Jonathan Demme, director of the Hannibal Lecter film The Silence of the Lambs, first heard the music of Enzo Avitabile on the radio in New York. “I was driving home one night and John Schaefer’s programme New Sounds came on and I remember his voice saying ‘Tonight we’re featuring new sounds from Naples, Italy’ and I didn’t think much of it. But then suddenly one of Enzo’s pieces with Bottari comes on and I was looking at the George Washington bridge and it was a life changing moment.” Demme went home and bought his albums, which he loved and when he was invited to the Naples Film Festival last year, he requested an introduction to Enzo Avitabile. So now, here he is making a film about this extraordinary musician and the city that inspires him.
Despite requests from all the big Italian papers, it’s only Songlines that has been granted access to the shooting which includes a galaxy of stars coming from all over the world to play with Avitabile: Toumani Diabaté from Mali, Daby Touré from Mauritania, Eliades Ochoa from Cuba, Amal Murkus from the Palestinian Territories and on Wednesday last week, when I was there, Djivan Gasparian from Armenia and Hossein Alizadeh from Iran. The music location is a forgotten window onto Naples belle époque – a former café chantant called the Salone Margherita hidden underneath the magnificent Galleria Umberto 1. An atmospheric place for a recording session.
Enzo Avitabile had a Top of the World album in Songlines #24 with Save the World (Wrasse), which was nominated for a BBC Award for World Music in 2006. Having worked with American artists like James Brown and Tina Turner, around 15 years ago he started returning to his Italian roots which includes the sacred music of southern Italy and the Bottari players of big wooden barrels who feature on the Save the World album. While exploring his roots he’s also collaborated with dozens of musicians from all over the world. “I was happy and surprised at the possibility of having my music known through a film by Jonathan Demme,” says Avitabile. “I trust Jonathan and believe there is plenty in my life and my city and my music to make a film out of.”
The day after filming in the Salone Margherita, shooting is taking place in the Cimitero delle Fontanelle – an extraordinary space quarried out of the rock where thousands of unknown plague victims were buried in the 1600s. Avitabile wrote a sort of requiem for anonymous people which was inspired by this place. Here, with dramatic up-lighting, Demme gets him to recite the lyrics again and again with piles of skulls around him.
“Until we edit I don’t know how it will begin or end,” says Demme, “but I’ve made a lot of documentaries and I know if the characters are strong and the terrain is rich then something terrific will happen. I love that.”