|illustration by carson ellis|
My knife knows its art so well.
First, traitor, I'll slash your face and watch you die.
And women fall for men like us."
These lyrics seem more like outtakes from a lost Tupac Shakur track than lyrics to a maudlin, minor-key, 150-year-old folk song. But forget the gangsta rappers' claims--a new compilation CD has uncovered the songs of the real Original Gangsters.
La Musica della Mafia: Il Canto di Malavita ("Music of the Mafia: Songs of a Life of Crime") is a 24-track CD documenting music created by and for the organized-crime clans of Calabria, known as the 'Ndrangheta. Calabria, the toe of the Italian boot, is separated from Sicily by a tiny band of sea, and the 'Ndrangheta is the province's no-less-murderous cousin to the more (in)famous Sicilian Mafia.
Malavita was compiled by Franceso Sbano, a Calabrian native working as a journalist in Germany. Sbano's report on 'Ndrangheta culture in Der Spiegel, Germany's leading magazine, prompted the European indie label Play It Again Sam to commission a sampler of this taboo music.
"Yes, these songs speak about violence," Sbano admits in a telephone interview with WW. "Like, 'If you betray me, then I kill you.' But the atmosphere where the songs are born was a disaster."
That disaster, Sbano explains, stemmed from the Calabria's history of state oppression.
"One hundred and fifty years ago, the south of Italy was ruled by barons, and they kept the population of Calabria like slaves," he says. "It was not possible to pass the border of the territory of the baron. If the baron found someone outside of the borders, he was able to kill them. This is the tradition in which the songs are born."
Chances are, anyone who listens to Malavita without knowing Italian and without reading the translated lyrics will think the songs are quaint peasant love ballads, or maybe festive party tunes for wined-up country weddings. But such song titles as "Who Fails, Pays" and "Blood Cries for Blood" prove their performers meant business.
While the lyrics may be startling and unsettling, the songs are often astonishingly beautiful, melancholy melodies performed on such traditional instruments as acoustic guitar, accordion and mandolin. Many of the songs are tarantellas, a rapid, whirling southern Italian dance music.
The material is all the more remarkable given that the only Italian singer to perform the songs of Malavita in public was shot dead, killed for his interest in a Mafia man's girl. Francesco Scarpelli--who performed under the pseudonym Fred Scotti--was perhaps the most popular singer of 'Ndrangheta songs. His rasping wail marks two outstanding tracks on Malavita, recordings made just before he was murdered in 1971.
In compiling the album, Sbano was aided by musician and bandleader Mimmo Siclari, who selected many of the songs from several decades of research and recording. Siclari has sold cassette tapes of Malavita songs in Calabrian public markets, defying Italian law, since he was a teen. Italian politicians hated it, but the Calabrian public loved it, and in the '60s Siclari built his own studio to record songs of the tradition. Most of Malavita comes from these historic recordings.
Chuck D. of Public Enemy famously called rap music "CNN for black people." Similarly, the ballads of Malavita form a secret history book and code of conduct.
"All lyrics are written with the code of the Mafia," Sbano says. "They explain exactly what part of the true history of Calabria you can never read in books. The government tried to cancel this information."
While many Calabrians still perform Malavita songs at private gatherings, there are questions about the legality of distributing songs that glorify organized crime in Italy. Article 21 of the country's constitution prohibits any activity that promotes the Mafia, and the CD is not available in Italy. Despite Sbano's claim that the album intends to document the protest music of a denigrated populace forced into crime, PIAS clearly hopes to leverage morbid shock value. But Sbano believes the worst damage has already been done, and giving Calabrian history a shot in the arm justifies any exploitative angles.
"This album is important to us because even to intellectual people from the north of Italy, Calabria is thought to have no history," explains Sbano. "We hope that if we get a lot of success abroad, we can convince people in Italy to buy the CD, because this document is not a joke and we want to denounce the poor social conditions in Calabria."
Regardless of the ethical and legal complications involved, Il Canto di Malavita is a powerful document of music and culture that commands attention.
"I think we are in the right direction to prepare the Italian people for it," Sbano says. "Mimmo Siclari would be very, very proud to play a concert in Italy."
La Musica della Mafia: Il Canto di Malavita
A second volume of Calabrian criminal ballads, Omertà Onuri e Sangu ("Silence, Honor and Blood") is available in Europe and is scheduled for Stateside release next year.