Sicilian sojourn: Partinico and Via Frank Zappa

MARIELLA RADAELLI

Ironically enough, musical genius Frank Zappa and a 13th century poet Cielo d’Alcamo had some important things in common. The artists so vastly disparate in time and space share an iconoclastic spirit and the colors of two neighboring cities in northwest Sicily.

The audacious American rocker who blazed his own trail across genres and eras like no-one else had a delightfully irreverent sense of humor, a trait that also belonged to one of the most well-known poets of the Sicilian poetry school. It was Cielo or Ciullo d’Alcamo who left us one of the earliest Italian poems, “Rosa fresca aulentissima” (Fresh Fragrant Rose), a lively amorous dialogue in 31 stanzas.

Frank Zappa was the oldest son of Francesco Zappa, a chemist from Partinico, a little town under a steep cliff in the province of Palermo that to the west borders more renowned Alcamo, a historic town in the province of Trapani where Cielo was born.
Via Frank Zappa
The street where his father Francesco was born was dedicated to Frank in 2013 (Photo: Vitaliano Rinaudo).

“Our father was authoritarian, stubborn and often distracted from practical matters,” says Bob Zappa, Frank Zappa’s younger brother. “He didn’t communicate to us our Sicilian roots.”

Bob is author of two critically acclaimed memoirs: "Frankie and Bobby: Growing Up Zappa” and “Frankie & Bobby: The Rest of Our Story”. The books allowed Bob to tell his version events “as they happened, especially concerning Frank’s untimely death”.

Frank’s outlook on life was affected by growing up in Lancaster, California in the Mojave Desert’s Antelope Valley. “The desert was a hard place for him because of the provincial attitude of the kids we knew,” says Bob. “On the other hand, it gave him the opportunity to focus on music and to develop opinions about life, politics and society in general.”

Especially in Lancaster the Zappa brothers as kids felt an anti-Italian prejudice.

Frank was also Bob’s best friend. They remained in intermittent touch even though Frank's wife tried to put a wall between them.

“I miss Frank’s humor, exceptional intelligence, his brotherly guidance and his incredible musical genius”, Bob says.

In 2015, Frank Zappa’s son Dweezil released an album called via Zammatà, the road in Partinico where nonno Francesco was born. In 2013, that street was dedicated to Frank Zappa, who passed away in 1993 at 52.
Moon and Dweezil visit Sicily
Bob and Moon Unit Zappa.

Frank's older kids, Moon Unit and Dweezel, visited Partinico. They wanted to deepen their roots.

“Moon and Dweezil share that in common,” says Bob Zappa. “They want to know more about their relationship to the original Zappa clan. I am in regular contact with both of them, have had them here at our apartment in New York many times, and shared with them my feelings about what it means to be part of an Italian family.”

“The trip to Partinico was important for Moon and Dweezil and I suspect Diva found it interesting as well. Ahmet did not go with them that trip and I don’t know if he has any interest in visiting there in the future. I think Frank’s legacy will live on, as will the original Zappa family name and traditions, through Moon and Dweezil. They are truly Frank’s children and my blood relatives,” Bob Zappa concludes.

After ambling along Via Frank Zappa in Partinico, the Real Bourbon Cellar at Via Principe Umberto is also worth a visit. Built in the 1800s as a cellar for wine, liquor and oil by Ferdinando III, King of Sicily, today it is a museum on cultural heritage.

Less than 15km separate Partinico from Alcamo, which is renowned for its variety of wines. The Bianco di Alcamo is labelled DOC or denominazione d’origine controllata.

Alcamo derives its name from the Arabic word al-qamah, which means “rich soil”.

The present town was founded in 1233 by the emperor Frederick II. At his court, Cielo found work as a jester poet.

Impressive is Castello dei Conti di Modica, which dates from the 14th century and has windows that look out over an undulating landscape of vineyards and olive groves. Hillsides drop gently to the nearby Gulf of Castellamare.
Via Frank Zappa
A plaque dedicated to Frank Zappa along the street in Sicily that bears his name (Photo: Vitaliano Rinaudo).

A stunning 14th-century basilica, Santa Maria Assunta, dominates the scenery downtown together with a beautiful piazza named for Cielo which features the city hall and the Church of Saint Olivia.

Sitting outside the piazza Ciullo I cannot help but thinking about “Rosa fresca aulentissima”. Italians study it in school also in reference to Dante, who cites it in De Vulgari Eloquentia as an example of spoken Sicilian vernacular. It tells with delightful humor an altercation between a seducer and a young woman who speaks with an earthly tone. The man begs her to entertain his petitions, while she tells him to get real. She would prefer to shave her hair instead and hide in a nunnery.

Cielo’s most famous poem represents a parody of L’Amor cortese, the themes around the courtly love that characterized the Troubador poetry of Provence at the time.

I laugh and smile, thinking about Frank Zappa and his “absolutely free” music. My imagination gets stronger about the Sicilian in him and what was behind his experimental, warm, cunning and satirical 62 albums. I start to hum over a doo-wop piece from “Greasy Love Songs”.