Articles by: Joey Skee

  • Art & Culture

    Watching Mob Movies with my Fourteen-Year-Old Son


    Over the past few months my kids and I have watched a series of gangster films, courtesy of, from Little Caesar (1931) to Donnie Brasco (1997). Yes, even the torpid debacle The Godfather: Part III. These viewings have been part of my larger design of cinematic edification; we’ve made our way through a film studies program’s worth of noir, 1950s sci-fi/horror, French New Wave, samurai films, spaghetti westerns, Soviet animation, and, of late, Bing Crosby movies, my daughter Akela’s recent fave. 
    The fascinating thing was that my son Lucca knew many of the cinematic references before he watched a single gangster film. Parodies of The Godfather and other films appear repeatedly on “The Simpsons” and Don Corleone’s backhanded facial scratch is just another dislocated and free-floating media quotation populating our pomo pop world.
    Ever the great celluloid impressionist, my son quickly began repeating bowdlerized versions of famous lines:
    “Sonny had five fingers but he only used three.”
    “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” 
    “I mean, funny like I’m a clown?  I amuse you?  I make you laugh?”




    Did I need to worry about anti-defamationists’ admonition that my son might be internalizing “negative” imagery that is inexplicably damaging his “ethnic self-esteem?” Did he come away from these movies thinking that Italian Americans were only gangsters? Or were these new additions to our family’s pop lexicon no different than us imitating tough noir talk or (faux) feudal Japanese after viewing other genres? “I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”
    My son was born and raised in one of New York City’s last remaining, albeit rapidly gentrifying, Italian neighborhoods settled by immigrants in the late nineteenth century. Over the course of the twentieth century, Williamsburg, Brooklyn was the stomping grounds for the likes of Joseph “Joe Bananas” Bonanno, James “Jimmy Nap” Napoli, Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano, among other infamous Italian Americans. Thankfully, they are less a presence in our lives than Pesci, De Niro, and Scorsese.
    These films prompted questions about the mafia – which my son had little or no knowledge of – regarding history, organizational structure, etc., asked with a teenage boy’s fascination with power and violence. A "teachable moment" to be sure.
    Not only did I point out former (the Motion Lounge social club) and current (zitto zitt’) mobbed up haunts, but we discussed mafia realities and representations, and how they dovetail. (The intertextual estrangement of seeing Pacino play clean cop Frank Serpico after watching his performance as young “Michael Corleone” highlighted the cinematic frame of all these narratives.) We talked about America’s glorification of violence and how the real American mafia destroyed lives at local and global levels through extortion, drugs, and homicide. And we talked about Italian Americans and organized crime. 
    These discussions are part of ongoing conversations about things Italian American in our family that include stories about activists, artists, and working people, and how to learn from one’s past to do right in the world. Because as we all know, “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.” Happy Birthday Lucca!


  • Op-Eds

    “Italians sunbathe as Gypsy girls drown.”


    Scanning CNN for news about the tropical storm raging across the Yucatan where I was vacationing this past week, a headline scroll jumped out at me from the bottom of the screen: “Italians sunbathe as Gypsy girls drown.”
    Again, we have become a nazione of racists, heartless bigots defined by our xenophobic fears.
    Just when the rigorous examination by intellectuals and writers helped Italian Americans distance ourselves from the blood-stained mantle of racism bestowed by the ignominious violence that transpired in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn in 1989, just as Italian scholars and artists were scrutinizing Italy’s legacy of emigration and discovering its diaspora, just when you would have hoped that our collective memory would have brought some clarity of our own history and consequently empathy with those today struggling with economic inequities and political injustices, it was at that moment fascists – yes, Lucca, there are still fascists in the world – claimed victory in Italy, as they have always done, fanning the xenophobic and homophobic fires of fear.  
    Without a single Italian staying at my cloistered resort with whom I could engage, question, vent, or castigate, I was left with the darkening storm clouds gathering overhead to ponder, as do family, friends, and colleagues, what is happening to our dear Italy?

  • Facts & Stories

    Chi è Pete Panto?


