header i-Italy

Articles by: George De stefano

  • Facts & Stories

    Blessed Fascism




    “The priest’s tunic is just a longer blackshirt.”

     

    That observation about the similarity of ecclesiastic and Fascist attire came from Giulio Tam, a Roman Catholic priest in Italy. Tam showed up in Bergamo last week to bless a rally by Forza Nuova, a violent neofascist party that had just opened a “sede,” or office, in that city. Tam, in his black priestly garb, marched alongside Forza Italia’s leader, Roberto Fiore. He was photographed giving the Roman (Fascist) salute as he marched with Fiore, followed by a hundred or so Forza Nuova militants wearing helmets and brandishing clubs.

     

    According to La Repubblica, Father Tam’s marching companions sang Fascist anthems and shouted threatening slogans. Some even chanted “Sieg heil.”

     

    Tam was proud to be in their company. As he told La Repubblica, “I will always stand at the side of the young people of Forza Nuova. Mussolini is a martyr and I am in favor of his beatification. The Roman salute? The kids asked me to bless them and I performed my function.”

     

    Italian media described Tam as a “lefebvriano,” meaning, that he belongs to the ultra right-wing St. Pius X Society founded by the renegade French priest Marcel Lefebvre.

     

    The convergence of ultra-conservative Pius X adherents and Italian ultra-rightists isn’t exactly a new development. “Traditionalist” Catholics long have openly supported the far right. Tam, for example, celebrates an annual mass at Mussolini’s tomb and regularly attends Forza Nuova meetings. But the “lefebvriano” movement and its reactionary politics have come under heightened scrutiny lately, ever since Joseph Ratzinger aka Pope Benedict XVI announced his intent to lift the longstanding excommunication of four of its leaders, including the notorious Holocaust denier, “Bishop” Richard Williamson.

     

    Williamson has denied that the Third Reich planned to exterminate Europe’s Jews and maintains that “not a single Jew” was killed in the gas chambers.

     

    The pope’s initiative, purportedly undertaken to repair a schism in Roman Catholicism, has blown up in his face, earning him near-universal condemnation. The Vatican was forced to do serious damage control. Williamson and company were told they’d have to recant their Holocaust denial and accept the reforms of Vatican II as preconditions for being re-admitted to the Church. (The Second Vatican Council is a particular bete noire of the lefebvrians; they oppose both its liturgical reforms and its ruling that Jews are not responsible for the death of Jesus.) But Williamson, in particular, doesn’t want to play nice. He’s issued a series of evasive statements, saying he’d retract his views, but only if they were proved wrong.

     

    The Vatican has said that Williamson’s statements to date don’t pass the smell test. But it’s unlikely that Williamson will fully recant; his anti-Semitism and far-right politics seem as intrinsic to him as his British accent.

     

    Whatever headaches Williamson and his colleagues are causing the Vatican, far more alarming is the growing presence and audacity of Forza Nuova. Father Tam’s favorite political party lately has been inflaming anti-immigrant sentiment in Italy. It has called for the “immediate repatriation by force of every foreigner who is not in Italy for work useful to our nation.”

     

    But Forza Nuova doesn’t limit itself to anti-immigrant rhetoric; its bullyboys also physically attack them. And not only immigrants: FN also has it out for leftists and gays, and has assaulted both and vandalized their property and meeting places. At Rome’s gay rights march last year, a bunch of these disgusting thugs threatened marchers with knives.

     

    Forza Nuova, using classic Fascist language, calls for a return to the values of “God, Fatherland and Family.” Its ideology has strong roots in traditionalist Roman Catholicism -- hence the Lefebvre/Pius X connection.

     

    Forza Nuova doesn’t do especially well at the polls. But unimpressive election results don’t mean this group isn’t a threat. The economic, social, and political climate in Italy right now provides opportunities that Fiore and his followers are eager to exploit. The worldwide economic disaster is hitting Italy hard, with rising unemployment and other signs of economic malaise. Immigrants increasingly are scapegoated over conditions for which they bear no responsibility. In a period of right-wing dominance (and weakness of the left), social minorities, such as gays and lesbians, also are stigmatized and attacked as internal threats to the nation.

     

    Moreover, though Forza Nuova originated in northern Italy, it now has offices all over the country, from the far north to Palermo. When I was in Sicily a few years ago, I saw, far too often, its slogans painted in public spaces. My favorite was “Keep Sicily Aryan and Pure,” a stunning combination of the horrific and the ludicrous.  

     

    But the Forza Nuova phenomenon isn’t restricted to Italy. Fiore’s noxious gang is only one of a number of similar parties and political formations that have emerged in Europe. FN is a member of the European National Front, the coordinating body of European far right and so-called “Third Positionist” parties and movements.

     

    The British National Party, a far-right group led by Nick Griffin, also belongs to the European National Front. The British daily The Guardian recently revealed that Griffin and Roberto Fiore not only are ideological soul mates; they’re also business partners. The paper reported that CL English Language, a London school that teaches English to foreign students, is run by Fiore, and that the school’s accountants are Nick Griffin’s parents.

     

    Fiore arrived in Britain in October 1980, a 21-year-old fugitive from the Italian police who wanted to question him about the notorious Bologna train station bombing two months earlier, which killed 85 people. He settled in London, where he met Griffin. The two shared an apartment and even ran a travel agency together.

     

    Fiore returned to Italy in 1999. He’d been cleared in the Bologna bombing but found guilty of “subversive association” and sentenced to nine years in prison. That was reduced to five-and-a-half on appeal. But the jail term eventually was “timed out” under Italy's statute of limitation laws, permitting Fiore to return to his homeland.

     

    One of the main aims of this poisonous “flower” is to overturn Italy’s law banning attempts to reconstitute Mussolini’s Fascist party. But as Forza Nuova and other right-wing parties and groups active in Italy today demonstrate, you don’t need a Fascist party to have fascists.

     

    Part of the problem is that Italy, though it prohibits a reconstituted Fascist party, has not dealt with its Fascist past as vigorously and as honestly as Germany has confronted – and unequivocally repudiated -- its Nazi history. If it had, Roberto Fiore’s Forza Nuova would be banned, not marching through the streets giving roman salutes and blessed by Fascist priests.

     

     

     

     

  • Art & Culture

    Postmodern Mafiosi



    Movies are the source for forms of expression…Camorristi look to the movies to create for themselves a criminal image they often lack. They model themselves on familiar Hollywood masks, a sort of shortcut to make themselves into figures to fear.

                                        -- Roberto Saviano, Gomorrah

    In the chapter of Gomorrah titled “Hollywood,” Roberto Saviano describes how Italian American gangster narrative has influenced the behavior and self-image of Italian mafiosi and camorristi. One high-ranking camorrista, Walter Schiavone, brother of the notorious boss Francesco “Sandokan” Schiavone, built a villa modeled on the ostentatious digs inhabited by Tony Montana, the Cuban mobster played by Al Pacino in Brian De Palma’s “Scarface.”

