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Music & "Little Italy"

The sounds of "Little Italy"

During the summer nights in and around "Little Italy", one could hear accordions, tambourines, and even the occasional mandolin, well into the small hours of the morning. Men and women danced the Tarantella, a dance full of expression, very popular in the southern regions of Italy. The women would stand and chat in their native costumes, or dressed in black, while their children played. One popular song went:

"Where a'ya work-a John,
I poosh I poosh I poosh
Where a'ya poosh-a John,
I poosh I poosh I poosh-a pram"

The Italians brought such character to this grim part of Manchester, their music, food and customs brought so much colour to this area.

Not everyone had a gramaphone, or even the old 78 'His Master's Voice' records, but music and opera played a very important part in the lives of the immigrant community of Ancoats, their music transporting them on a nostalgic journey. One would only have to walk down the streets to hear a rendition of 'O Sole Mio' or 'Torna a Surriento' and many more Neapolitan classics. 'O Sole Mio' is a song for those who work by themselves. It tells about the beauty of the day after the storm, how lovely it will be, but particularly the beauty of Naples. 'Torna a Surriento' was written to the post master general to remind him of his visit to Sorrento and grant the town a post office. These are songs that tell of homesickness, and I think all Italians get a little homesick when they hear these 'belle canzoni di Napoli'. Nobody sings of homesickness more than the Italians, except perhaps for the Irish. The character of the Neapolitan people speaks for itself; you can hear the feeling in the Neapolitan dialect, it's enriched in character, full of expressions and hand-gestures.

 

 
Typical street scene of "Little Italy", Blossom Street, early 1900s (courtesy of Mr. Roland Antonelli)
The Antonelli barrel organ and piano factory on Great Ancoats Street, early 1900s (courtesy Mr. Roland Antonelli)
Collecting barrel organs from the hirer's yard (courtesy David Gavioli-Dakin)

Hurdy-Gurdy men, barrel organs, and bagpipes

"Little Italy" was well known for its entertainers and especially its street musicians. They played many musical instruments, foremost the barrel organ. The 1881 census of England and Wales shows that nearly a third of the immigrants were musicians. They would walk the streets of Manchester and surrounding districts playing their barrel organs and hurdy gurdies, some with monkeys in red waistcoats and hats, and a few with dancing bears. The Antonelli family manufactured barrel organs and hired them out from their premises on the corner of Blossom Street and Great Ancoats Street, being the 'padrone' to a large group of musicians. Antonio Varetto also manufactured barrel organs in Manchester. Simon Rabino learnt the manufacture of barrel organs from his father and grandfather in Italy. He studied at the Marseilles college of music, and although many of his compositions were highly popular, never published his scores. The Marrocca family, the Mancini family, and the Arcaro family all rented barrel organs out, and made a good living at this. It was even noted that Gavioli, one of the most famous of all the barrel organ manufacturers, was based in Jersey Street, Ancoats in the 19th century. A lesser known instrument was the ' zampogna', similar to the Scottish bagpipes, which was native to emigrants from the Ciocaria (Lazio) region of Italy.

See also:
The Antonelli Story
 
My paternal grandfather, Marco, and his brother Antonio, with an Antonelli barrel organ they had bought, Chester 1909
Outside the factory of Antonio Varetto. Pietro Varetto on the left 1900.
Advert for the Pesaresi street piano, a manufacturer in Clerkenwell, London (courtesy David Gavioli-Dakin)

The Great Enrico Caruso

Portrait taken from 1909 concert programme
There was no-one more loved than the great Enrico Caruso amongst the Italian immigrant community. My grandfather Vincenzo Schiavo, liked nothing more, so my mother tells me, to listen to Caruso's records on his wind-up gramophone. He would sit and listen attentively for hours to the great voice of Enrico Caruso, and explain to his children what Caruso was singing about: the land of his birth of which he was so proud. In 1909 the great man himself came to Glasgow, Scotland, to St.Andrews Hall, which was a sell-out, and he took Scotland by storm.
(see newspaper clipping 1909).

Advertisement for the Caruso's concert at St. Andrew's Hall, Glasgow, Friday September 3rd, 1909 ( click to enlarge )
Caruso never forgot his roots in the slums of Naples where he was born in 1873. He developed a great voice, he was one of the finest exports to come out of Italy in this period. The immigrants loved this very humble man who was one of them, who knew of hard times himself. And who could convey them better in his music and operas than the great Enrico Caruso. I believe when in London, Caruso sang on the steps of St. Peter's Italian church in Clerkenwell to those who could not afford a seat at the concert, a sign that he never forgot his compatriots. He brought so much happiness to the Italian communities all over the world. They greeted him with warm affection and great enthusiasm. He will be remembered as one of the greatest tenors of all time, and the love of opera and music has been passed down to the generations that followed.

