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World Music Features

“My evolution has worked backwards, starting with James Brown and ending with Naples.”

Enzo Avitabile

By Rob Weisberg
Published August 31, 2005

Italian saxman Enzo Avitabile delves into the strange and venerable bottari tradition of Naples, which uses huge wine casks as drums and metal sickles as percussion. On his quirky new release, Save The World, Avitabile gets the likes of Khaled, Manu Dibango, Hugh Masekela and others to join him in making his big noise.

Italian

Imagine if the employees at Crate and Barrel amused themselves while you were shopping by banging on all those empty crates and barrels. Loud. Really loud. Not exactly “whistle while you work.”
   Well, the Bottari—“Barrel Beaters”—of the village of Portico di Caserta in Campania, Southern Italy do just that.
   The tradition began in the middle ages when young men would beat on barrels used for the storage of hemp as a means of driving demons away from the village. This began as an absolutely pragmatic and functional activity, but over the years as faith in the function declined it morphed into a purely ritual undertaking.
   Nowadays the Bottari of Portico is essentially a youth group, made up of 20 or so teenagers. It’s a hoot for the kids, but then they outgrow it and move on. The group participates in various festivals in southern Italy but the big annual home-turf appearance is during the winter celebration of St. Antonio Abate in Portico. They make a joyful noise while being wheeled around town in boat-shaped, ox-drawn wagons designed to commemorate a historic ocean-crossing by the saint.
   Andrea Aragosa, Enzo Avitabile’s producer, happened to be working with the Bottari, and he hooked them up with Enzo. The idea: to integrate the ancient Bottari tradition with a Mediterranean style roots-jazz-rock ensemble augmented with traditional instruments of the region, bring in an array of celebrity superstars for extra spice, and take the show on the road and into the studio. Not a bad idea: Enzo Avitabile and the Bottari’s CD, Save The World (Wrasse), made the top 10 in the European world music charts and garnered a 2005 BBC World Music Awards nomination. Additionally, Avitabile and the Bottari have received raves at numerous high-profile festivals and arts center gigs on the European world music circuit (you can hear their rousing WOMAD U.K. performance via the WOMAD website).
   In addition to discovering a good creative idea, Avitabile also saw an opportunity to raise awareness about an important tradition that is under-appreciated at home, not to mention abroad. “The Bottari were known just in our region, and not even all our region knows about them,” Avitabile explains. “Now people all over Italy are starting to hear about them, and a good part of Europe too. I’m very proud to bring their music around and to help people learn much more about their own culture.”
   Avitabile has long been interested in blending and sharing culture through music.  Originally the inspiration came from American R&B, jazz and rock. Naples has a large American military presence; he often played bars that catered heavily to GIs. “I was a funky soul man,” he quips. “My first albums were very R&B.”
   That formative interest has stayed with him—some of his highest profile work has been with American R&B luminaries like James Brown and Tina Turner. But Avitabile notes that there has always been an indigenous element in his music. Often, as on this CD, he has sung in regional Neapolitan dialect. “The words were always about the problems of every day life, especially in Naples, where the problems are a little bit more profound than in others parts of Italy,” he says.
   “My interest in my traditions has always been very strong,” he continues, adding that this is not unusual where he comes from. “Neapolitans are really close to their own culture, much more than people from any other Italian city. You can really feel that just walking around, and most Neapolitans, even when they emigrate to other countries, sooner or later they all come back to their town. This is something really strong and difficult to explain, because at the same time we have so many problems; this is not an easy city to live in, not at all. But culture and traditions are so strong that they make you forget the problems.”
   As to his persona