Unless you read the lyric sheet, or are fluent in a very nonstandard
Southern Italian dialect, you probably would never figure the
subjects of most of the rather bloody minded songs from the sound.
The mournful tunes and the acoustic guitar, mandolin, and accordion
sound give the aural impression of being pretty standard Italian folk
music. The collection is the work of Mimmo Siclari, who recorded and collected these performances.
But armed with the lyric sheet, you will discover that these songs are largely concerned with bloodshed, the laments of prisoners, and the fearsome reputations of local crime families. Knowing what the words mean turns the mournful folk melodies into a more compelling experience.
Not surprisingly, the record has been controversial. The disc has not been released in its Italian homeland, apparently out of fears it may incite local animosity. In the USA, the Sons of Italy object to it for fear that it might reinforce stereotypes about Americans of Italian descent.
Many Americans love the Mafia, or at least the Mafia myth. They
romanticise the notion of honour, the code of silence (omertà), and the self-reliance that comes from having no one in the legitimate society you
can turn to. Of course, since this is music made to entertain members
of the 'Ndrangheta (the Calabrian equivalent of the Mafia or the
Camorra), it's going to be long on the myth and short on the
substantially less noble reality.
There may be some substance to the romantic legend. The various homelands of the Mafia-style Italian organisations correspond roughly to the ancient outline of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. These regions were subject to backwards and bigoted rule by a succession of reactionary Bourbon kings in the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries, until Italy was united by Garibaldi and Cavour. Misrule in these territories did not make the official government popular, and made outlawry seem justified and attractive. Old style members of these organisations stuck to respectable crimes, and the code of honour was supposed to be as important as the profit motive. At least, this is suggested by the lyrics of these songs. This sadly seems no longer the case. A song on a second compilation, yet to be released in the USA, complains that the criminals' standards have declined.
Damn! When the criminals have been corrupted by the profit motive,
we know we're really in trouble. Or else the reality never was
quite so darkly romantic as the songs make it out to have been.