Fado, Flamenco, and Neapolitan Song. Similarities and Differences in Traditional Mediterranean Music

Passionate, lively, and energetic music. It is traditional Mediterranean music. The music of the Mediterranean, warm like its sun, enveloping like its wind, beautiful like its sea. We hear it everywhere, identifying entire nations through its sounds. It is the traditional music of the Mediterranean Europe, and it stands alongside other great traditional musical styles such as Neo-Latin music, African music, Irish music, and many more. (If you want to explore other types of traditional music, click here.)
Fado, Flamenco, and classical Neapolitan Song are the three styles that make up traditional Mediterranean music. They are the typical music of Granada, Porto, and Naples, and they share many similarities but also have differences.
To showcase the characteristics of these three Mediterranean traditional music styles, SEA and YOU was created, the Festival of traditional Mediterranean music that takes place in the three Mediterranean cities (one date has already been held; you can find the first SEA and YOU concert in Granada: discover what happened here) and aims to reveal the similarities and differences in traditional Mediterranean music.

A festival born from the will of three associations that focus on their traditional music in their respective countries: the Fado concert hall in Porto, Ideal Clube de Fado; the imposing structure in Granada, CajaGranada, home to numerous cultural activities in Granada, and Napulitanata, the only concert hall for classical Neapolitan song in Naples.
It is thanks to the courage of these three associations that today we can listen to Fado, Flamenco, and Neapolitan Song in Granada, Porto, and Naples on the same stage, for two more dates. (Go to the next Sea and You event, which will take place in Porto very soon!)

The Importance of Traditional Mediterranean Music

How do we imagine traditional Mediterranean music? We imagine it as enveloping, warm, made of welcoming places, clear voices, and characteristic sounds.
Well, it’s exactly like that. In fact, there is much more that unites Fado, Flamenco, and classical Neapolitan Song. They are immortal styles that represent the diversity and richness of the musical traditions of their countries. In addition to being a form of great culture, these musics are also a means through which people express deep emotions and connect with their social identity.
Neapolitans all recognize themselves in classical Neapolitan Song, just as the Portuguese are proud of their Fado and the Spaniards of their Flamenco.

Do you want to verify? Perfect, then tell me if when you think of Spain, a flamenco dance performed by a dancer dressed in red doesn’t immediately come to mind.
And tell me if a boy playing the mandolin doesn’t immediately come to mind when you think of Naples.

Fado, Flamenco, and classical Neapolitan Song represent a way of life in Portugal, Spain, and Naples, and no one could ever take these musics away from the imagination of these places.

Similarities among Traditional Mediterranean Musics. Nostalgia!

We have seen how Fado, Flamenco, and Classical Neapolitan Song can be comfortably grouped together. But what are the similarities among traditional Mediterranean musics?

The first major similarity among traditional Mediterranean musics concerns the nostalgia of the themes addressed in the songs. We have already talked about it in an article, where we mentioned that traditional Mediterranean musics share the feeling of melancholy and nostalgia in their lyrics. In Naples, it’s called Pucundria, in Spain Morriña, in Portugal Saudade. A feeling of discomfort derived from nostalgia. Nostalgia for what? It can stem from a loss, a departure, whether for a journey or for emigration (typical of Neapolitan song as in E.A. Mario’s Santa Lucia luntana or in Fado), or it can come from a faded memory from a distant time.

The Importance of Voice in Traditional Mediterranean Musics

But to convey this feeling of nostalgia that unites the three traditional Mediterranean musics, you need the voice!! The importance of the voice is the second major analogy among Fado, Flamenco, and classical Neapolitan Song.

In Flamenco, singing (called cante) is the most important thing. It conveys all the energy, passion, and vitality of the artists on stage. So magical that the singers seem possessed by a particular spirit called Duende. (Click here to learn more.)
In Fado, the voice captivates the spectator, immerses them in an almost sacred ritual. It is a powerful and warm voice that takes the minds of anyone who listens to a Fado song on a journey.
Classical Neapolitan song gives great importance to the voice, which must be clear to convey the sweet words written. The lyrics of classical Neapolitan Song are true poems, written by the greatest writers of the late nineteenth century (how can we not mention Salvatore di Giacomo, Ernesto Murolo, and Libero Bovio), and it takes a significant voice to support the words written by these artists.
There are two great schools of Neapolitan voice. The voice in the style of Roberto Murolo, more spoken, clear, distinct, and the voice in the style of Sergio Bruni, more extroverted and lively.

