Musical Outlaws of the Italian Camorra

Southern Italy’s Camorra mafia has found an influential-and lucrative-niche by its control of radio, television, and popular music acts in the region around Naples. In this piece, extracted from Alessandro De Pascale’s book Telecamorra, Affaritaliani describes the Camorra’s role in the popular culture of the region.

Almost every Camorra clan now has a media outlet. Organised crime has been interested in the radio and TV industry since the 1990s, when Neapolitan song rose to cultural prominence again, in the form of the “neomelodic” style. A few Camorra bosses hit on the idea of tapping into this musical genre, and in a few short years it gained local mass popularity. More than folklore, it is a part of urban culture, like the narcocorridas of Mexico and Argentina, or gangster rap in the United States. It has become a soundtrack for a certain social class throughout southern Italy that tends to justify criminality, claiming that it is caused by economic privations and an inadequate welfare state.

The so-called “gruppi di fuoco”, the clan commandos, psych themselves up for a punishment raid or a killing by listening to neomelodic music, not rock or electronica. These songs are big business, worth at least 200 million euros a year, all of it black-market- an annual loss to the taxpayer of around 80 million euros. It is a business that can build a broad social consensus, promoting Camorra culture throughout Italy while creating new jobs in highly respectable related industries. Then there’s the extortion from the vendors, the support of companies that turn a blind eye, even if they are not directly controlled by the clans, and advertising and telesales on the Camorra’s media outlets. According to a magistrate’s report, one Neapolitan criminal family’s method of extortion from traders involved forcing them to pay inflated prices for advertising space on an affiliated media outlet.

Add to that the so-called clairvoyants who read viewers’ fortunes – premium-rate call charges apply, naturally – and finally radio and TV as a means for sending coded messages to associates in prison. Through the broadcasters, the bosses soon found out that they could get their hands on hundreds of millions of euros of public money, from national funding for local media as well as guaranteed European Union finance for the sector. And they can keep close tabs on the local news, which is very useful to the Camorra, because they are often directly involved in the events covered. Hence the proliferation of channels, the illegal use of frequencies, and the general assault on the Campania region’s airwaves.

You can see which Camorra clan controls a given neighbourhood, or which criminal groups it is affiliated with, in several ways: primarily by reading the reports of the latest magistrates’ investigations into the local bosses. But that is neither quick nor easy; alternatively, you can ask local police officers, residents or a well-informed journalist. In recent years, though, you can also keep an eye out for the neomelodic artists whose CDs – original or bootleg – are being hawked in the area. Knowing which “stable” the singers belong to gives a clue as to the alliances between the city’s clans, which are often forged for business purposes. The Mazzarella clan’s monopoly in this sphere is clear: CDs and DVDs, as well as posters, must be produced by the same printer, so that they can be easily recognised. Indeed, the informant Gennaro Mazzarella has even told how counterfeit CDs and DVDs from China were marked with his initials.

In the shadow of Vesuvius, then, the neomelodic artists are the undisputed musical champions, as this sound taps into and represents a widespread social malaise. They sing at private parties (christenings, birthdays, confirmations and weddings): a 45 minute set commands up to 20,000 euros, almost always payable in a brown envelope, never to be declared. Over a season, they can rake in as much as 243,000 euros. Further testament to this colossal turnover is the recent “Neomelodic Music Awards”, a competition to find the most popular singer. And the neomelodic scene is not just about concerts. Indeed, these “artists” are a fixture on the numerous local TV stations that now specialise in the genre.

Some of these outlets, like Tele Akery, Papele TV, Tele A and Campania TV, are directly associated with impresarios, managers and record-company owners on the neomelodic scene, whose mobile phone numbers are published during broadcasts or online together with the music videos. This new phalanx of warblers – with stage names like Raffaello (Raffaele Migliaccio), Alessio (Gaetano Carluccio) or Donatello (Giuliano Illiani) – have picked up where the sceneggiata, or Neapolitan melodrama, of Mario Merola and Nino D’Angelo left off. The genre is now in its third generation. They are legends in their own region, town or even neighbourhood; people identify with them and see themselves in them.

