It's just past midnight, the mafia feast is in full swing and I'm playing a game in my head called Who's the Boss? It's not easy to focus while distracted by the smell of roast sausages, the taste of sweet white wine and the sight of a portly man in a tweed cap busting out the accordion. There are 35 guests to choose from at this gathering in the rugged Aspromonte range of southern Italy. They've come to celebrate one of three possible things: someone sprung from jail, a newly "made" man or the end of a longstanding vendetta. Then again, it could be a mock feast thrown for journalists in town to report on malavita music: mafia folk tunes written by jailed "family" members, played during traditional feasts--and taboo throughout the rest of Italy. My guide, Francesco Sbano--a native Calabrian, "family" friend and coproducer of a new malavita CD, "La Musica della Mafia"--never explains which joyous event we're celebrating, nor does he identify the other people seated at the long wood-plank tables.
A toothless man picks up a zampogna, a crude bagpipe made of billy-goat skin, and produces a first few wheezing groans. Another old-timer bangs a tambourine. A young man named Pepe pumps a small wooden accordion. Foot-stomping rhythms and high-pitched, nasal voices bounce off the humble stucco house behind us and rattle the patio's corrugated-tin canopy. The guy I decide is boss--a commanding, slightly scary man in shorts and a Nike hat--pulls a plump woman from the crowd, and they break into a shuffling, skipping dance, circling one another while barely touching hands. I soon find out he's not the don, but another zampogna player.
Trying to nail down facts about local mafia culture is like trying to catch fish in the Ionian Sea with your bare hands. People's stories, like their songs, live somewhere between fact and myth. Il canto di malavita--songs of a life of crime--are filled with raspy-voiced men singing of honor, retribution and incarceration, against the romantic sounds of accordion, lyre and batente guitar. Many of the numbers date back to the mid-1800s and were passed from cell to cell, farm to farm, generation to generation. Other Italians aren't impressed. As one southern native told me, "Tuscany is known for its antiquity and artifacts, Milan for its fashion industry and Calabria for its criminality and kidnapping." But now the larger world is discovering underground Calabria. "La Musica della Mafia: Il Canto di Malavita" was released throughout Europe in 2000 by the German pop label PIAS and, in a coup similar to the Buena Vista Social Club's success, it sold a surprising 60,000 copies. The CD hits U.S. stores next week.
But it's still not for sale in Italy. According to Peter Cadera, head of PIAS, Italian distributors won't touch it. Although Calabrians like to say it's banned, there's no specific law against the music itself. Section 21 of the Italian Constitution prohibits anything that promotes the mafia, but it's rarely used to throw musicians behind bars. "The judge and police will be the first to get up and dance," says a mafia don, a few days after the feast. "It would be impossible for the government to stop the selling of these tapes. How do you cancel part of history?" Malavita has been kept alive on crudely packaged cassettes with titles like "Carceratu: Mamma Pirdunimi" ("Prisoner: Mama Forgive Me"), sold in open markets and the backs of record stores, with simple drawings of sad men behind bars, grieving mamas and bloody, slain traitors. "I use those illustrations for the common man," says Mimmo Siclari, malavita's most prolific producer, "so he knows what he's getting." Siclari's been collecting these songs for 30 years and selling them from a vending truck at swap meets.
There are no bloody roses or dead snitches on the tasteful black-and-white cover of "La Musica della Mafia: Il Canto di Malavita," which is clearly aimed at NPR listeners and music purists. It positions the CD as a rare regional treasure saved from the monocultural crush of MTV. Many of the men who recorded these songs in the 1970s are dead, and the old mountain dialect and mafia code they sang in is nearly obsolete. These lyrics are often brutal--"While the sawn-off shotgun sings/The traitor screams and dies"--but the music is sentimental, the vocals heart-wrenching. At least one group is already opposing the release of the CD here, just as a small but vocal minority opposes HBO's "The Sopranos." "It makes it appear that all Italians associate themselves with the mafia," says John Salamone, executive director of the National Italian-American Foundation, "which of course is not true."
Depending on whom you talk to, the mafia, born around 1860, was either an organized-crime ring that taunted the authorities and terrorized the people or an underground Robin Hood government that protected southern villagers from the land barons and corrupt Italian officials. And these opposing views are still alive and well in Calabria. "If I have my car stolen, I do not go to the police," says Sbano. "I go to the mafia. They are the ones who will get it back." Though the southern mafia eventually became notorious for gunrunning and kidnapping (John Paul Getty III was their most famous victim), today's traditionalists still romanticize the old days and bash the "new mafia" (established only in the 1970s) for delving into "less honorable" pursuits such as drug dealing and prostitution.
"Malavita music is there to teach young people about respect and honor, and the history of their region," says a mafia don willing to be interviewed about malavita. His home is nestled among dozens of stucco houses, pear trees and grape-filled gardens in the hills north of Reggio di Calabria. It's just a small apartment with a prominent display of smiley-face mugs in the kitchen, Andrea Bocelli tapes atop an aging cassette deck and a shrine to the Blessed Virgin in the entrance hall. "When problems arose in the old society, we'd resolve it with a knife," he says, taking a drag off his cigarette and exposing a thin scar down the back of his forearm. "Nobody died. It was enough to get a bit of blood--to slice an arm or face. The next day, you would drink wine together."
The day after the feast in the mountains, we zig-zag down treacherous dirt switchbacks in a minivan, heading toward the santuario Madonna della Montagna in Polsi, five hours away. When we arrive, the priest will greet the musicians with open arms, and they'll play in the courtyard for an audience made up of eight people, two cows and a pig. Halfway up the mountain, we pick up a tiny, old mystery man who tries to entertain me with his watch: "Buon giorno!" it announces at the push of a button. "Sono le tre e ventuno." Pepe, the accordion player, hands him a tambourine from the back seat, and the two begin to play an old Calabrian tune. The accordion dances, the tambourine jangles and the old man's voice touches ancient, primal chords. All of a sudden, I want to cry. Not because I'm queasy and tired, but because the music is beautiful and the weathered man next to me, who speaks a rural dialect that even young Italians don't understand, seems as endangered as the music itself. It's an ode to a life, no matter how ruthless or romanticized, that's gone forever. He hits his watch again for fun, laughs, then sings his way down the rest of the mountain.