Original Gangsters

Thug life, Calabrian-style.

"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."

THE PRECEDING LYRICS might seem like outtakes from a lost Tupac Shakur track, but in reality they are the words to a maudlin, minor-key, 150-year-old folk ballad. Forget the claims of today's hardcore rappers—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 disc documenting the music created by and for the age-old 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 no-less-murderous cousin of the more infamous Sicilian Mafia.

Malavita was compiled by Franceso Sbano, a Calabrian native and journalist working in Germany. Sbano's report on 'Ndrangheta culture in Der Spiegel, Germany's leading news magazine, prompted the European indie label Play It Again Sam to commission a sampler of these taboo tunes.

"Yes, these songs speak about violence," Sbano admits, speaking by phone from New York City. "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 Calabria's dark 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 [inside] of the borders, he was able to kill them. This is the tradition in which the songs are born."

It doesn't take a rocket (or social) scientist to predict what happens when a poor and hopeless population faces such conditions. The 'Ndrangheta took the law into its own hands to protect Calabrians from the feudal lords, Sbano says.

Chances are, anyone who listens to Malavita without knowing Italian or reading the translated lyrics will likely think the songs are quaint love ballads or perhaps festive party tunes for wined-up country weddings. But such titles like "Who Fails, Pays" and "Blood Cries for Blood" prove these performers mean business.

Make no mistake, we're not in Sopranos territory here—no SUVs or strip clubs, just shotguns, knives, and hideous vengeance. While the lyrics may be startling and unsettling, the songs are often astonishingly beautiful, melancholy melodies performed on traditional instruments like 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 person 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 lawmakers hated it, but the public lapped it up, 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 once famously called rap music "CNN for black people." Similarly, the material on Malavita plays like a secret history.

"All the lyrics are written with the code of the Mafia," Sbano says. "They explain exactly what part of the true history of Calabria that 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 in Italy that glorify organized crime. 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 claims that the album intends to document the protest music of a denigrated populace forced into crime, Play It Again Sam clearly hopes to leverage the music's 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, only criminality," 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."

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