    In director Matteo Garrone’s film adaptation of Saviano’s extraordinary book, two teenage gangster wannabes act out their “Scarface” fantasies, even quoting the famous line, “The world is yours.” But their anarchic impulsiveness is bad for business, and the local bosses put a stop to their antics. The boys’ infatuation with Hollywood gangsterism predictably culminates in their violent deaths, not in a gaudy Miami mansion but on an ugly, isolated strip of the Campania coastline.

    If American films have influenced Italian criminals, they now also inform Italian literary treatments of organized crime. There’s no more vivid example of this phenomenon than the novels of Sicilian author Ottavio Cappellani.

    Cappellani draws from the wells of Coppola, Scorsese, and De Palma. But his main inspiration would seem to be Quentin Tarantino. In Cappellani’s novels, the Tarantino influence is unmistakable: there’s the extravagant if cartoonish bloodshed, the black humor and hipster irony, the shallow characterizations verging on caricature. The moral perspective is similarly attenuated, and sometimes nonexistent.

    Neither of Cappellani’s two novels, “Chi è Lou Sciortino?” (Who is Lou Sciortino?) and “Sicilian Tragedee,” is an outstanding literary work.  (Both have been published in the United States by Farrar, Straus, Giroux, and both have been well translated, respectively by Howard Curtis and Frederika Randall.) Yet they’ve received generally favorable reviews outside Italy. The American novelist David Leavitt, for example, in his New York Times review of “Sicilian Tragedee,” hailed the book as “irreverent and very funny,” comparing it to director Pietro Germi’s 1960s satire of Sicilian mores, “Divorce Italian Style.”

    That’s a comparison it definitely doesn’t deserve.

    The novel, which is set in Catania, Sicily’s second city, has a clever and initially promising premise. Tino Cagnotto, a gay, middle-aged director of avant garde theatrical productions, feels creatively burnt-out until he falls in love with Bobo, a sullen young sales clerk.  Tino’s passion for Bobo reinvigorates his creativity, inspiring the director to conceive a production of “Romeo and Juliet” in the style of Sicilian dialect theater, with two sixty-ish veterans of that traditional art, Cosentino and Caporeale, as Romeo and Mercutio. Rosanna Lambertini, a local actress who is described as resembling Paris Hilton’s mother, plays Juliet.

    In Tino’s take on the tragedy of star-crossed young lovers, the bawdy subtext of Shakespeare’s dialogue becomes text, and Tino also introduces some rude bits of stage business, most notably the oversized codpiece worn by the production’s Romeo.

    As Tino struggles to mount his show, an ambitious local mafioso, Alfio Turrisi, is starring in and directing his own version of “Romeo and Juliet,” as he pursues Betty, the spoiled daughter of Turi Pirotta, a rival gangster. The two plotlines converge, of course, and along the way we encounter philistine and feuding cultural commissioners, decadent Sicilian aristocrats (is there any other kind?), and old-school Palermo mafiosi. When Tino’s “Romeo and Juliet” finally makes it to the stage, several members of the audience expire long before the title characters meet their ends.

    “Sicilian Tragedee” is an improvement over “Chi è Lou Sciortino?.”  Cappellani’s debut is thin and insubstantial, jokey and often downright silly. Its plot is a confused mess, with Sicilian and New York gangsters cracking wise and slaughtering each other for no compelling reason. Despite some amusing moments, it’s eminently forgettable. But it is Tarantino-esque, if that’s what you’re looking for in a novel.

    Cappellani’s follow-up has more substance but it suffers from some of the same defects as its predecessor. “Sicilian Tragedee” centers on a theatrical production, but the novel itself, in structure and style, has more in common with a screenplay, with short scenes written in the present tense, shifting points of view, and narration that reads more like direction. The limitations of this approach are especially evident in Cappellani’s description of Tino Cagnotto’s “Romeo and Juliet,” where he gives us not fully realized prose but…a script.

    Although I found “Sicilian Tragedee” unsatisfying overall, it has its moments, mostly in its depictions of contemporary Catania, a city I know pretty well. Cappellani captures Catania’s particular and peculiar mix of the traditional and the au courant, its decadence and its vitality. His satirical skewering of Catania’s elites, whether mafioso, governmental, or aristocratic, can be wickedly entertaining. Cappellani also portrays aspects of Sicily that rarely appear in fiction, including Catania’s gay life. Besides Tino and his Bobo, there’s Carmine, the often exasperated best pal of Betty Pirotta, the Will to her graceless Grace. As the mafia princess says to a friend, “It’s cool to have a gay guy as a lady’s companion, they have them in America, don’t you watch the sitcoms?”

    Cappellani at one point mentions the condoms distributed “at the Pegaso,” the Catania gay center whose dances and parties I’ve enjoyed with local friends. The Pegaso even has its own “lido,” or section of the town beach, during the summer.

    The depictions of Catania’s young mafiosi ring true as well. These malviventi don’t wear coppolas or wield the lupara shotgun; nor do they act with the self-conscious gravity and reserve of old-school gangsters. They wear flashy, expensive suits, constantly chatter on cell phones, do drugs, and have skinny, chic blonde girlfriends. One night, my partner Rob and I and two friends had dinner at a Catania restaurant popular with these nuovi picciotti. They, with their long hair practically dripping with “product,” cell phones at the ready and blonde babes at their sides, could’ve stepped right out of the pages of Cappellani’s novels.   

    Perhaps the generally favorable critical reception in the U.S. (and elsewhere) to Cappellani’s work can be explained by the fact that the author provides what we’ve come to expect of Sicilian stories – the exotica of criminal conspiracies, murder, “passione,” etc. -- but he gives these familiar tropes a postmodern spin, inflecting them with his  sardonic sensibility and elements drawn from American gangster movies and pulp fiction.

    Like so much contemporary pop culture, Cappellani’s po-mo mafia satires can be diverting. But they also don’t leave much of an impression.              

       

     

     

  • Facts & Stories

    Look For The Union Libel



    Italian American conservatives often claim that liberals and leftists are anti-Italian “elitists” who have contempt for our “family values” and ethos of “hard work.” As this tiresome ditty goes, liberals are always ready to make excuses for misbehavior by members of racial minorities while having no qualms about defaming Italian Americans.


    It’s a fatuous claim, and, one that overlooks the fact that there are many Italian Americans who hold liberal and left-wing views. Big surprise: I’m one of them.



     

    I’d be lying if I said that there have never been instances of anti-Italian bias by liberals. Bill Clinton’s infamous description of Mario Cuomo as looking like a character from “The Godfather” comes to mind.

    But
    Clinton
    ’s slur pales next to the stunt pulled by Brad Dayspring, the spokesman for right-wing Republican Congressman Eric Cantor. The fourth-term
    Virginia representative was one of the targets of an advertisement by the public workers union AFSCME that criticized the Hooverite GOPers who have opposed President Obama’s economic recovery plan. Cantor has coined the phrase, “Just say ‘no’ to the stimulus.”

     

    Cantor’s flack Dayspring, infuriated by the AFSCME ad, sent out an e-mail containing a video clip that depicted union members as foul-mouthed Mafia goons. The video is of a genuine AFSCME ad from the 1970s to which a voice-over has been added. The voice is unmistakably meant to be that of an Italian American, but a specific type – a “Paulie Walnuts voice,” as MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann noted.

