Al Di Meola: Italian roots that resonate

MARIELLA RADAELLI

Guitar master Al Di Meola grew up hearing the name of an Italian village throughout his life: Cerreto Sannita in Benevento province. And it continues to resonate in him like a guitar on reverb.

A few days ago I met the jazz fusion and world music guitarist at the Blue Note Jazz Club in Milano where he had a wonderful show together with two other virtuosos, Sardinian guitarist Peo Alfonsi and accordion player Fausto Beccalossi. It was a concert that expertly spanned a range of emotions and energy levels.
Al Di Meola, Italy
Born in Jersey City in 1954, he says “the Italians were always the cool people”.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise at all — Al Di Meola holds the record for most guitar awards given to any guitarist in history.

Born in Jersey City in 1954, he grew up in an Italian household. “I was always proud to have Italian blood in me. The Italians were always the cool people,” he says.

“My dad was not well versed in languages. He didn’t know how to communicate my cultural identity. He had 13 brothers and sisters, a big Italian family. He worked with his hands, a builder.”

Al’s grandfather came from Cerreto Sannita, a town known for its time-honored tradition of Baroque-style porcelain. Positioned on a hill in the high valley of Titerno on the slopes of the Matese Mountains, the town was rebuilt in record time after a devastating earthquake leveled it in 1688.

The town also boasts a rich culinary tradition, based mainly on homemade pasta, lamb, ham and cold cuts.

“Last summer I visited Cerreto Sannita for the first time,” says Di Meola.

“After our San Carlo Opera House performance in Napoli my wife organized a trip to my grandfather's village with my family. We met a lot of relatives — it seemed half the little village were Di Meolas. I was overcome with emotion. Mayor Giovanni Parente, all the town council, people and relatives greeted us as if a long lost relative finally came home, some kind of hero’s welcome much to my shocking surprise! Very memorable and touching!”
Al Di Meola, Italy
Di Meola’s grandfather left Cerreto in the early 1900s. About 60 km northeast of Naples, the town now has a population of 4,200, nearly 1,000 fewer than in 1871.

On last June 5 the great guitarist and his wife Stephanie became honorary citizens of Cerreto Sannita. “We got citizenship, now we need an Italian passport,” he says with a smile.

“They took me to my grandfather’s house. They knew exactly where it was. They showed us the church he went to and we have pictures of the door he left behind as he headed for a new life in the United States,” he says with great emotion.

“I heard the stories of Cerreto all my life from my dad,” he says.

Hearing those stories, Al was inspired to write a new composition called “Cerreto Sannita” that will be on his upcoming album "Opus" set for release early next year. Al played the piece in Milano, a festive composition of heartfelt gratitude.

But Di Meola never met his grandfather. “He died right before I was born, and my grandmother too, so I never met any of my grandparents.”

“My nonno left Italy in the early 1900s. He arrived at Ellis Island at the mouth of Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. He didn’t travel further,” he recalls. “He settled in nearby Bayonne, New Jersey. Italian immigrants were so poor those times. They had to struggle to get ahead. There was a class war so Italians very much wanted to become Americanized. They didn’t keep their names. My father’s name Carlo became Charles. They emphasized the need to learn English instead of Italian. Today is different: if you come from Italy you want your children to speak Italian. You feel necessity for it,” he says.

“But in fact, now we see that Italian-Americans contributed so much to the growth of America in each field. They were great doctors, great actors. They were great in everything.”

Di Meola’s mother also came from the Campania region. “I forget the name of the small village. It is near Napoli, something with a P, I forget the name,” he says.

“My mother was born in Italy and raised by relatives until the age of 13, when she left for the States. She lost her mother when she was very little. My mum had no picture of her mother.”

The Italian-American guitar virtuoso said that the Di Meolas in Cerreto Sannita were famous during his great-grandfather’s time as fireworks manufacturers. “My great-grandfather owned the largest manufacturing plant for fireworks in the south of Italy. But one day his factory blew up. He was put in a big barrel of oil to recover, but he couldn’t make it. He died from the blast injuries.”
Al Di Meola, Italy
Al Di Meola with his wife Stephanie and their baby girl Ava.

Al’s new CD “Opus” contains many in-depth compositions inspired by his current state of mind. “I am happy now while my normal state of mind was to be miserable and depressed,” he says.

“I have a new family. My wife is here with me and we have a beautiful baby girl named Ava. We have love in our life that is the master key that opens the gates of happiness,” he says.

“My wife is also part of the team. It is great to work together. She has a lot of creative ideas. We are planning to do a collection of lullabies from around the world in combination with a book that collects the story behind each one.”

“Ava’s Dream Sequence Lullaby”, a composition dedicated to his baby girl, will be the standout piece on the new record of world’s lullabies, unique and universal at the same time.