Almost Identical Instruments

The last major analogy among traditional Mediterranean musics concerns the instruments used. Instruments are crucial for these musical styles. They are the backbone of the entire performance, support the voice, and are an essential part of the show. It is not strange, given the geographical proximity, that the three styles have many similar instruments.
Starting with pianos, which Neapolitan song and Fado share, as well as the violin (or Fado’s viola). They also share wind instruments, in the variations of saxophones, flutes, and clarinets in all three traditional Mediterranean musics. And they share basses, acoustic basses, and double basses.
But certainly, if there is one thing they share, each in its specificity, it is guitars.
Traditional Mediterranean musics share the guitar in many of its variations, from the classical guitar for classical Neapolitan Song, similar to the resonant flamenco guitar, to the Portuguese guitarra, a small pear-shaped twelve-string guitar very similar, in sound and shape, to the typical Neapolitan mandolin.
These are just some of the similarities among traditional Mediterranean musics. But there are also some small differences!

Differences among Traditional Mediterranean Musics

While it is true that Fado, Flamenco, and Classical Neapolitan Song share many things, there are some substantial and important differences to underline.
The first difference among the three styles of traditional Mediterranean music is that Classical Neapolitan Song has written lyrics, with scores for each song, while Fado and Flamenco share that lyrics can be either improvised or written.
Another significant difference we see is in dance, so important in Flamenco, almost its most important part, absent in Fado and Classical Neapolitan Song.

But if there is a major difference among the three traditional Mediterranean musics, it is in the places where they are played.

Concert Halls. Fado Houses, Tablao, and…

Fado and Flamenco share the type of venue where they are performed. In Portugal, typical places to listen to Fado are the renowned Fado Houses, cozy restaurants where you can enjoy Fado music and savor local specialties. It is part of the Portuguese tradition, which sees hospitality and conviviality as a way to make its most beautiful musical product loved. However, not all places where Fado is played are Fado Houses, as they must be officially recognized as restaurants with live Fado music.
Indeed, there is a special venue in Porto that is not a Fado House but has decided to invest all its energies in playing Fado. It is the Ideal Clube de Fado, an association that has committed to preserving Fado and promoting it even outside Portugal.
Flamenco, on the other hand, is performed in Tablao. These are small and welcoming concert halls where the distance between artists and the audience is close to allow the Cante (Flamenco singing) to express itself at its best. These places resemble Gypsy homes in the heights of Andalusia, which have now been transformed into concert halls.
If these venues are essential to understand what Fado and Flamenco are, the same cannot be said for Classical Neapolitan Song.

Napulitanata. The Only Classical Neapolitan Song Concert Hall in Naples

Where is Classical Neapolitan Song performed? It depends!
Classical Neapolitan Song does not have a specific space, and this difference with Fado and Flamenco is due to the different origin of Classical Neapolitan Song. While Fado and Flamenco are Mediterranean traditional music more connected to popular traditions, Classical Neapolitan Song has a more bourgeois extraction. Its diffusion is not tied to the place where it is played but to the strength of record labels that invested in authors of Neapolitan songs.
‘O Sole mio, ‘O surdato ‘nnammurato, Comme facette mammeta are just some of the songs that have achieved success thanks to the distribution efforts of one of the most important record labels: Bideri, founded in 1876.
The places where Classical Neapolitan Song is performed can be diverse. From squares to restaurants, theaters to concert halls, salons to cafè-chantant of French importation from the late nineteenth century, like the legendary Salone Margherita.
Fortunately, given the absence of a specific place for Classical Neapolitan Song, for a few years now, there has been the concert hall Napulitanata, which hosts thousands of tourists every week eager to listen to Classical Neapolitan Song, and who previously didn’t know where to go to hear the most famous songs of the Neapolitan tradition.
An unjustified lack for a tradition that makes the whole world fall in love.
A venue also born from the knowledge of Spanish Tablao and Portuguese Fado Houses, reproduced on that model of closeness to the audience, that love for music, and that typical hospitality of Mediterranean peoples.

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By Davide Lancia