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La Musica Della Mafia: Il Canto di Malavita (Piasa)

Any aging rapper who declares himself an "O.G." -- "Original Gangsta" -- should be humbled by this controversial collection, a tender, impassioned, and utterly ruthless set of underground Mafia folk songs whose roots go back centuries in the hills of Calabria, a region near the toe of southern Italy.

"When the sawn-off shotgun sings/The traitor screams and dies," is the translation to the opening line of "Omertá" ("The Law of Silence"), a number whose boastful and threatening sentiments are echoed in countless gangsta-rap albums. Yet the words here are accompanied by a lovely accordion and two swift and sweet acoustic guitars, making music as warm and traditional as a plateful of pasta.

Beyond the initial shock of the amoral subject matter -- the disc was banned in Italy, after all -- the jolt in this music lies in the disjunction between gore and grace. Crafty segues and a variety of folk styles -- from the polka-like romps known as tarantellas to semioperatic ballads replete with recitative climaxes -- also help keep the spilled blood from coagulating.

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