrazione su dischi FONIT.
    Un cordiale saluto!

  4. E un ringraziamento speciale al M° Leonardo Ciampa per la traduzione in Inglese di questa intervista!