Ethnography of a flash mob: the use of public space in the mourning of Pino Daniele

Pino Daniele, Naples’s most beloved songwriter, died one Tuesday of Epiphany, in the early hours of the morning, when, accompanied by his girlfriend, he was rushed to the clinic of his trusted cardiologist in Rome, halfway between his house in Tuscany where he first felt the seizure coming, and the city where he was born and raised.

He did not belong to any of them – like many other Neapolitan artists whose fame went beyond local boundaries and turned them into popular heroes, he choose to spend his adulthood far from the South. According to some, he was a natural recluse, wary of technological progress and rarely seen in public in frivolous events.

And yet, as soon as the news of his death started spreading on Facebook and Twitter, someone decided to organize a flash mob in Piazza Plebiscito, the largest square in Naples, to pay him tribute. By the late evening of January 5th, tens of thousands had flooded from all over the city.

Pino Daniele interviewed by Joe Marrazzo, 1979.
Pino Daniele interviewed by Joe Marrazzo, 1979.

The love of the populace for its fallen genius was immense: born in a large working class family, Daniele had absorbed the influences of blues, jazz and funk from far away cultures, and blended them with the Neapolitan tradition and language. Through the first notes of the jazzy, James Tayloresque ballad Quanno Chiove, in the hot sax of Musica Musica so much reminding of Supertramp’s wriest pop, listeners could still feel the spirit of the city: anarchic and miserable, rebellious and poetic. Only a few, before him, saw an amalgamation between Southern folk roots and the music of the ‘mmericani (Americans) possible. He succeeded with the help of instinct. Meeting critical acclaim when just 22 with his debut album, Terra Mia (My Land), he had his breakthrough two years later with the hit Je so’ pazz (I am crazy) and had already become a people’s favorite by the age of 25.

He was a shlubby, blue-collar worker and a poet, an innovator with a deep respect for the oppressed. Defeated and yet a dreamer. “There’s no much we can do”, sobbed one elder fan of Daniele, when interviewed by a news broadcast. “He’s gone now. But we owe him a whole lot.”

Map of Piazza Plebiscito.

The impromptu happening caused a media frenzy and traffic jams throughout the city, with cars and vespas lining up towards Piazza Plebiscito. Let’s talk for a second about this monumental square, designed and built in the early Seventeenth century and has since enlarged several times. By the early 1990s, the space had fell victim to urban decay and had turned into one gigantic parking lot. The square was then cleared and restored by the centre-left administration and given back to the public, although in a pretty “uselessly”, in the words of architect Nicola Pagliara. “It cannot be filled with people, you can’t walk through it in summer because of the hot temperature and the lack of shadow areas, neither in winter because of the cold winds”. While generally empty, or used for big outdoor concerts and political rallies, now the Piazza had the potential to be occupied by citizens wishing to subvert its institutional meaning.

At its peak, the flash mob transformed the Piazza into a boiling cauldron of people. Twenty, maybe thirty thousand people sung along Daniele’s greatest hits, within every inch of public space. Countless were the candles lit up in the dark or the phone screens used as torches. Local authorities, who struggle to mobilize crowds for state-sponsored gatherings, could only envy such a massive outpouring of emotional connections.

Like the death of Vietnamese singer Trihn Cong Son (known as Vietnam’s Bob Dylan) in 2001, the event marked the appeal of a local celebrity over high-ranking cadres lack an audience.

Here’s how an attentive onlooker could have mapped the multitude: fragmented into a number of smaller groups, each made of strangers playing and singing different Daniele’s songs from different eras.

  • At the entrance of Piazza Plebiscito, on the right, were mostly middle to upper-class fans: high school teachers, music professionals, liberals, family men who grew up together with Pino Daniele, singing mostly his songs from the 1970s, happy at the edge of the mob.
  • Deeper in, towards the center, were the teenagers: mostly taking pictures of each others, sometimes with selfie sticks, singing Daniele’s most recent, pop-oriented hits from the 1990s (those that most hated by the purists).
  • Underneath and all around the equestrian statues at the core of the Piazza, were the lower class kids of Napoli, the famed scugnizzi, even if the definition doesn’t really fit for today’s demography of unemployed youth with expensive clothes and smartphones: although they craved for attention – that’s why they jumped on the statues – they were singing the old hits, where Daniele kept a strong Neapolitan dialect in the lyrics. This way, neighborhoods and networks of individuals with common memories and backgrounds were virtually recreated around the sharing of a ritual.

It’s only an apparent unity that was reached in what was, undoubtedly, an anarchic mess with its own rules and unwritten barriers.

A moment during the flash mob. © photo by Paolo Mossetti
A moment during the flash mob. © photo by Paolo Mossetti

The municipal police were gone, and there was no authority to check on the continuous flow of people (unlike New Year’s Eve, when a similar crowd is monitored by a significant number of patrol cars. So dozens of unlicensed street vendors leapt out, setting up their cardboard tables, laying their tarpaulin and sheets and arranging their goods – mostly inexpensive children’s toys, umbrellas, selfie-sticks. Hand-carts were making their way along the parade routes selling iced-coffee, beer and sodas. In short, the Piazza appeared to be once again an ideal spot for an enterprising merchants to display merchandise. After all, the ‘illegal’ use of public space by individuals wishing to earn an income is a key component in the social life in Napoli, and the flash mob was no exception. Social control manifests itself not only through the restriction on people’s movement but also through an economic system that emphasized production and workspace over consumption and leisure space. On the contrary, the use of public space for the informal economy has been a catalyst for the crowds of Napoli for centuries. Trading, smuggling, religious festivals, performances, music and gambling have taken places historically on the streets of the city.

Although some commentators called this tribute an example of “typical Neapolitan excesses” (the ubiquitous camera phones and people crying as if they had lost a family member), it became actually an interesting cartography for urban studies. And a truly transgressive act, somehow buried by the obvious sentimentality of the whole event. While funerals are often key to the exercise of civil conduct, and those who attend them ideally try to maintain a footing of civility (as in the case of Botswana, preventing recognized differences from causing permanent disruptions in social relations), the formation of this transgressive crowd was related to the revivifying of a public space that normally encoded state control. The flash mob for Pino Daniele gave temporarily rise to a territory and a civil discourse based on sentiment, as distinct from the bureaucratic and rationalizing practices of official religious worship and nationalism.

Funnily enough, only few of those who showed up for Pino Daniele had ever bought one of his latest records. In the same way, probably only a few hundreds people among those who showed up for the #JeSuisCharlie world rallies had ever bought one of the satyrical weekly issues in the months leading to the terrorist attack. Solidarity can be a game of mind-numbing cliches. But where the permissible and state-legitimated groups and organizations of the past are now crumbling, we must embrace new spacial configurations of people based on anarchic, bodily pleasure rather than those controlled by institutional togetherness and platitudes.


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