By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
"For decades members of the Calabrian mafia known as the ‘Ndrangheta has developed and sung malavita songs among themselves. The tunes are traditionally performed chiefly by members of the society and delivered at feasts celebrating the admittance of a new member, the release of a member from prison or a particularly successful act of vengeance." (Neil Strauss, 2002)
Italian regional dialect folk songs have enjoyed a long tradition in the southern Italian regions. Some of these melodies tell of the tribulations of the criminal life. In the past few years ethnologists have recorded and codified in the region of Calabria, at the toe of the Italian peninsula, the music and lyrics of this unique aspect of rural culture. Local peripatetic musicians have kept alive mafia-themed music by playing and singing to the crowds that gather annually during the numerous village summer festivals.
The musicologist Goffredo Plastino views the music as "a tangible manifestation of mafia culture." The origins are to be found in the canto di malavita (songs of the criminal life) and the canto di carcerato (songs of prison life) that have been passed down from generation to generation not only through the underworld but also as an integral part of the folk artistic culture. "In these laments," Plastino notes, "prisoners avow their innocence or they proudly sing of their deeds. They are not the sole property of the outlaws or the mafia alone. Ordinary people would sing them while laboring in the fields as well as during celebrations and festivals."
The songs are quite revealing of the mafia mentality and way of life, particularly in regard to anti-authority sentiments and the vitality of the central codes of silence and respect. Emphasis is placed on gang solidarity and discretion, the unquenchable thirst for blood vendetta, and a manifest sensitivity to one’s public persona, a violation of which would result in "loss of face." Such a disgrace places the person in an untenable position that must be resolved.
Several of these songs have been recorded on CDs at a time of serious and widespread discussion in Italy about the continuing and growing threat of organized crime. The reaction to the publication of the songs has been mixed. Italian critics have been the most vociferous in arguing that the placing of these songs on the market can only result in the glorification of those who live outside the rule of law, and seek to corrupt and tear at the social fabric for nefarious ends. Nor have the reactions of the malavita community been necessarily positive, especially given the strong preference for anonymity by malefactors. (One aging capomafia said that he knew nothing of such music.) There have been encounters between the singers of mafia tunes and mafia men. One such episode turned ugly when the balladeer Ciccio Scarpelli was gunned down after declaring his love for the girlfriend of a mobster.
Presented below are excerpts from a sampling of the songs. Little commentary is needed for the lyrics speak eloquently of the phenomenon of the Italian malavita through history. The title of each song is indicated in dialect (bold face) / English.
‘Ndrangheta, camurra e mafia / ‘Ndrangheta, camorra and mafia
To show a comparison of the original Calabrese dialect to the English translation, the dialect appears in the first three lines of this song.
One night a long, long time ago.
Three cavaliers took leave of Spain.
And passed through Campania and Sicily.
To settle down in Calabria. For twenty-one years they kept out of sight to found rules of their society. Laws of honor and of war, major and minor, criminal, too. Laws of blood and secrecy passed on from father to son. These were the laws of our society, laws that have shaped history. The ‘Ndrangheta, camorra and the mafia. Honorable Calabria, Naples and Sicily. Laws of honor. Laws of secrecy. Whoever breaks them will find no mercy.
Sangu chiama sangu / Blood Cries for Blood
You came to this area to lay down the law, to this place where respectable people live. Where honor and its rules reign supreme. And where betrayal can never be forgiven. You broke the golden rule and soiled our honor. You are no camorrista. You are a coward. You wanted the blood of poor innocent people. You murdered them here and showed no mercy. The time of reckoning is nigh.
Omertà / The Law of Silence
While the sawn-off shotgun sings, the traitor screams and dies. The hard and bitter law splits the traitor’s heart. No one saw a thing. Whoever turns to God honors the saints. Guilty or not guilty. Nobody spoke a word. Omertà. Omertà. This is the law of our society. Laws that don’t forgive those who break their silence. Blind, deaf and dumb am I. The man who speaks too much will never have it easy. But whoever is deaf and blind and mute will live in peace for a hundred years.
Ergastulanu / Sentenced to Life
O dearest mother! What pain you must endure. You tears have consumed your sad eyes. But what have I done to these men? Locked up here forever. After three decades in jail I have lost all hope. But now I have been told that I have been granted a pardon. I walk outside these walls. But my life is worth nothing. A living corpse in the freshness of the air.
Appartegnu all’Onorata / Belonging to the Society
Malavita, malavita! I am one of the honorable society. And even if it costs me my life, I will never surrender. I am resolute and a man of substance. I am Calabrian, born of this land, respected by everyone who lives here.
Mafia leggi d’onuri / Law of Honor
The mafia is a law born under the light of the moon. But be careful not to break this law. The law does not forgive. If need be, it may give you its heart. And sometimes even its life. But do not mess with the honor and the men of the malavita. Only the unfailing are accepted within. Men with hearts as hard as stone, who know of the hardship suffering brings. Jail is a time-honored burden to bear, where men learn their art. And when they are set free face the bloody deed that makes grown men quiver. Ask if they would count you among them. But if they say yes, don’t falter and keep moving along. But remember that you might die, and that there is no way back.
U commissariu / The Commissioner
I was a picciotu [mafioso] in our society. I did everything by the rules. Then one day a spy betrayed me. By an unworthy policeman with a traitor’s heart. My friends in the cells—Good evening! You already know my name. This morning I was arrested after an armed assault—and now I’m here. You know that I have no blame. There was a false witness. The Commissioner knew I was innocent. "You are a man of honor who keeps his word. Tell me who it was and you will be free." I’d rather be in jail than a traitor. This tongue won’t wag. I’ll take my three years and patiently wait out my sentence. The day will arrive to settle my debts. Once the traitor is before me justice will overcome mercy.
A CD trilogy of "La musica della mafia" has been released:Il canto di malavita, vol. 1, 2000.
Omertà, onuri e sangu, vol. 2, 2002
Le canzoni dell’Onorata Società, vol. 3, 2005
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