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Various Artists 

Like a Buena Vista Social Club behind bars, this compilation of 18 historic Mafia ballads--songs about "blood, honor and discretion"--represents an intoxicating sample of music from the Calabria region of Southern Italy.

These songs about crime and prison life come directly from the Calabrian mob, the 'Ndrangheta. They have been passed down through generations and performed by members of the society at feasts and initiations. They are bone-chilling in a way most hip-hoppers can only dream of. (They also make you crave red wine, but that's neither here nor there.)

With titles like "Cu Sgarra Paga" ("Who Fails, Pays") and "Sangu Chiama Sangu" ("Blood Cries For Blood"), one wouldn't expect to find the material so emotionally restrained, sparsely orchestrated and soaked in heartbreak. Indeed, for music so closely linked with images of violence and bloodshed, the big surprise is how much it evokes the stark loneliness of the best American blues.

Despite being sold in street markets, these songs have long been banned in Italy, where jokes about the Mafia are about as funny as Nazi punchlines to a Berliner. Theoretically, they were banned for glorifying the thug life, but there's an amoral case to be made for circulating them simply as a historical document. Alas, like NWA's gangsta-rap blueprint Straight Outta Compton--or The Godfather movies for that matter--arguments in favor of the music's bold truths are met with equally valid concerns about mixed messages and the perpetuation of stereotypes.

But let's leave that debate to the right people and focus on the music itself. As with Buena Vista, the sustained mood is what makes this compilation so inviting--no small feat with its mixture of underground recordings from the '60s and '70s and more contemporary versions. The mostly guitar- and mandolin-led songs fit nicely together, the only potholes being a few up-tempo accordion numbers.

"Omerta" ("The Law of Silence") sounds like an innocuous bistro toe-tapper; that is, until you read the translated lyrics: "While the sawn-off shotgun sings/The traitor screams and dies." Maybe the NWA analogy isn't so far off after all. The violence is more implied in Franco Caruso's "U Lupu d'Asprumunti" ("The Wolves of Aspromonte"), a lightly strummed oom-pah with a disarming mariachi vibe.

On many of the songs, the singers employ wailing gymnastic vocals with bent pitches that are reminiscent of flamenco. This is particularly true on the last (and finest) song on the collection, Fred Scotti's "Canto di Carcerato" ("Incarceration"). Scotti was the only singer of Mafia songs to perform in public and was not-so-mysteriously shot and killed in 1971 after falling in love with a mafioso's girl. "The clock strikes midnight in my cell," he howls in fluid Italian. "The chimes breaking my sleep/Heavenly Father, have mercy on me."

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