Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© ErN 40, Jeff Matthews entry Nov. 2004    

Outlaw Music

I have been asked whether there is such a thing as "outlaw music" in southern Italy, something that might correspond to the modern narcocorrido in Mexico and parts of the United States. The answer is yes; it's strange, though, that I should have to order a CD of such music from a company in Germany, but that seems to be the case.

I checked around the city of Naples recently for a CD called Il Canto di MalavitaLa Musica della Mafia. It is listed in catalogues as being available from Pias Recordings in Hamburg. None of the Neapolitan stores I tried had it, though it might be available "under the table" somewhere in town. One comment on the music I read said, "The mere existence of these Mafia songs and the fact that they can be bought freely at markets throughout Calabria has led to heated and polemic debates in Italy. Critics have stated that they think it improper to sing the praises of those who live outside the rule of law and that to do so is to glorify their way of life." So, if I want to go prowl the flea-markets and music shops in Calabria, I might find it. "Bought freely" is an interesting oxymoron.

First, a few comments about the Italian terminology. Malavita is the general Italian term for the criminal underworld, from unaffiliated street punks to "organized crime" —the mob. Technically— though foreign usage does not respect this distinction (the title of that CD was supplied by the German company)— mafia refers only to Sicily; the Neapolitan branch of the same activity is called la camorra; south of Naples and down through the rough hills of Calabria to the end of the "boot" of Italy, the term is 'ndrangheta. The CD in question is, thus, music about Calabrian outlaws, the 'ndrangheta.

The term "outlaw music," itself, invites confusion because it is not clear if one is talking about music by outlaws or music about outlaws. I am not sure if Robin Hood or Jesse James ever composed music about themselves. I suspect they did not. Certainly, in English literature the most romantic manifestation of the outlaw ballad was by Alfred Noyes (1880-1959), who, when he wasn't knocking over banks to feed the faculty pension fund, toed the narrow line of the law long enough to attend Exeter College in Oxford and for a while serve as Professor of Modern English Literature at Princeton University. He wrote The Highwayman, a portion of which, long slid down between the sofa cushions in my head, now resurfaces as

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight, over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

I check and see that I have fused the last two lines into one; there should be an extra "... And the highwayman came riding-riding-riding." (Not bad, though, for aging synapses!) I had, of course, totally forgotten the most dramatic and Robin-Hoody part at the end:

Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high!
Blood-red were his spurs i' the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat,
When they shot him down on the highway, Down like a dog on the highway,
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat.

The text of The Highwayman has been set to music at least twice, once by composer Deems Taylor as Cantata for baritone solo, chorus of mixed voices and orchestra, op. 8, and also by Canadian singer, Loreena McKennitt.


Although the term "outlaw" is still popular among musicians, there is a case to be made that in the modern world of American pop music, for example, being an outlaw now means that your limo is double-parked outside the recording studio. I suppose that modern American rap music is "outlaw" and thus part of this very old and convoluted genre of music. The violence besung in similar "rap" that has now surfaced around the world, including Naples, is, if you will, an "indigenized" part of that tradition. There are, yes, Neapolitan rappers with their baseball beanies on backwards, dancing around, making gang signs and chanting in Neapolitan dialect about the home-grown version of ho's, bitches, pimps, drugs and guns. Indeed, the University of Naples has just hosted a lecture on "Rock, Hip Hop and Dialect in Naples, from 1990 to the Present." (I am thus reminded of a distressingly intellectual presentation at the Music Conservatory in Graz, Austria, some years ago on "Louis Armstrong and the Second Acculturation."

The southern Italian music on the CD mentioned above is, however, authentically Calabrian. The pieces range from historical ballads about the origins of the 'ndrangheta to songs praising omertà, the code of silence. There is no doubt that they glorify life outside of the law. The CD sold well in Germany and France. Part of the criticism by Italian critics who have reviewed the CD is that foreigners are too willing to accept the self-serving descriptions of the music by the people who recorded it originally. If these people ever were Robin Hoods, say the Italian critics, those days are long gone. Today, they kill judges, kidnap, sell drugs, run prostitution rings, shake down the middle-class, and rake off great wads of money from public works boondoggles. They do not steal from the rich and give to the poor. They steal from everybody and keep it.

Cicco Scarpello, known by his stage name, Fred Scotti, was one of the performers of this outlaw music of Calabria. One evening in April, 1971, he was shot to death in the street. He had apparently been trying to seduce the woman of one of those criminals he liked to sing about. With or without lace at his throat, he was indeed shot down like a dog on the highway. Find your own message.


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