The reason is very simple: their songs relate the everyday realities that Neapolitans in the popular quarters experience in their daily lives, what the ordinary people see with their own eyes but the middle classes only hear of second hand or read about in the papers. There are songs, all strictly in the local dialect, that tell of fraught love stories and betrayals, broken friendships and, above all, underworld life. This subject is usually addressed in stereotypical or disenchanted vein, often as an apology for crime, which is glorified in neorealist lyrics with myriad excuses for those who have veered from the straight and narrow. Informants are therefore portrayed as the real villains, who end up in jail as guests of the state.

Melodies about guns, good Camorristi and men of honour: chips off the old block-turn Neapolitan life into words, stories and music, warbling about bosses, drugs, and life as a jailbird or outlaw. It is the soundtrack to Camorra culture. The song titles and, especially, the lyrics are self-explanatory and leave very little room for interpretation. From Il mio amico camorrista (my friend the mafioso), “a man of fine qualities who risks his life and liberty”, to Femmena d’onore (a woman of honour), which lays into informants, because “first they kill and then they want to be forgiven”.

One such, who “is afraid of jail, has betrayed my husband and made an enemy for life, by getting him convicted in a courtroom”. But that’s OK, because “the law of the street has given him a life sentence, too, because a informant is a dog, while I am a woman of honour, and I will see that my man is respected”. Both songs are sung by rising star Lisa Castaldi. Even more paradoxically, their writer is not a boss but a journalist: Tommaso D’Angelo, editor of the Salerno pages of the daily “Il Roma”.

And then there is the historic hit Nu Latitante (an outlaw), which launched Tommy Riccio’s career, in which “an outlaw loses everything, far from the people he loves, hidden from the world”, and so “even the lowliest acquaintance becomes an important way to get a present to the youngster who waits for his father to return”. Meanwhile, in the song Carcere minorile (youth prison), child singer Piccolo Nardi – little by name, little in stature – tells his mother how he is suffering behind bars, far from her and his friends. On the other hand, the “artist” Franco Staco wails that the junkies are “buoni wajun” (good boys), because “if we ask for a buck now and again, it’s just so we don’t have to go thieving”. Lello Liberti (real name Aniello Imperato) reels off all the problems that a boss has on his plate, in the song ‘O capoclan. Meanwhile ‘O killer, sung by Gino Del Miro (Giovanni Vezzosi) with a video to boot, likens the hired assassin to a self-employed professional who has worked for 20 years for various bosses, forging a “career” without ever being arrested. The lyrics even found their way to the parliamentary anti-mafia commission. And the list goes on ad infinitum, with enough material to fill a book.

From the book’s preface:
Telecamorra-Clan War for Control of the Airwaves-is the result of a long journalistic investigation in the field begun in 2008, which has led to fresh magistrates’ inquiries, trials and convictions. Telecamorra is a story with all the usual hallmarks of organised crime: money, clans and power.

The Campania mob is heavily into telecommunications. Here, in the Italian region with the third-highest number of broadcasting licences – with 77 local TV channels and 165 registered radio stations – organised crime is waging a long-standing assault on the airwaves. From the boss who joined the Italian authors and editors society (SIAE) to the publisher in cahoots with the Casalesi clan; from the neomelodic agent, a relative of the boss, to a TV-station owner who gave a false alibi for a Camorra hitman: Campania’s media is full of this, and much more.

The clans use TV and radio to send messages to associates or bosses during live broadcasts, lethal transmissions shot out at excessive power levels or, even worse, completely illegally. Frequencies stolen from the state, with an estimated hit to the public purse worth 500 million euros, and sold on with false documentation. Antennas used as weapons to threaten; advertising exploited by the clans to justify their extortion rackets. Ministerial civil servants on trial for alleged favouritism and police officers investigated for collusion with the miscreants. Small neighbourhood TV stations that grew into major regional media groups in just a few years, now accused of robbing their way there. There is much at stake: 12 million euros’ worth of taxes a year, hundreds of party-political broadcasts used to obtain political patronage, and control of current-affairs broadcasting and jobs in the allied industries, plus the army of neomelodic singers and so-called clairvoyants. This widespread criminality has been tolerated for years despite numerous inquiries and reports to the magistrates.


Alessandro De Pascale