You've got to like a guy who plays the bordellofono. Or at least I do, but that may be because I'm a sucker for any version of "Puttin' On the Ritz" that includes gunshots and frog sounds. Which is why my favorite new performer is Mark Di Giuseppe, 36, inventor and owner of the only extant bordellofono. Plays under the name of the Straniero (the Foreigner), a tag he used in Naples where he played music for money in the streets and where he invented it-and eventually performed in a traveling production of The Tempest.
Italy has a long tradition of street musicians, and it's where the Straniero headed after growing up in the Chicago suburbs, attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, spending a few years of playing with groups like the Gerards, and dodging cops who, while they may serve and protect, weren't terribly interested in listening to street music. "I went to Europe with a $10 banjo, and was playing to earn some money when I noticed that I was making an actual living. So I stayed for ten years," he says.
And he's come back home, with the bordellofono he created in homage to Italian one-man bands. And, no, it's not just a bass drum strapped onto his back and an accordion. This is not "a couple of instruments slapped together," he says. "It's 30 instruments slapped together." He is too modest. It's the one-man band crossed with the microchip, a combination of tuba and trombone, any number of drums and cymbals, and a homemade synthesizer that he controls in the palm of his right hand while he's playing an equally homemade electric guitar. No wonder he christened it the bordellofono: Bordello in Italian doesn't mean just a house of prostitution-it's also slang for chaos.
When he plays it, the instrument actually looks like the result of a Lyon & Healy/Harley Davidson collaboration. With flashing lights for effect. Di Giuseppe says the ensemble makes about 300 sounds, not the least of which are those generated by that synthesizer he built-a Spike Jones-inspired collection of boings, crashes, frog ribbits, mad laughter, echoes, police whistles, explosions, and the occasional aaoogah-aaoogah that he records from television cartoons and children's electronic toys.
Yeah, I know, but trust me here. I heard him first on the street at 24th and Oakley during a street fair. He was playing "I Put a Spell On You" and had people following him down the road, a Pied Piper with a mad 30-piece orchestra strapped to his back.
I caught him again at the Hot House-a second floor retro jazz club/art gallery/not-for-profit saloon at Wabash and Balbo-where he has performed every last Wednesday of the month (but, will do so no more) as part of an equally crazed show called the Backyard Variety Show. Just go see it (no, don't) it's Ed Sullivan on controlled substances. And they make a generous martini.
The Straniero opens the show on the Stranierofono-a slightly more refined instrument of Di Giuseppe's that's like "a bass clarinet made from PVC tubing and Super Glue." He closes the show with the aforementioned bordellofono, performing "Puttin' On the Ritz"; a unique rendition of "C'est Si Bon" played for the first time anywhere, with screeching tires and gunfire; and my personal favorite, T.Rex's "Bang-a-Gong (Get It On)," with added explosions that had the waiting staff dancing semi-lewdly in the aisles.
You want the full story, with sound and pictures, of how an untrained upright bass player from the northwest suburbs played heavy metal, country rock, and klezmer music-and then found happiness on the streets of Naples, his Web site is www.thestraniero.com.
He'll be happy to sell you a CD; makes them himself. Of course.