    (For the uninitiated, Paul “Paulie Walnuts” Gualtieri was the mobster with the silver-streaked hair played by Tony Sirico on “The Sopranos.”)

     

    As actual footage of union members at work appears, the “gavone” voice says [warning: bad language coming]: “On your way to work tomorrow, instead of sitting around with your finger up your ass, look around. There's a union out there called AFSCME and they're busting their balls doing a lot of shit work you take for granted. For example, we pick up your fucking garbage.”

     

    “We don't take shit from nobody," the voiceover concludes. “You got that, asshole? AFSCME -- the fucking union that works for you.”

     

    The video actually has been circulating on the Internet for two years; it wasn’t created by Eric Cantor’s office. But the fact that Cantor’s spokesman would distribute it, to the journalism website Politico, calling it “my response” to the anti-GOP AFSCME ad, speaks volumes about Republican contempt for working class people.

     

    Dayspring has since apologized for the video, which he called “inappropriate.” His mea culpa included some disingenuous boilerplate about the Republicans being aware that “people are hurting in these trying times.” Yes, and you can be sure that the GOP will do its best to block the pain relief, as they tend to the interests of  “the haves and have-mores,” as the recently departed Dubya liked to say.

     

    Let’s look at another bunch of conservatives peddling the “organized labor = Mafia” slander. An outfit called the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace has been running TV and Internet ads against the Employee Free Choice Act, a labor- and Democrat-backed bill that would make it easier for unions to win recognition in workplaces. The ads feature Vince Curatola, the actor who played the gangster John “Johnny Sack” Sacrimone on “The Sopranos.” Trading on his mob persona, Curatola likens the Employee Free Choice Act to Cosa Nostra-like intimidation.

     

    Curatola should be ashamed of himself, but evidently he’s beyond shame. The so-called Coalition for a Democratic Workplace is nothing but a front for business and industry lobbying groups and right-wing organizations like Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste, and Americans for Limited Government. It includes the Retail Industry Leaders Association, whose most prominent member is the notoriously anti-union Wal-Mart chain.

     

    In the ads, Curatola parrots the Coalition’s line that the Employee Free Choice Act would eliminate secret ballots in workplace votes on unionization. What the Act actually would do is bring fairness to the current system, which is skewed against workers. The bill, which has been endorsed by President Obama, would allow workers to choose their own union formation approach, whether through majority sign-up or through a National Labor Relations Board election.

     

    Currently, union campaigns that precede elections can drag on for months, as management often fires union supporters while propagandizing against unions, in sessions with individual workers and in large meetings. Labor organizers are barred from the workplace while management does its utmost to persuade workers than unions are bad for them. If the Employee Free Choice Act is passed, organizers will try to get a majority of workers to sign union cards before corporations can begin their anti-union campaigns.   

     

    It’s ironic, no outrageous, that Republicans and their corporate allies would liken organized labor to La Cosa Nostra. If anyone has engaged in organized thuggery against the interests of working class people, it’s that crowd. But there is, of course, a history of gangsters being entangled with unions, both here and in
    Italy
    – as corrupters of them. Mobbed-up union bosses and their associates have served their own interests, and those of management, at the expense of workers, destroying union democracy and even murdering honest, progressive unionists, like Pete Panto, a New York longshoreman, and Placido Rizzotto, a Sicilian organizer of agricultural laborers.

     

    The Republican Party and big business have been waging class war against working people for decades now. With the election of Barack Obama and his appointment of a progressive, Hilda Solis, as Secretary of Labor, they’re terrified that they, at long last, will start losing battles. Hence their escalating propaganda war against unions and their members. Given the mounting public outrage against them and the disasters they’ve created, they’ve certainly got good reason to be scared.

     

     

  • Op-Eds

    Kebab Wars


    “Italians are so weird about food,” my friend Francesco remarked to me. “Nobody is as fussy about it as we are.”

     

    I don’t know whether the second part of Francesco’s commentary is accurate. The French, for example, have been known to be a bit exacting about their soufflés, confits, and charcuterie. But Francesco, who emigrated from Puglia to New York when he was in his early teens, certainly is right about Italian food weirdness. Right now in the madrepatria, or rather, in two of its northern regions, they’re going pazzo pazzo about cuisine, culture, and national identity.

     

    Call it the war of the kebabs. In Lucca, the local right-wing government has banned new “ethnic” food outlets from opening within the ancient walls of the Tuscan town. Milan, also governed by the right, has followed suit, with the anti-immigrant Lega Nord party imposing restrictions “to protect local specialties from the growing popularity of ethnic cuisines.”

     

    Luca Zaia, Italy’s agriculture minister and a Lega Nord member from the Veneto region, applauds the crackdown on non-Italian food. “We stand for tradition and the safeguarding of our culture,” he huffed.  He further said that “foreign” food places, whether “they serve kebabs, sushi, or Chinese food,” must cease “importing container loads of meat and fish from who knows where” and use only Italian products.

     

    According to the Times of London, when Zaia was asked whether he’d ever eaten a kebab, he indignantly declared, “No – and I defy anyone to prove the contrary. I prefer the dishes of my native Veneto. I even refuse to eat pineapple.”

     

    Can you believe that people like Zaia are running Italy’s government these days? That the country has as its agriculture minister an ignorant xenophobe who won’t permit a slice of pineapple to pass his lips?

     

    Though incredible, it’s quite believable, as these are the sorts of people that make up Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s ruling “People of Liberty” coalition, an unsavory assortment of nativists, unregenerate fascists, Vatican errand boys and corporate crooks, a good number of them mobbed-up.

     

    Not surprisingly, it’s the Lega Nord that’s behind a trend that critics in Italy have dubbed “gastronomic racism.”  I suppose it was inevitable that, after demonizing immigrants themselves as a leading cause of Italy’s ills, the nativists would attack their cultures. And cuisine, as Italians well know, is a central component of culture and identity.

     

    There’s a fierce, and often quite ugly, struggle going on in Italy right now over culture and identity, as a land that poor people once fled is attracting poor people from other countries. Most of these new arrivals are of non-European backgrounds, from Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia, as well as Eastern Europe. For quite a few Italians, mainly but not only those in the north, the immigrants represent a threat, an alien invasion. They’re coming into an old, tradition-bound country where, until quite recently, Sicilians and other southern Italians represented the Third World Other.

     

    (And maybe they still do. Massimo Di Grazia, a government official in Lucca, when asked if any “ethnic” cuisines would be allowed within his city’s walls, said that French food was no problem. But he was uncertain about cucina siciliana, because the island’s food incorporated Arab influences.)

     

    One response to the arrival of so many immigrants in Italy has been to tighten the borders of culture, to define what is Italian and what is not, with “Italian” signifying all that is good and pleasant, and all else consigned to the category of “foreign,” that is, strange, alien, bad. “We” eat “the dishes of my native [insert region]; “they” eat suspect things like kebabs, sushi, and dim sum.