 

 
Old 78 rpm 'His Master's Voice' record of Enrico Caruso
Intro to the programme for Caruso's concert at St. Andrew's Hall, Glasgow, 1909 ( click to enlarge )
Caruso in costume on the night
( click to enlarge )

Ancoats own 'Rudolph Valentino'

In the early 1900s there was a little boy by the name of domenico Rea, or Dom Rea as he was known. He would sit and watch and listen to the accordions being played; he loved music and entertaining, singing and dancing. He grew up to become one of the more colourful entertainers in "Little Italy". Never going to school to learn music, he was self-taught on the accordion, only being shown by the men who played them around the streets of "Little Italy".

Some musicians were professionally trained, such as the great Rudi Mancini, and Ernie de Felice, who went to school to learn music, and who both played with great flair and passion. Both gave their time to entertain at Italian functions. Rudi went on to play in the R.A.F. and other great dance bands after the war, and had a distinguished musical career. In later life he, along with his wife Pat, became one of the biggest hoteliers in Blackpool, north west England, at The Queens Hotel.

Domenic played, danced and sang at the same time, and was full of fun, occassionally hitting the wrong keys due to the size of his large fingers! He didn't have musician's hands, rather his hands reflected his work as terrazzo tiler and ice cream man. He dressed up as a gypsy, and even imitated Valentino - some said making a better job of it! He had the look of Valentino, and the voice that women swooned for. They would wait to hear Dom playing; singing and dancing around the streets of Ancoats, sometimes accompanied by the great Rudi Mancini, who loved Dominic like a brother. He would serenade the girls in the many mills, and they would come to the windows and throw money down to him, to the annoyance of the management as work would stop.

During the war, Dom was interned with his Uncle Marco, and many of the Italian men from all over the country. He was offered the chance to join the British Army but refused, staying on the Isle of Man to entertain along with other Italian musicians and entertainers. Together they kept up the spirits of the other Italian internees. With Domenic's acordion ageing, I believe they clubbed together to buy him another. Dom was loaded with personality, he entertained in some of the biggest Italian functions and weddings throughout his life, and always proud of his Italian roots.

 

 
Domenico Rea, Manchester's answer to Valentino, late 1920's
The great Rudi Mancini, the finest accordionist to come out of "Little Italy" (courtesy of the Mancini family).

 

Post war years and modern times

There was a local song sung in the Manchester pubs:

Why do you wanna go to Wembley,
Worra ya wanna go to Wembley for?
Take a walk down Ancoats Lane,
and you're in Italy so grand,
Take a walk up Oldham Road
and you're in Ire-land.
China and Japan
are in Upper Brook Street;
Africa's in Moss Side so they say,
And if you wanna go further still,
Palestine's in Cheetham Hill,
Worra ya wanna go to Wembley for.

After the war, one of the next great Italian tenors, Beniamino Gigli, came to Manchester, and performed at Belle Vue. This is remembered with great enthusiasm by not only the Italians who went in great numbers, but also the wider community. He also performed at Manchester's Roman Catholic church, St. Mary's, 'The Hidden Gem', in city centre Manchester, singing at the Holy Mass.

Then there were the singers of "Little Italy", who sang at many of the Italian dances which were held at Belle Vue, Cheetham Town Hall, Broughton Assembly Halls, New Islington Conservative Club, the UCP on Market Street, and especially in the Kings Arms on Great Ancoats Street. The young second and third generation Italians would dance out on to the streets to the sound of the old Italian anthem, 'Marcia Reale', accompanied by Rudi, Domenic and Ernie playing accordions. The singers were Margharita Rea (nee Schiavo), Mary Kite (nee Ricci) and the great voice of Tony Ricci amongst others. They were the equivalent of Connie Francis and Frank Sinatra.

Today, at Italian functions, the songs of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Connie Francis, Perry Como, Al Martino, Tony Bennet, Lou Monte and Jerry Vale are played with great pride. In any Italian family you will find a budding Dean Martin or Connie Francis. These kids are pushed to the front at any Italian function to do their bit, and when they start to sing, their mammas and pappas, aunts and uncles, cougini and paesani listen attentively, and are transported back to the home country, thinking of times past and their immigrant parents, and the sacrifices they made for a better life for their families. Music is at the heart of all Italain communities around the world.

 

 
Beniamino Gigli singing at Mass in St. Mary's ('The Hidden Gem'), Mulberry Street, Manchester.
Courtesy of The Very Reverend Father Clinch P.P.
Another fine accordionist to come out of "Little Italy", Ernesto de Felice entertains at the Tivoli restaurant (courtesy of the de Felice family).
Italian function held at the Queens hotel, Blackpool, with the great Rudi Mancini on accordion, and Margharita Rea singing that famous Italian song 'Mama' 1988

All text and images (unless marked *) Anthony Rea 2010
not to be used without permission. All rights reserved