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'Mafia' Music Poised to Hit U.S. Charts

September 09, 2002|Geoff Boucher

It's gory art and a slice of pop culture that drips with the passion and pain of Mafia culture. No, it's not the new season of "The Sopranos". It's a far less famous work: "Il Canto Di Malavita," a collection of Calabrian folk songs that hits the U.S. music charts Wednesday--or maybe it won't.

"I don't really expect to see it make the charts at all," says music executive Kevin Wortis, among the project's lead figures. "That is fine. Short-term sales we could get with titillation or by portraying this as a novelty. We are emphasizing the music. And this is astonishingly beautiful music."

Indeed, a buzz is building that "Il Canto Di Malavita" (it translates loosely to "Songs of a Life of Crime") has the archival purity, craft and cultural resonance to join "Buena Vista Social Club" or the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack on the list of recent commercial successes from unlikely music landscapes.

This is no new take on "Mob Hits," the CD advertised on late-night TV that is more bada-bing than it is omerta. Newsweek and the New York Times have already visited Italy for features on the rich Calabrian fount tapped by the album, and Wortis says National Public Radio is pouncing on the disc for upcoming features. Rolling Stone has weighed in that the disc is "more darkly romantic than Nine Inch Nails."

The May 2000 release of the music in Europe drew cheers for the artistry but also some shouts that it spreads ugly stereotypes of Italians. It has sold 60,000 copies in Europe but has never been released in Italy, where it remains taboo.

If the new album does become a U.S. hit, Wortis hopes for a tie-in tour of the aging musicians who perform the music.

Whether the disc does find success in the U.S. (and the ambient Mafia interest stirred by "The Sopranos" certainly couldn't hurt), just the release adds an unexpected chapter to the music story begun more than a century ago in the mountain villages of southern Italy. The music was passed down as an oral tradition, but in recent decades, Calabrian bandleader Mimmo Siclari began producing and selling the songs via cheap cassettes. One tape reached Francesco Sbano, a German journalist born in Calabria, and he became an architect of the album project.

"This is not about the Mafia today; it's a document about the history of Calabria, a history you cannot find in books," Sbano says.

"Some people do not think it is a good thing to have out ... but it is a history you cannot conceal."

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