     

    There is, of course, an economic component to this “gastronomic racism.” Agriculture Minister Zaia accuses kebab shops of using imported meat. But Mehmet Karatut, the owner of one of Lucca’s grand total of four such shops, told the Times that he only buys Italian meat. Davide Boni, a Lega Nord politician in Milan, complained that people like Karatut are willing to work long hours, which according to him constitutes unfair competition.

     

    Besides being reactionary and bigoted, this outbreak of culinary protectionism -- or gastronomic racism -- is absurd, since “Italian food” is hardly a homogeneous thing. The food of mainland Italy and the islands is the variegated product of previous waves of conquest and migration, a cuisine (or rather, many cuisines) that historically has incorporated ingredients of non-Italian provenance. The tomato, for example, which came from the New World and was initially scorned by Europeans. Agriculture Minister Zaia wouldn’t be able to enjoy risotto, one of his region’s “native dishes,” if Saracens had not introduced rice cultivation to Sicily.

     

    As chef Vittorio Castellani told the Times of London, “There is no dish on Earth that does not come from mixing techniques, products and tastes from cultures that have met and mingled over time.”

     

    Can you imagine what Luca Zaia would say about New York City, and especially about Queens, the multicultural borough where I live? He’d see restaurants, cafes, diners, and street vendors serving the foods of the world – pizzas and pupusas, curries and arepas, tacos and pad thai, Fujian soup and Turkish lahmajun. “But where is your American food?” I can imagine him asking. And my reply would be, “This is America, this is our food.”

     

    So Minister Zaia, live a little. Try some kebabs. They can be great. Kind of like spiedini, which I’m sure you’ve heard of, even if they don’t come from the Veneto. Then have a few slices of pineapple for dessert. Your world won’t fall apart.

     

    But then again, maybe it might. Which wouldn't be a bad thing at all.

     

     

     

  • Op-Eds

    Papal Bull


    Marcial Maciel Degollado and Richard Williamson might not seem to have much in common besides their both being conservative Roman Catholic priests. Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, was Mexican, and has been dead for a year. Williamson, a bishop in the ultra-conservative, and until very recently, schismatic St. Pius X Society, is British and alive.

     

    What links the two of them, besides being conservative priests, is the outrageous hypocrisy, fraudulent moralism, and reactionary politics of the Roman Catholic Church and its CEO, Joseph Ratzinger aka The Pope.

     

    First, let’s look at Father Maciel Degollado. The founder of the Legionaries of Christ – a right-wing outfit with an appropriately militaristic name – was forced to leave his ministry by the current pope after more than a dozen men said he had molested them when they were students. This week it was revealed that Maciel preyed on both teams, so to speak – he had an affair with a woman and fathered a daughter with her.

     

    But the sins of the Legionarie in Chief weren’t only carnal. Maciel fostered a cult of personality, and was a high-living cult leader at that.

     

    “Father Maciel was this mythical hero who was put on a pedestal and had all the answers,” according to Stephen Fichter, a former Legionarie interviewed by the New York Times. “To hear he’s been having this double life on the side, I just don’t see how they’re going to continue.”

     

    Fichter, once the Legionaries’ chief financial officer, told the Times that he blew the whistle on Maciel three years ago. He said he informed the Vatican that when Maciel left Rome to travel, “I always had to give him $10,000 in cash -- $5,000 in American dollars and $5,000 in the currency of wherever he was going.”

     

    “As Legionaries, we were taught a very strict poverty,” Fichter said. “If I went out of town and bought a Bic pen and a chocolate bar, I would have to turn in the receipts. And yet for Father Maciel there was never any accounting. It was always cash, never any paper trail. And because he was this incredible hero to us, we never even questioned it for a second.”

     

    Maciel was a favorite of the ultra-conservative Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), which may help explain why he escaped Vatican scrutiny for so long. (Maciel founded the Legionaries in 1941.) The head of the Legionaries of Christ, an order devoted to chastity and poverty, probably would’ve continued his polysexual, profligate ways had not the global scandal over priestly sexual abuse forced the hand of John Paul’s successor Joseph Ratzinger, aka Benedict XVI.

     

    Richard Williamson made the news when the pope announced that he was revoking the excommunications of four bishops, including Williamson, who belong to the renegade St. Pius X Society. The sect, founded in 1969 by the "traditionalist" priest Marcel Lefebvre, rejects the reforms of Vatican II. But the P-Xers, as I’ll call them, don’t oppose only Vatican II’s liturgical changes. They also reject the document issued by the Second Vatican Council “absolving” Jews of guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus.

     

    The “Christ-killer” canard has been, over the centuries, a cornerstone of anti-Semitism. I can recall hearing Italian Americans use the delightful term “mazzacrist’” when I was growing up.  

     

    But Williamson’s Jewish problem has more recent roots. He declared in an interview on Swedish TV that “I believe that the historical evidence is largely against, is hugely against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler…I believe there were no gas chambers.”

     

    And that’s not all. Besides engaging in Holocaust denial, Williamson believes in the authenticity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious document forged in Czarist Russia that purports to depict a Jewish conspiracy to rule the world. Williamson has added his own fuel to old anti-Semitic fires, having written, quite dementedly, of what he called “the false messianic vocation of Jewish world-dominion, to prepare the Anti-Christ's throne in Jerusalem.”

     

    Outrage over Ratzinger’s “welcome back” to Williamson has come from many quarters – Jewish individuals and organizations, liberal Catholics, newspaper editorialists, and the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, who took the extraordinary step of blasting the pope, her conational, for his embrace of Williamson. Forced to do damage control, the Vatican now has demanded that the British prelate recant his noxious views. Since Williamson isn't the only professed anti-Semite among the four schismatics, presumably all will have to recant to be re-admitted as full members of the Roman men's club.

     

    The Vatican says that the pope’s lifting of the excommunication order against Williamson and the other P-Xers was an attempt to heal a breach in the Roman Catholic Church. But why is it that Ratzinger only wants to reconcile with reactionaries and anti-Semites? He evidently finds them more palatable than say, left-wing liberation theologians or Catholic feminists, and certainly more so than gay people, whom he continues to demonize in language as lunatic as Williamson’s Jew-baiting.

     

    To sample the wit and wisdom of Bishop Richard Williamson, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6C9BuXe2RM

     

    And then check out http://jloughnan.tripod.com/sparwill.htm

    and  http://angelqueen.org/articles/06-10_bp_williamson.shtml

     

    At the latter, you will find that Williamson doesn’t only dislike Jews – he also condemns Catholics who support Vatican II as “Conciliar Romans” – to him, they’re not even Roman Catholics.  Let’s see how Ratzinger finesses that.

  • Art & Culture

    A Oscar non piace Gomorra



    “Gomorra,” the film directed by Matteo Garrone and adapted from Roberto Saviano’s book of the same name, has won major European awards, including the Grand Prix at
    Cannes
    and Best Film at the European Film Awards. It is one of the most highly acclaimed films of the past year, ending up on many critics’ top ten lists. “Gomorra” even had the imprimatur of Martin Scorsese.

