Songs of the Criminal Life
Reviving the Ballads of Calabria's Original Mafia
Listen to Sylvia Poggioli's report.
"Get ready to die, your time has come
My life-blood demands vengeance
Your hand is now tainted
And I avow you'll never shoot again
Blood cries for blood."
-- from "Blood Cries for Blood" (Sangu Chiama Sangu)
Oct. 2, 2002 -- The success of the HBO series The Sopranos punctuates America's fascination with the Mafia -- or at least, with the Mafia mystique. Now, from the Calabria region of Italy -- home of the 'Ndrangheta, the most secretive and elusive of the Italian Mafias -- comes a CD collection of songs that glorify their violent code of honor.
The CD, Il Canto di Malavita (or "Songs of the Criminal Life"), is a compilation of old tunes first sung by some of the original Mafiosi of southern Italy. Despite the graphic nature of the lyrics, or perhaps because of them, the CD is very popular in northern Europe, selling more than 60,000 copies.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli traveled to the provincial capital of Reggio Calabria, and found a city of odd contradictions. Devout Roman Catholics crowd the streets during the feast day of the city's patron saint, pushing to kiss a painting of the Madonna as the procession makes its way to the cathedral.
But the festivities reach their peak in front of the cathedral, where men challenge each other in a dance called the tarantella. "It's a symbolic trial of honor," Poggioli says. "A simulated form of male competition. It's an opportunity to assess status and prestige -- and it's a reassertion of the values of the 'Ndrangheta underworld."
Amateur music historian Mimmo Siclari collected the lyrics to the songs over decades of travel in the rugged Calabrian Mountains. The songs are part of a long oral tradition, and were usually sung at festivals marking the entry of a new member into the 'Ndrangheta, a member's release from prison or a successful vendetta.
The melodies originate from archaic Mediterranean traditions, and are often played using archaic instruments -- the lyre, tambourine and zampogna, a primitive goatskin bagpipe. Many of the lyrics were composed in prison, and handed down over the generations.
Many Italians and Italian-Americans decry the CD, saying it glorifies the old stereotype of the Italian gangster. But Francesco Sbano, who produced the songs on the CD, says Calabrians shouldn't be ashamed of their 'Ndrangheta heritage.
"This CD is a document of the past," he tells Poggioli, "part of the true history of Calabria."
NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports on the popularity of narco-corridos -- songs on Mexican radio that celebrate drug runners and, sometimes, the murder of policemen.
Browse more NPR stories on the Mafia.
Translated lyrics, a history of the CD project and other music cuts are available on the Web site for the La Musica Della Mafia album, www.malavita.com.
The CD is distributed by Pias America.