Two years before his death, Rino Gaetano stood on a stage on Capocotta beach, just south of his home city of Rome, and announced: “There’s someone who wants to put a gag on me! I do not fear them! They will not succeed! I feel that, in the future, my songs will be sung by future generations, that, thanks to mass communication, they will understand what I mean tonight! They will understand and open their eyes, rather than having them full of salt!”
Salvatore Antonio ‘Rino’ Gaetano died in 1981, following a car-accident on the ancient Via Nomentana. Today, his legacy prevails in contemporary Italy, a symbol of attitude and defiance in the face of anticlimax and disappointment. An unyielding cynic and satirist from beginning to end, Rino’s message stands a testament to the conflict of Italian identity: pride in one hand, shame in the other.
Titular track ‘Aida’ opens the album, casting suspicion over seventy years of Italian history, remembering the people living through it. “‘Aida’ is not a woman but they are all the women [of Italy] who tell their story, each for five minutes.” Rino told Italian magazine Ciao 2001. The song rocks back and forth, hoarse in voice, recounting the self-assurance of Mussolini’s Italy and thereafter through a catalogue of impotence and tragedy. Strength and force, weakness and submission, division and union. ‘Aida’ is a love song, alternating between hate and resentment, telling fantastic stories of more exciting times through words of regret. As Riccardo Venturi puts it: “The first refrain: ‘Aida, how beautiful you are’. The first cry, at once ironic and terribly sincere, of love for this shitty country.”
Situated between Mio Fratello E’ Figlio Unico (1976) and Nuntereggae Piu (1978), Aida manages to capture both the sentiment of individual alienation from the former album, and the socially critical outlook of the latter. Already involved in the theatrical world, Gaetano avoided censorship by threading metaphor and irony through his work, tackling controversial issues with sarcasm and drama. These are big songs, designed for a theatre house, designed to be funny and sad, simple and difficult all at the same time. Bold, brash, anthemic choruses make cutting statements about the state of Italian society through the medium of quiet, understated individual lives, absurdities and hypocrisies. The album delicately handles the motion between the private and the public, examining the times through a handful of quite ordinary tales of love and principle and self-destruction.
At some point after the release of this album, Rino’s influences edged away from the big Italian pop-rock classics – Celentano, Jannacci… – instead drawing on Reggae and the likes of Bob Dylan and The Beatles. ‘Rare Tracce’ is perhaps the big exception, starting to touch on Lennon/McCartney stylings by track seven. But at its heart, the album is very carefully 1970s Italia. Aida captures something about a very particular point in time that wouldn’t happen again. Somehow, the album makes itself entirely accessible, while holding onto a specificity that makes it quite hard to understand.
Today, there is a process of mapping from the original pains of the 1977 album onto the trouble and confusion of present-day Europe. Aida is a difficult album, and yet one that pairs well with caffeinated dinners and boozy breakfasts. In spite of its obscurity, it accommodates. Perhaps it’s the uniqueness of the lived experience that lends itself to these moments; Aida is, at once, personal and remote. Even today, the album bleeds an air of familiarity, of identity, that resonates with younger audiences. And still, at the end of it all, Aida is just one cautious, lonely tale, the ramblings of that sad man, that mad man, on that beach in 1979.
Words by James Reynolds