     

    But that wasn’t good enough for the
    Academy of
    Motion Picture Arts
    and Sciences. When the Academy’s foreign language committee released its shortlist of nominees this week, “Gomorra” wasn’t on it.

     

    The omission stunned many in the film industry, especially critics. Guy Lodge, at the website Incontention.com, called the Academy’s foreign language committee “philistines” for “sidelining
    Italy’s astonishing entry.”

     

    “If I had my way, Matteo Garrone’s cinematic gut-punch about the Camorra crime syndicate would be in line for a Best Picture nod, not just a puny ghetto-category citation,” Lodge fumed.

     

    That “Gomorra” would be one of the Best Foreign Language Film nominees was regarded as inevitable by most observers. So what happened?

     

    Film blogger Jeff Wells reported that a member of the Academy’s executive committee told him that “Gomorra” hadn’t “delivered in the way it could or should have. It’s not a matter of it not being heart-warming. It’s a matter of our respecting the film without believing that it really brought the goods home.”

     

    Well, that certainly justifies Lodge’s characterization of the committee members as “philistines.”

    Lodge added, “Obviously, the film isn’t going to speak to everyone … what film does? But as I see it, the executive committee isn’t in place to offer personal evaluations of the work at hand; it’s there to ensure that significant achievements are acknowledged.”

     

    “However much they liked or didn’t like ‘Gomorra,’” Lodge wrote, “to blindly ignore the fact that its achievement, as both a feat of storytelling and social investigation, dwarfs those of most of the films shortlisted — not least the contrived melodrama of ‘Revanche,’ the by-the-numbers epic posturing of ‘Tear This Heart Out’ and the comparatively cardboard characterization of ‘The Baader Meinhof Complex’ -- is blatantly obtuse.”

     

    The executive committee, ironically enough, was created by the Academy in response to outrage over the past exclusion of such critically acclaimed foreign films as Brazil’s “City of God,” Germany’s “Edge of Heaven,” Romania’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days,” and Mexico’s “Silent Light.”  The foreign film nominees used to be selected by a “Phase 1 committee” comprising several hundred Los Angeles-based Academy members who would divide up and screen the foreign entries. There were no requirements that members even watched the films under consideration, and the vote tabulation process was bizarrely complicated.

     

    This year, the Phase 1 committee made six initial selections, with the foreign language film award executive committee adding three more, a change ostensibly instituted to prevent outstanding films like “Edge of Heaven”-- or “Gomorra” – from being excluded.

     

    Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Entertainment, which is releasing “Gomorra” in the United States, told Incontention’s Kristopher Tapley that “I know I speak for the entire country of Italy and a lot of people in the critical community when I say that it just doesn't make sense and there's something wrong with the foreign language committee as a whole,” he told me. “It's still broken.”

     

    Sehring and IFC, however, deserve some blame for failing to properly promote the film, to the Academy and to potential audiences, especially after it swept the European Film Awards in late 2008. IFC’s marketing of “Gomorra” last year was virtually invisible. 

     

    Scott Foundas, a film critic with the LA Weekly, suggested that for the Academy, “Garrone's vision of mob life was simply too violently realistic and lacking in Hollywood romanticism for a group of voters who have time and again showered nominations on the glossiest of
    Hollywood gangster fare.”

     

    (Not to mention the fact that the Italian films that the Academy has honored in the recent past have been innocuous fare like “Mediterraneo” and “Il Postino” and Roberto Benigni’s execrable “Life is Beautiful.”)

     

    I think Foundas is on to something. “Gomorra” is an important, powerful, but demanding film. It eschews all the familiar trappings of the Mafia movie, particularly the tradition of presenting the narrative from the viewpoint of the Mafiosi. “Gomorra”’s point of view is objective, though not detached. It also flouts genre conventions by not offering us wise godfathers, charismatic rogues, or “I make you laugh?” killer clowns. The film is about a milieu, a world, an all-enveloping system of organized criminality. This is why some who don’t like the film complain that it lacks characters they can “relate to.”

     

    Garrone’s direction also is light-years from
    Hollywood
    , a sort of 21st century neorealism that plunges viewers into the world he depicts with very few signposts to orient them. It takes a little while to make sense of the five separate storylines, which do not converge to bring comforting “closure” a la the Oscar-winning but meretricious “Crash.” The film demands critical engagement from its audiences; you can’t just passively watch it. But if you’re willing to engage with it on its own terms, and not expect it to be “Goodfellas” or “The Godfather,” its rewards are considerable.

     

    So ignore the Academy cretini and see “Gomorra” when it opens here in February. And then read Roberto Saviano’s book, if you haven’t already. It’s even more disturbing than the movie.

     

     

     

  • Art & Culture

    Sicilian Sax for Obama



    Francesco Cafiso, the teenage alto saxophonist from Vittoria, Sicily, will perform January 19, at the “Inauguration and Martin Luther King Jr. Day” event, which will be held at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on the day before Barack Obama's inauguration as President.

     

    Cafiso’s performance is just the latest milestone in the nineteen year old jazz prodigy’s amazing career. Without doubt one of the most precocious talents in the music’s history, Cafiso began performing professionally when he was only nine years old, which beats the record of another Sicilian horn player, trumpeter Roy Paci, who made his debut when he was thirteen. (Cafiso started studying music when he was six, under the tutelage of his father.) In 2001, when he was 12, Cafiso won the Massimo Urbani National Award, an annual prize given to outstanding young Italian jazz musicians.

     

    A year later Cafiso met Wynton Marsalis at the Pescara Jazz Festival, and the American trumpeter/bandleader/composer was so blown away by the young Sicilian’s assured playing that he invited him to join his septet for their European tour.

     

    The next year saw Cafiso perform at Lincoln Center, with Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, which Marsalis directs. During the summer of 2004, he appeared in many of Europe’s most prestigious jazz festivals, playing with Marsalis, pianist Hank Jones, the Count Basie Orchestra, and the great Sicilian-American saxophonist Joe Lovano.

     

    Hungry for experience and new knowledge, he went to New Orleans, where he played with Wynton Marsalis’ father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, and studied with the jazz clarinetist Alvin Batiste.

     

    Cafiso began recording in 2001, accompanied by one of Italy’s leading jazz artists, the pianist Stefano Bollani, on the aptly titled Very Early! (Philology).  He’s played, as a leader or sideman, on nine albums since then. In 2006, he released Happy Time, consisting entirely of his own compositions. It’s a good record, but it’s evident that his composing abilities were not the equal of his playing chops. (But then again, he was only 17). The album he released later the same year, Seven Steps to Heaven (Venus) was far superior, evincing the teenage saxist’s rapid artistic evolution.

     

    His next recording, which he made in September 2008 in New York with American musicians (he was accompanied on his previous albums by Italians), will be released this year.  

     

    Francesco Cafiso, who will be twenty in May, is a remarkably sophisticated and committed artist with broad knowledge of his chosen genre. In a recent interview with the Italian online magazine Sax Forum (www.saxforum.it), he spoke about the musicians he most admires, his artistic philosophy, and his love for jazz.

     

    He studied classical music and flute at the Conservatory of Catania. “I love all music and I think that for a musician it’s fundamental to know all musical genres,” he said. “I also think that jazz and classical music have much in common.” 

