Songs in the key of coffee

A feature in lyrics since the 18th century, coffee has been sung about by everyone from crooners to rock groups, singer-songwriters and jazz singers. It’s a story ranging from Bach all the way to Zecchino d’Oro

Sipping a good espresso with your favourite song in the background is one of life’s great pleasures. For music, and for literature and art in general, coffee has been a source of inspiration since ancient times.

Probably the first person to be inspired was Johann Sebastian Bach, who in 1734 composed his Coffee Cantata, in which the main character exercises her right to taste coffee and – after protests from her father – makes it one of her conditions for accepting a marriage. One of the first Italian songs about coffee was A tazza e’ cafè, written by Giuseppe Capaldo in 1918. Capaldo was a waiter working in Caffè Portoricco in central Naples. Brigida, the cashier of the café, has a surly character but her way of being charms many men, including young Giuseppe who, in the lyrics, compares women to a cup of coffee: bitter first, but sweet underneath: “Just turn around and you’ll see that sooner or later the sweetness left on the bottom will touch your lips.” Made successful by Roberto Murolo, the song was recently re-released by Renzo Arbore and his Italian Orchestra.

Coffee takes centre stage in Sanremo

One of the most successful coffee-related songs was Ma cosa hai messo nel caffè, sung by Riccardo Del Turco and Antoine at the Sanremo Music Festival in 1969. It was re-released a few years ago by Malika Ayane. The lyrics talk of a girl who invites a boy to have an espresso with her. After drinking the coffee, the boy asks: “What did you put in the coffee?”, because he feels that “there’s something different inside of me now; if it’s poison I’ll die, but it will be sweet next to you because the love that wasn’t there before is there now.” The song came last at the festival, but years later Del Turco at least had something to smile about when he opened Il Caffè, a real-life café, in the late 1970s. Situated in central Florence in front of Palazzo Pitti, it quickly became a must-visit for artists. Staying on the subject of Sanremo, in 1981 Fiorella Mannoia entered Caffè nero bollente in the Youth category. The song was about a restless, dissatisfied and angry lady: “I kill time drinking hot black coffee/in this hideaway warmed by a patient sun/which burns inside of me, strong as the coffee…” In 2003, Sanremo saw the return of coffee, with Alex Britti revealing the extreme lengths he goes to to get back to his love: “I’ve drunk 7000 coffees because… I want to get back to you by evening.” (from 7000 caffè).

Coffee, poetry and singer-songwriters

Leaving the festival behind and moving on to the realm of singer-songwriters, coffee featured in one of Lucio Battisti’s first hits, Anna: «In the mornings I have someone to make me coffee…»; Coffee also appears in songs by Pino Daniele  «Na’ tazzulella e’ cafè e mai niente cè fanno sapè nui cè puzzammo e famme, o sanno tutte quante e invece e c’aiutà c’abboffano e’ cafè» (from Na’ tazzulella e’ cafè) and Fabrizio De Andrè, with Don Rafaè, in which the main character sings its praises «Ah, che bellu ccafè sulo ‘n carcere ‘o sanno fa’ co’ ‘a recetta ch’a Cicirinella compagno di cella ci ha dato mamma’».

From crooners to rock

Looking overseas, even Nobel-prize winner Bob Dylan needed a cup of coffee to keep him going: “One more cup of coffee for the road, One more cup of coffee ‘fore I go” (One more Cup of Coffee, 1976); while the great Ella Fitzgerald sang: “I walk the floor and watch the door – And in between I drink Black coffee.” (Black Coffee, 1949). A few years later, the songwriter Carly Simon sang “I had some dreams they were clouds in my coffee” in You’re so vain (1972), the song that made her a world-famous star. Another great, Frank Sinatra, used his velvety voice to sing Coffee Song (1961), in which he joked about coffee plantations in Brazil, singing that there was more coffee than water in the country. Staying with the crooners, Serge Gainsbourg’s Couleur Cafe (1964) Otis Redding’s Cigarettes and coffee (1966) both used coffee as a source of inspiration.

Moving into modern rock museum, British band Blur asked what could be better than coffee and a bit of television in their 1999 hit Coffee and TV. Garbage bemoaned the end of a relationship – “You tell me you don’t love me over a cup of coffee” (Cup of Coffee, 2001) – while the Cranberries celebrated the smell of coffee in the morning with their 2001 hit Smell the Coffee: “Come on and wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up – Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up – It’s time, smell the coffee, the coffee.”

Il caffè della Peppina

Romantic, witty, sad or happy, there are countless songs about coffee written in all the languages of the world. But Italy may just have the most mysterious song. Simonetta Gruppioni and Marina D’Amici won the Zecchino d’Oro in 1971 and it is their fault that we will never know why “Peppina coffee isn’t drunk in the morning neither with milk or tea”. Il caffè della Peppina is one of those songs that you can never get out of your head once it gets in there. It’s part of the reason that it’s loved by entire generations. The children were just five years old when they won the competition. Nowadays, Simonetta’s husband has his own bar, while Marina ran one for 21 years. And they say you discover your passions when you’re a child!