Various Artists

Canto: The soundtrack for a whack -- or maybe just a romantic Italian dinner.

Songs about bad men doing bad things for revenge have had a long history -- from Elizabethan/Appalachian murder ballads and "Stagger Lee" to today's gangsta rap and narcocorridos. These songs from the southern Italian region of Calabria may celebrate the Mafia, but don't expect "Sonny's Last Tollbooth" or "The Death of Big Pussy" sung in a Joe Pesci whine. Instead, these folk numbers, some dating back to the 1800s, paint a sentimental picture of old- fashioned "blood, honor and discretion" among made men.

Told in flowery language and performed by vocalists who make Al Jolson sound subdued, most revolve around two themes, certainly not lost on their intended audiences: A traitor will meet a bad end, and serving time in prison honorably is worth any price. Woe is the snitch of "I Cunfirenti (The Traitors)" who, after selling out his buddies for "a dish of pasta," will find his "final resting place in concrete walls."

In keeping with old-school Mafia methods, there are plenty of knives running red with the blood of oath-breakers. A surprising number also sound much like Spanish/Mexican music; "Omerta (The Law of Silence)" and "Sangu Chiama Sangu (Blood Cries for Blood)" are full of acoustic guitars and accordions.

Thankfully, lyrics are included in both Italian and English, the easier to practice saying "I'll slash your face and watch you die" (from "Tarantella Guappa," sung hysterically by Fred Scotti, the Italian Little Richard) in the correct tongue. Much of the marketing somewhat dubiously plays up the "forbidden" nature of these songs. Still, it's a fascinating look into a musical and social subculture well apart from standard Italian arias and le canzoni di amore.

Above all, these oral tradition-based songs are for listening, not dancing. That means despite their subject matter, La Musica della Mafia can still make perfect background music to a romantic Italian dinner. Just make sure your date isn't fluent, or she may never return your calls again. Capisci?

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