     

    From Wynton Marsalis, whom he calls a “fundamental figure” in his life and art, he “has learned many things, about being human and about music. I learned that the greatest ones are the most humble…I also believe that first of all a great musician must be a great person.”

     

    Asked about his favorite saxophonists, he said, “I have learned to love them all. They all have their particular qualities and all are originals, telling stories that are unique, marvelous, sad, happy, exasperated. Parker, Coltrane, [Cannonball] Adderley, [Phil] Woods, [Paul] Desmond…I could cite them all, I like them all.”

     

    But he admits that Phil Woods is for him “one of my fundamental points of reference.” The American saxophonist, perhaps the greatest of Charlie Parker’s disciples, has “a stupefying sound and technique: he’s absolutely magisterial.”


    Asked whether jazz “still has a lot to say,” Cafiso replies with passionate conviction. “Jazz will never die, just as music and art will never cease to exist as long as man is on this earth…Today we surely live in difficult times, times of crisis not only economic but also cultural and intellectual. But as they say, hope is the last thing to die and I am optimistic. Jazz will never die.”

     

    At next week’s pre-inaugural Kennedy Center event Francesco Cafiso will play with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. In bocca al lupo, Francesco. But then, with his drive, dedication, and remarkable talent, he hardly needs my encouragement.    

     

     

     

     Francesco Cafiso’s website: www.francescocafiso.com

     

  • Art & Culture

    Village People and Bronx Tales




    A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties

    Suze Rotolo

    Broadway Books

     

    Twisted Head

    Carl Capotorto

    Broadway Books

     

    Two notable Italian American memoirs were published in 2008, Suze Rotolo’s A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties, and Carl Capotorto’s Twisted Head.

     

    Rotolo, a veteran of Greenwich Village’s Sixties bohemia, is an artist and writer who’s best known for having been the consort of the decade’s leading culture hero, Bob Dylan. Carl Capotorto is an actor -- he played “Little Paulie” on The Sopranos and has appeared in independent films -- and writer who grew up in the Bronx during the 60s and 70s, in a household dominated by a tyrannical father. Ethnicity figures strongly in both memoirs, but these Italian American stories are set in a wider world of cultural, political, and social change.

     

    Suze Rotolo’s book, not surprisingly, has attracted more attention; it was reviewed in the New York Times and Rotolo was the subject of a feature article in the paper by the pop music journalist Anthony De Curtis. The Times’ reviewer Sia Michel complained that Rotolo’s book didn’t “expand Dylanology.” I guess Michel was disappointed that Rotolo didn’t make her years with Him the entire focus of her book. She actually talks about her life before she, at 17, met the self-mythologizing ragamuffin from Hibbing, Minnesota, and relates some of her experiences after they broke up.  

     

    Rotolo doesn’t deny the enduring importance of that long-ago liaison. She writes, “In so many ways, my past with Bob Dylan has always been a presence, a parallel life alongside my own, no matter where I am, who I am with, or what I am doing.”    

     

    But her story is fascinating on its own, as an Italian American life whose particulars often don’t conform to the familiar ethnic mythology. (For one thing, Roman Catholicism was unwelcome in the Rotolo home, given her parents’ atheism.)  She was born in Queens in 1943, the second daughter of working class parents who had joined the Communist Party in the 1930s. Her Sicilian-born father, Gioacchino “Pete” Rotolo, and her mother, Mary Pezzati, the daughter of northern Italian immigrants, never had enough money. Pete, a union organizer and frustrated artist, was frequently out of work. Mary, an editor and columnist with the Italian Communist newspaper L’Unità, supplemented her meager earnings with various other jobs. At times they were so penurious that they sent their daughters to live with other, better-off relatives.

     

    Being a “red diaper baby” in the 1950s meant that Rotolo’s childhood was haunted by McCarthyism. She describes the pervasive secrecy and justified paranoia among the working class radicals she knew. When she saw newspaper photographs of the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, she was terrified that her own parents would end up in the electric chair.

     

    Rotolo honors her parents’ politics; they were, she says, “humanist” Marxists, not dogmatic Stalinists. She describes her own radicalism as non-ideological, concerned mostly with peace, racial equality, and artistic freedom. The teenage Suze campaigns for nuclear disarmament (she meets Eleanor Roosevelt at an anti-nuclear rally) and civil rights (she works for Bayard Rustin and the Congress of Racial Equality). She has a knack for being ahead of the curve, whether she’s living in Italy in 1962, long before most Italian Americans went to la madrepatria to discover their roots, or discovering the nascent Greenwich Village folk music scene.

     

    And years before the late-60s “second wave” of feminism, Rotolo had a feminist’s understanding of and hatred for sexism, which, as she recounts, flourished among the otherwise progressive artists and activists she knew. 

     

    She reminds us that Greenwich Village during the early 1960s was a largely Italian neighborhood, a place where first and second generation Italian Americans co-existed, if at times uneasily, with the young bohemians. One particular Italian, Mike Porco, turned a former working class bar into Gerde’s Folk City, the leading folk music venue where Dylan played his first New York gigs.

     

    Rotolo, with economy of language and unerring insight, creates well-observed portraits of the Village scene and its leading characters, including the folk singer Dave Van Ronk and his wife Terrie Thal, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Odetta, Phil Ochs, and of course, Dylan, the man she loved but, because of his elusiveness, never fully trusted. Sia Michel’s comment notwithstanding, Rotolo does contribute to “Dylanology” through her account of their time together and her savvy assessments of his character and talent. She tells how she discovered that his real name was Robert Allen Zimmerman, and I won’t spoil the story for readers by repeating it here.

     

    It’d be hard to improve on the way she sizes up this towering figure of American culture: “Bob always did as he saw fit. He was rarely swayed by outside demands or requests. He went where he wanted to go, even if it meant alienating his public, fans, friends, and lovers. He did not make anything easy for anyone, or for himself.”

     

    Twisted Head, the title of Carl Capotorto’s candid, brave, and often hilarious memoir, is the English translation of his surname. But “capo” means “head” in the sense of a boss, not a body part. The titular twisted head is the author’s father Philip, a Bronx padre padrone, domineering and obsessive to the point of madness, who torments Carl, his sisters, and his mother.  

     

    During Carl’s childhood, the crucible of the Capotorto family drama was Cappi’s Pizza and Sangweech Shoppe, the restaurant his father opened in 1964 on White Plains Road. Carl, his mother, and his sisters were dragooned into working in the place, which, despite all their labors, never was a success. The main reason it didn’t flourish was Phil Capotorto himself, for whom the saying “the customer is always right” was blasphemy. He was always right, and any customer who flouted his many and capricious rules would be ejected. The ambiance at Cappi’s was, Carl says, “general tension and discomfort.”

