Songs of Honor, Blood and Secrecy

In order to hear the authentic music of Calabria, it is best to visit one of the numerous church fairs in the villages. Especially in summer, local musicians bring their traditional instruments, and contribute to the song, dance and entertainment typical of these celebrations.  As common in Southern Italy, street merchants sell cassette recordings at these events. If you happen to be lucky, you may be able to acquire music of the N’drangheta – the music of the Calabrian Mafia.

The sheer existence of such recordings and their sale to the public at regional markets in Calabria has lead to heated and, in part, polemic debates. Critics point out the immorality of singing the praise of criminal deeds in public. Others ridicule the music as the sentimental gushing of fatuous admirers of the Mafia and rule out any deeper meaning the songs could in a “Mafia culture”. The history of Mafia music gives substance to the reality of Mafia culture: it originates in the Canto di Malavita (songs a life of crime) and traditional prison songs, Canto di Carcerato, which have been handed down over generations. In these laments, convicts avow their innocence, or boast of their deeds. Interestingly, it was never solely among the Mafia that these songs were recited.

In almost all songs of the Canto di Malavita, the beauty of the melodies strongly contrasts with the unmistakable harshness of the lyrics. Although the bloodthirsty lyrics may first startle the listener, it is hard to resist the fascinating poesy of the verses taken from the Code of Honor of the ‘Ndrangheta. In the origin of this “Code of Honor” lies the key to understanding the role that Mafia music plays in Calabrian culture.

After the conquest of Southern Italy by the North (1861), and the following reign of the Piemontese, the South became increasingly impoverished. Squires from the North kept vast estates at the expense of the common population - a haphazard and unjust tax system was but one form of exploitation. Under these conditions, gangs began to take form, blackmailing the squires for money in return for protection. “Pizzo”, this “fee” was called, under which term protection money is still referred to. This activity is generally recognized as the birth of the ‘Ndrangheta. Because they initially robbed only the detested wealthy, these gangs were honored by the downtrodden population.

These “honorable” men were feared for their brutality but nevertheless highly respected because of the values they represented. Both this fear and formidable respect for the ‘Ndrangheta were instilled in their songs, which explains why they were readily embraced by the honest population, who sang them at celebrations. Singing the praise of a code of honor was a form of paying respect. This tradition still lives on today.

Malavita music is diverse. Its melodies and song structures carry influences of various folk traditions from the Mediterranean. The most authentic seem to be the Tarantelle, accompanied only by accordion and tambourine, such as "Non su lupu" ("I am not a wolf") or "U ballu da famigghja Muntalbanu" ("The dance of the Muntalbanu Family"), the text of which leaves no doubt as to who rules the village. The lyrics are often ambiguous, but almost always side with the ‘Ndrangheta. For example in "I cunfirenti" ("The Traitors"), a man is stigmatized and threatened with death, because he has dared to inform the police. Songs like "U commissariu" ("The Inspector”) explain, in due course, how one should act towards the Carabinieri: "I’d rather be prisoner than traitor", the song goes, and: "This mouth will say nothing / I will shoulder these three years”. Other songs relate in picturesque language how the Honorable Society initiated over a hundred years ago ("'Ndrangheta, camurra e Mafia") and how the ritualized verbal codes of the ‘Ndrangheta work  ("Deaf, dumb and blind I am", in the song "Omertá"- “Oath of Silence”).

The album 'Omertà, Onuri e Sangu', begins with the sound of the bells of the monastery of Polsi, a mythical place in the jagged mountains of Aspromonte, which have always been the hideout of brigands and fugitives of the ‘Ndrangheta. Even today, thousands of Calabrese journey to Polsi in September to celebrate the Madonna della Montagna – on the same spot where the secret meetings of the ‘Ndrangheta were held. Among the recordings on the CDs are numerous prison songs, the above mentioned “Canti di Carcerato”. The two historic recordings, “Tira la pinna” and “A casanza” are from the prison of Cosenza. The lyrics of the first song go back to an old book on the Calabrian brigands. Retribution is a further important theme of the songs, for example in “Ninna nanna malandrineddu”. At first, one hears the innocent song of a mother to her son. But soon the bloodcurdling purpose of her words becomes clear: “You must grow big and strong / You must grow quickly. / ... / Little son, you must avenge your father”.

Along with the most tender and vulnerable songs, “La Musica della Mafia Volume 3 – Le Canzoni Dell’ Onorata Societá” also contains the harshest and most criminal songs from the repertory of the Canzoni della ‘Ndrangheta. Infama Vinditta describes one of the numerous and bloodthirsty murders in the battle between the "new" and the "old" mafia in the nineteen-eighties. The revenge of a woman on a man who refused to marry her, thus robbing her of her honor, is the theme of Vinditta d'Onuri.

Recordings with female vocals are very rare among the songs of the mafia. In this case, the bitter despair of the protagonist surpasses the intensity of similar male interpretations.

The lyrics of numbers 4,5, and 7 evoke feelings that have not yet been touched on in the previous CDs: love and freedom.

Hence the lament of the prisoner in “L'Innocente Carcerato”, who yearns for a life in freedom. Or the man of honor in “Canzuni ill’Emigranti”, who sets out "into the wide world" but desires nothing more than to return to his "Bella", and never to leave again. In “Amuri e Carceri” a condemned man writes a letter to his wife from prison, using his own blood in lack of ink. However, she fails to visit him...

Listening to this music makes many elderly Southern Italians wistfully relive memories of earlier times, and it cannot be denied that many romanticize a past that was indeed violent. In speaking of this music’s significance to the regional population, it is important to point out that it has an additional function for a particular group of listeners. It serves many young Mafiosi as a “stimulant”. The values and the message communicated through the music – most importantly the concept of obtaining honor and respect with criminal exploits – are put forth as validation for the crimes they commit. This is a danger embodied in the “Musica della Mafia” that should not remain unmentioned.