If ever you’re in Naples, bring up Tony Esposito, and thank me later. Part of the new Neapolitan Power scene envisioned by Tullio de Piscopo, James Senese, and Pino Daniele, Tony proved to be the one closest to bringing that sound out of the Mediterranean and onto the world. A rhythm master all his life, Tony Esposito’s Il Grande Esploratore remains one of the pinnacles of that movement and its quest for a new kind of Italian music. Synthesizing Afrobeat, proto-techno, proto-tribal, Italian tarantella, dancehall riddims, Jazz, and funk as if they were going out of style, Naples proved to be the perfect, fertile ground for a musician like Tony to do something truly fascinating. It’s a wonder that for a brief time in our history, mass culture almost lined up to justify their experimentation and exploration
A session man at the beginning of his career, Tony could be heard providing percussion and backing rhythms to Italian icons like Alan Sorrenti, Francesco de Gregori, Lucio Dalla, and Edoardo Bennato. Somewhere down the line, the increasingly modernizing music of Africa called his name. Struck by the trance-like music of Fela Kuti, Tony tried to suss out how he could possibly translate that feeling through his own Italian musical background. His early ’70s discography showed Tony paying homage to his influences like Fela and Ornette Coleman, good stuff, but still lacking something that went beyond reverence. It wasn’t until the start of the ’80s that he really moved to the great stuff.
Performing alongside Brian Auger, and touring with him across Africa and South America, Tony encounters all sorts of other rhythmic musical ideas that just intrigued the hell out of him. Jettisoning off his regular percussion equipment, he decides to build an instrument that would attempt to capture the melodic timbres and ideas that talking drums the he encountered around the world provided. This instrument the “tamborer” depicted on his 1982 album Tamburo became the catalyst for a sea change in his music.
The sound of the tamborer is hard to describe. Part balafon, part berimbau, part tambura, woven into a djembe-like frame, and struck by strung mallet, its base tone sounds vaguely like a clavinet, but in the very skilled hands of Tony, it’d sound like something truly revolutionary. The tamborer could play both the role of lead guitar-like instrument and also pulsing, rhythmic beat. This invention of his, allowed Tony to somehow bring the role of the percussionist into the foreground allowing him to take the lead. When his exploration of its tone met his own musical experimentation with electronics and world music, a musical turning point was met. Cognizant of the need to modernize Italian melodic ideas, Tambura, and his first pop hit “Pagaia” allowed him to go even further.
Unabashedly Neapolitan, Il Grande Esploratore arrived with the breathtaking dancefloor banger “Kalimba de Luna”. Call it cosmic disco, call it balearic, call it tribal, heck you can even call it metric-house music, whatever Tony hit upon for this album, hit, and hit hard. Refining the tamborer once more, this time, Tony discovered ways to electrify it, mutate it, and make it sound like nothing else out there. A true sonic trademark, that once you hear, let’s you know its Tony Esposito. If E2-E4 by Manuel Göttsching brought electronic dance music to a different kind of Teutonic future, Il Grande Esploratore, gave it this other human angle that touched on other decidedly-less European, mainland, dance ideas. For a country who constantly struggled with bigoted xenophobia and fascism, Tony showed how much untapped potential lay possible when they reached into their own existing connections with the world.
When Boney M. made “Kalimba de Luna” an even more massive hit outside of the Mediterranean, Europe was living out glory years when Naples once again captivated the minds of both clueless pop listeners and navel-gazing record bin collectors who were (and are still) stunned by the intelligent “universal” dance music coming out of that historic city. Our only shame, is that the U.S. missed out on such discovery and now we can’t even rely on a reissue to hear the totality of Tony’s vision.
Today, I apologize if I can’t reveal the whole story behind this new Neapolitan Power. Hopefully, I leave you with a large enough taste of what still lies vastly unexplored by us. I do so, in the hope of piquing your own interest to dig even further. We’ll get back to this story soon enough.