     

    When he wasn’t treating his wife and children like serfs, Phil pursued his other major passion: fighting pornography. A rabid reactionary obsessed with immorality, he formed, and was the president of, the Committee to Control Obscenity by Constitutional Means, whose “national headquarters” was Cappi’s Pizza and Sangweech Shoppe. Whenever a customer objected, however mildly, to Phil’s monomaniacal crusade, he’d reach behind the pizza counter where he kept a stash of “particularly egregious porn samples” and would “flash a picture of, say, a nun in a barnyard with her habit hiked up over her head, being mounted from behind by a farm animal.”  If this failed to convince the wavering customer that porn must be stamped out, he’d ban him or her from the pizzeria.

     

    Capotorto’s portrait of his father as a tyrannical and somewhat unhinged taskmaster is mitigated, however, by the man’s biography. Phil, as a child, was brutally beaten by his immigrant uncles in an attempt to “make him a man” after his father died.  No less than three of his uncles administered the weekly beatings, which continued for years. Despite all the idealized and sentimental nonsense that has proliferated about The Italian Family, this kind of male violence hardly was uncommon in first and second generation Italian American clans.

     

    Phil Capotorto didn’t beat his own son, but he subjected him to comparable emotional and psychological violence, whose effect was to make Carl self-conscious and fearful.

     

    This Carl did not need, since he already was self-conscious about being gay – he became aware of his sexuality “at a ridiculously early age”-- and fearful of the neighborhood bullies who called him “faggot” and harassed him. Carl, though he feared and hated his tormentors, admits that he was attracted to some of them. He’s sure that one, a “rough-trade heartthrob” named Fernando, must now be a “gay dungeon master.”

     

    For the intelligent, artistic, and gay Carl, high school becomes his deliverance. There he finds friends and is encouraged by hip teachers who smoke pot and let students call them by their first names. He performs in school plays, which he loves, and discovers disco dancing, which becomes a ruling passion. But Carl’s high school years also are marked by tragedy. Two friends, Alex and Valentina, are among the victims of serial killer David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, who, during 1976 and 1977, gunned down young men and women in Queens and the Bronx. 

     

    Among Twisted Head’s many memorable scenes, there’s one in particular I’ll never forget: the “wedding” of two flamboyant young gay men, Ralph and Vinny, in a McDonald’s on Fordham Road. Officiating at the nuptials is the manager, Curtis Sliwa, who would become famous as the founder of the paramilitary anti-crime group The Guardian Angels and later as a pugnacious right-wing radio talk show host. At the wedding, Sliwa “danced the Robot all night long, way too intensely, his eyes wide and distant, dripping sweat and poking out moves in a freakish trance.”

     

    Twisted Head concludes with the death of Phil Capotorto. Carl and his fiercely rebellious sister Rosette had been estranged from their father. Not long before he dies they try to make peace with him. Phil agrees, on the condition that they never discuss their wayward lives with him. For Carl, this means no mention of his sexuality and the banning of Fred, his African American lover, from the Capotorto home. But when Phil suddenly dies, Fred is a rock for the dazed family. Phil regarded him as a non-person, but Carl’s mother and sisters accept and love him. Phil Capotorto’s twisted head would explode at the notion, but that’s what I call veri valori di famiglia – real family values.

     

     

     

     

  • Op-Eds

    Pizzini!




    A pizzino -- pizzinu in Sicilian -- is a small piece of paper on which mafiosi write brief, coded messages to their colleagues in crime. Police found hundreds in the hut where capo di tutti capi Bernardo Provenzano had been hiding until he was arrested in 2006. Inspired by Zu Binnu, as his friends called Provenzano, I’m sending you, my readers, some of my own pizzini. They obviously aren’t clandestine notes since they’re right here on the World Wide Web. They’re also in inglese, not in Sicilian, and certainly not in the crude encryption code Provenzano used to throw off the cops. But like his, they’re brief messages, which is the point. So here are a half-dozen pizzini for the holidays and the end of 2008, a dismal year that I certainly won’t miss.    

     

    Pizzino #1: Don George Bush and his underboss Cheney totally screwed up our thing. For them, though, it’s tutte cose buone – they’re going out unimpeached and unindicted. But do they have to rub it in our faces with this farewell tour of theirs? Cheney’s saying that thanks to him the underboss is as important as the don, and the don’s bragging about whacking Iraq. Where’s a little omertà when you need it?

     

    Pizzino #2: That Obama guy is something else! He campaigns for and wins the votes of the gays. Then he gets some bible-thumping, anti-gay disgraziato to give the invocation at his inaugural. Not even triangulatin’ Bill Clinton would’ve tried that one. I guess that’s some kind of “change.”

     

    Pizzino #3: That Obama guy is something else! He ran as an anti-war candidate. But now he’s keeping Bush’s defense secretary, doesn’t contradict the generals who say that we probably won’t be out of Iraq in 2011, and wants to send more Americans to die in Afghanistan. Peace out, dude! (Yeah, farther and farther out of sight.)

     

    Pizzino #4: What’s with that Ratzinger guy, anyway? I swear, picciotti, he’s obsessed with the gays. First he says the UN shouldn’t demand the decriminalization of homosexuality in countries where they throw you in jail, and maybe execute you, for being gay, because that would discriminate against the jailers and the executioners. Now he’s going on about how heterosexuality is threatened and needs to be protected. Really? I didn’t know that straight people were an endangered species.

     

    Pizzino #5:  Some of the Republicans out on Staten Island are still big-upping their boy Vito Fossella. The conservative, family values, soon to be ex- congressman got busted for drunk driving in Virginia. Then it came out that the married Fossella had a kid with the gumad he kept in that great state. But at a party for Vito an old paisan tells a TV reporter that “no way am I gonna nail him to the cross” for his misdeeds. If Fossella were a liberal Democrat, the old paisan would be ready with the hammer and nails.

     

    Pizzino #6: Matri mia, what’s going on with Italians and immigrants? In Campania, a gang burns down gypsy homes and camorristi shoot Africans. In Torino, a black kid gets killed for supposedly stealing biscotti. In Rome, the government proposes fingerprinting gypsy kids and creating separate classes for immigrant schoolchildren. The only black member of Italy’s parliament says “basta.”  Italians, he says, “are better than this.” I’m waiting for Italians to prove him right.

     

     

    Buon Natale e Buon Anno a tutti!     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Art & Culture

    Mangia La Musica II




    Christmas is coming, and if you’re like me, you love the holiday but hate the music. Want something besides “Silent Night” or “Little Drummer Boy” to accompany your Buon Natale? Here’s a sampling of some of my favorite fare from 2008, and like the first Mangia La Musica, it’s a mix of sapori italiani and other flavors. Enjoy!

     

    Ry Cooder, I Flathead (Nonesuch), The UFO Has Landed (Rhino Records)

    Cooder, the California-born blues guitarist extraordinaire, singer, and cross-cultural collaborator, has had a fascinating 40-year career. He’s played with bluesman Taj Mahal in The Rising Sons and exploratory rockers Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, joined The Rolling Stones in the studio for their Let it Bleed album, and, beginning in 1970, put out a series of his own excellent albums. A master of the blues and other bedrock American idioms, Cooder’s also produced two extraordinary world music projects, Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club, and Talkin’ Timbuktu Blues, a collaboration with the Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré.

