Hey, forget about Dino, Sammy, and Ol' Blue Eyes ... or even the Sopranos soundtrack, for that matter (how many times do you need to hear Travis, anyway?). Anyone interested in Mafia music culture can now head straight for the source: the folk ballads of rural Calabria, one of the original strongholds of Italian organized crime. These two CDs collect several dozen rare examples of canti di malavita, songs of the 'Ndrangheta, or Calabrian Mafia. Although these gruesome acoustic ballads are hard to differentiate musically from other Mediterranean folk styles, their mere existence is controversial in Italy, where over the last few decades civil government has made a concerted effort to root out the long-lived crime families from their southern strongholds. Regardless of how you feel about decapitations and car bombings, these discs are fascinating documents of a hidden and secretive culture.
Thematically, the songs are all rather similar meditations on the importance of "honor," omertá -- the Mafia code of silence -- and the consequences that befall anyone who rats out their buddies. On "The Law of Silence," El Domingo softly croons, "Mentri cantara la lupara" ("when the sawed-off shotgun sings"), while on "The Dance of the Mantalbanu Family," the narrator concludes his description of a crime family's cruel reign with an entreaty that the listener -- apparently a police informer -- "come out of the crowd now, and let me twist my knife deep within." Although critics charge that these collections romanticize criminals, a quick glance at the liner notes proves otherwise. The lyrics are surprisingly unglamorous: mainly about police raids, jail time, and violent reprisals, with little of the free-drugs-and-fast-living sexiness depicted in the Martin Scorsese oeuvre. There's a brutishness about these songs that belies their perky acoustic melodies; naturally, it all sounds more graceful in Italian, but it still isn't that pretty.
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