     

    His most recent work has been a “California trilogy” that began with Chavez Ravine (2005), followed by My Name is Buddy (2007) and culminating in this year’s I, Flathead. All three are remarkable – Chavez is a flat-out masterpiece -- not just collections of songs but concept albums, a format supposedly obsolete in the digital age. Each one focuses on a particular era in the history of southern California’s multi-ethnic working class. The UFO Has Landed, a two-CD career retrospective, contains much of his most indelible work, with lots of his soulful slide guitar. And guess what, paisans – Cooder’s half-Italian, the son of an immigrante named Emma Casaroli.     

     

    Bob Dylan, Telltale Signs (Columbia)

    The latest in Dylan’s “bootleg” series of unreleased material, the two-disk Telltale Signs is a must for any Dylanophile. It includes alternate versions of songs from four albums Dylan released between 1989 and 2006, live performances, and several numbers written for films. Dylan’s alternate takes are always fascinating, even when they’re not as good as the versions he decided to release, because they allow you to hear familiar songs in entirely new ways. “Dignity,” “Everything is Broken,” and “Ring them Bells,” all from 1989’s Oh Mercy, sound like different songs stripped of producer Daniel Lanois’ murky atmospherics. “Missisippi,” from 2001’s Love and Theft, shows up in two versions, one whispery and ethereal, the other a slide guitar-enhanced blues (the winner hands down). Some of the unreleased stuff is so good you wonder why the hell he didn’t put it out before.

     

    Afterhours, I Milanesi Ammazzano il sabato

    Mark Gartenberg, a promoter who has brought such Italian artists as Carmen Consoli, Vinicio Capossela and Avion Travel to New York and other American cities (give him a round of applause), turned me on to this, the latest album from the Milanese rock band founded in 1990 by singer-guitarist Manuel Agnelli. “Milanese rock band” sounded about as appealing to me as “Bloomberg’s third term.” But, curbing my Mezzogiorno cultural chauvinism, I heeded Mark’s urging and gave it a listen. He was right. Most of the Italian rock bands I’ve heard sound like lame imitations of Anglo-American groups. But Afterhours is the real thing, raucous, exciting, and, if you want to identify an Italian element in their sound, melodic.

     

    Roy Paci, Bestiario Siciliano (Etnagigante/Universal)

    In my recent I-Italy article about Paci, I made a serious gaffe – I inexplicably forgot to mention that one of the CDs in this two-disk set includes a highly entertaining documentary film of Paci and his band Aretuska on tour and in concert. Paci’s caponata of canzone siciliana, ska and reggae, jazz, funk, rap, and Latin (whew!) makes for a captivating stage show that leaps over linguistic and cultural boundaries. The exuberant leader is fabulously charismatic, singing, rapping, playing trumpet and cavorting on and off-stage, and the multiethnic band commands all the genres in its repertoire.

     

    Lucariello, Quiet (Sanacore)

    On his first album, rapper Luca “Lucariello” Caiazzo serves up nine slices of contemporary Neapolitan street life, bringing a poet’s insight and  compassion to his portraits of a lesbian oppressed by family and religion (“Mariarca”), a boy with Down’s syndrome who craves love (“Totore”), and an African prostitute who longs to return to her homeland (“Queen of the Streets”). Co-produced by Lucariello and Japanese digitalist Taketo Gohara, the tracks mix electronics and acoustic instruments, including string sections, to powerful dramatic effect. Lucariello is one of the most noteworthy of current Italian pop artists. His recent collaboration with Roberto Saviano, “Cappotto di Legno” (not included on Quiet but available online) was bold and shocking, the kind of thing that gives one pelle d’oca (goosebumps).

     

    Les Amazones de Guinée, Wamato (Sterns)

    Ahmed Sekou Touré, president of the African nation of Guinea from 1956, when the French colony gained independence, to 1984, instituted a cultural policy called authenticité, which subsidized the creation of music that was grounded in tradition yet modern. The policy produced great bands like Bembeya Jazz and the Horoya Band, but one of the finest, if least-known exponents of authenticité are Les Amazones de Guinée. The band, led by soldiers from Guinea’s women’s militia -- members have titles like “Commandant” and “Capitaine” -- has made only two albums, one in 1982 and this year’s Wamato. It’s amazing that a band that hasn’t recorded in 26 years would sound so vibrant and confident, as if they’d never left the scene. The three lead singers and the two terrific guitarists are the stars of the 11-piece, all-women ensemble (augmented by guest vocalists and musicians), but the entire band is a joyous, propulsive, polyrhythmic wonder.

     

    Calle 13, Los de Atras Vienen Conmigo (Sony BMG)

    Rene Perez Joglar (“Residente”) and Eduardo Jose Cabra Martinez (“Visitante”) are half-brothers who make up the duo Calle 13. (The name comes from the address of their family home in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico.) Though usually labeled reggaetón artists, they’re really an experimental, modern Latin pop band. Reggaetón’s typical “dem-bow” rhythm drives some of their music, but there’s also hiphop, cumbia, salsa, electronica and tango in the mix. Their left-wing, independista politics inform their lyrics, and have caused some controversy in Puerto Rico. But they’re just as often nuttily surreal, lewd, and very funny. Two of the album’s best tracks are collaborations with Latino eminences, Mexico’s Café Tacuba (“No Hay Nadie Como Tu”), and the great Panamanian salsero Ruben Blades, who acquits himself quite well as a rapper (“La Perla”).

     

    Stew & Company, Passing Strange (Ghostlight)

    Mark Stewart, the singer-songwriter known as Stew, created a smart and thrilling rock musical about an alienated young black man – him as a youth – who flees his middle class Los Angeles background in search of “the real.” His journey of re-invention takes him to Amsterdam and its marijuana cafes, then to Berlin, where he falls in with left-wing avant-garde artists. Passing Strange has great rock and soul music performed by an outstanding band featuring Stew’s partner Heidi Rodewald, and an outrageously talented, all-black cast. The album was recorded live at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, where Passing Strange played for six months earlier this year, winning the Drama Desk award for Best Musical and a Tony for its book. If you missed it, watch for Spike Lee’s filmed version, which will be presented at the next Sundance Film Festival and released theatrically next year.

     

    Lucinda Williams, Little Honey (Lost Highway)

    After a couple of albums full of her great country, rock, and blues songs, Williams really hit her stride with 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, generally considered her masterpiece.  Her terse but fully observed narratives of her Louisiana childhood, of “drunken angels” and beautiful, doomed losers, of erotic longing and faithless lovers, evoked a world as vividly as the best southern literature. Just about perfect, Car Wheels was followed by a string of uneven albums, the good stuff mixed with dull, ponderous material. On Little Honey she sounds focused, energized,  and happier – her melancholy had devolved into moroseness on her last couple of releases -- which she has attributed in interviews to having finally found a good man. “Real Love,” “Circles and X’s,” “Tears of Joy,” “If Wishes Were Horses,” and “I Didn’t Know” are vintage Williams. “Jailhouse Tears” is a funny and blunt duet with Elvis Costello. Little Honey ends with a bang – Williams' gutsy cover of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top.”       


         

     

     

Pages