    Pietro “Pete” Panto (1911-1939), a longshoreman working the Brooklyn docks led a rank-and-file revolt against the corrupt and mob-controlled International Longshoremen’s Association. Headed by the all-powerful president Joseph Ryan (dubbed “King Joe” by dockworkers) and vice-president Emil Camarda, the ILA was rife with corruption, political patronage, and violence. Working conditions on the Brooklyn docks were horrid, with endemic problems such as the “shape-up” hiring system (where men waited daily to be chosen to work), mandatory salary kick backs, extortion, and high rates of work-related injuries. Enforcing the status qua of this corrupt fiefdom, was gangster Albert Anastasia, head of the crime syndicate “Murder, Inc.” and his brother Anthony “Tough Tony.” 
    According to historian William Mello, “a group of radical dockworkers with political ties to the American Labor Party and to the Communist Party formed the Brooklyn Rank-and-File Committee . . . to transform working conditions on the Brooklyn docks.”  Their office was located at 186 Remsen Street in Brooklyn. Panto, who was at the center of the Committee’s work, “began to organize rank-and-file open air meetings in front of the piers.” The first one in mid-June 1939 brought together 350 longshoremen, while 1,500 assembled on July 3rd
    Union officials became worried. They tried smearing Panto as a “red.” They tried bribing him. And then they threaten him.
    On July 14, 1939, Panto left his apartment at 11 North Elliot Place at 7PM “to meet two guys he didn’t trust,” telling his fiancée’s brother Michael Maffia that if he did not return by 10 the next morning he should call the police. Mello describes what happens:
    Later testimony by Abe Reles, member of Murder Inc., to the Brooklyn District Attorney described the way Panto was taken to the house of waterfront gangster Jim Ferraco. There Albert “The Enforcer” Anastasia and Mendy Weiss met him. On Albert’s orders, Mendy Weiss assassinated Panto later dumping his body in a lime pit in Lyndhurst, New Jersey.
    Trade unionists and political progressives such as author Richard Wright, House Representative Vito Marcantonio, Transport Workers Union president Michael Quill, among others, joined forces to “mobilize public opinion in order to compel the police and local government to find those responsible for Panto’s disappearance.” The Brooklyn Rank-and-File Committee posed the question “Dov’è Panto?” on pier walls and in pamphlets. 
    It wasn’t until January 1941 that Panto’s decayed corpse was discovered. No one was convicted of his murder.
    Around this time, “progressive Italian longshoremen in Brooklyn organized “Il Circolo Educativo Pete Panto” (Pete Panto Educational Circle). It was a means of keeping the memory of Pete Panto’s activity alive and organizing dockworkers.”
    Today the question is not, Where is Panto?, but, Who is Panto? Little is know of his life and struggle. There have been at least two fictionalized accounts of his labor activism and death, e.g., Robert Travers’s A Funeral for Sabella (1952) and Benjamin Appel’s The Raw Edge (1958). Panto’s story is often a mere backdrop to the recounting of Cold War’s politics and culture surrounding Arthur Miller’s screenplay The Hook, Elia Kazan’s film All Along the Waterfront, and their troubled relationship. I have relied on and quoted from Mello’s 2002 article “The Legacy of Pete Panto and the Brooklyn Rank-and File Committee” in The Italian American Review
    In keeping with the goals of Il Circolo Educativo Pete Panto, I organized the 2001 symposium “Italians on the New York Waterfront: A Tribute to Peter Panto” for the Calandra Institute, and now present here excerpts from the symposium as originally aired on ITALICS. (Grazie a Lucia Grillo.)

  • Op-Eds

    Una malia contro il malocchio dei prominenti.


    The name of my blog, Occhio contro occhio, is adapted from a number of incantations against the evil eye.
    Occhi e contro occhi e perticelli agli occhi.
    Crepa la invidia e schiattono gli occhi.
    Eyes and against eyes and the little opening to the eyes.
    Envy dies and eyes burst.
    I envisioned this humble blog, in part, as a counter voice to the staid monologic representation offered by the self-appointed and self-aggrandizing Italian-American leaders who deal in the politics of victimhood, albeit ineffectively.  The blog as conjure work of digital iettature (spells).
    I frame this mago-digital engagement with the Italian-American politics of culture as the babblings of a global village idiot, the playful antics of the mythic circum-Mediterranean trickster Giufà’s love child. What better way to address the often absurd pronouncements of the lackluster elite?
    Stidda di lu luveri,                                          Star of the eastern light,
    Veni Avanti a mai arreri.                                never back but forward bright.
    A li tri, a li tri, a li tri                                         to the three, to the three, to the three,
    e sinu a li ventiquattru.                                   and even to the twenty-four.
    Ssu malunatu è sfasciatu.                             Now this witchcraft is no more.
    Pi lu nomu di Gesu,                                       In Jesus’s name
    sciogghiu ssa fimmina                                   I undo this charm
    e nun mi avi neti chiu!                                    and it will harm me no more!
    Up until this week, I thought I was alone in invoking the supernatural in this experiment we call “Italian American.”  
    On Monday, the National Italian American Foundation chairmen Kenneth Ciongoli posted a half page ad in The New York Times entitled “Great American Roccos and Their Cousins.” This public statement took on NBC sports announcer Johhny Miller’s offensive remarks about golf pro Rocco Mediate. “Guys with the name ‘Rocco’ don’t get on the trophy, do they?” Sounds like bigotry to me. 
    Let’s ignore, for this blog post at least, that the ad was a tad bit shy of timely (Stephanie Longo dealt with this matter here on June 22nd), that it evoked ethnic chauvinism (e.g., “his unsurpassed ethnic heritage”), that it relied on the tiresome litany of “successful” Italian Americans, e.g. “great Americans named Rocco” (Do other ethnic groups still use this stale strategy?), that it conjured the conservative right’s bogeyman of “the media elite,” and that it used such superannuated cultural references as “Uncle Miltie and Don Rickles.” 
    What took my breath away was the invocation of a supernatural intimidation. In the last paragraph, after the exasperated Ciongoli proclaims “We are losing patience,” he uses a veiled threat of heavenly intervention:
    “By the way, I further inform Mr. Miller, St. Rocco is the patron saint who protects the populace from plague. He might be somewhat anxious the next time he sneezes.”
    What is Ciongoli saying here? That he, as representative of the national Italian-American organization, invokes St. Roche to inflict bodily harm on Miller? That supernatural retribution is the possible outcome of an ethnic slight of Mediate and, by extension (talk about sympathetic magic), all Italian Americans?! What sort of unseemly thaumaturgy is at work here? 
    In his seminal work The Madonna of 115th Street, historian Robert Orsi briefly mentions the southern Italian-American religious practice of women dragging their tongues along the floor of the church aisle, a votive act known as la lingua a strascinuni. Reading the Times ad, I was reminded of a story I was once told of a Harlem woman who dragged her tongue supplicating the Madonna to strike dead a relative who was harming her family. 
    Many years ago, immigrant butcher Antonio Davida sang me the ballad “Evvivi Santi Rocche” in his Brooklyn basement kitchen. I offer Antonio’s song (here edited), used in healing ceremonies in his hometown Pomarico (Matera province, Basilicata), as a digital palliative to inanity:
    E ci la canti tre voti la dì,                   And who ever sings this three times a day,
    e Santa Rocchi li leva la mala via!    St. Roche will keep from the dangerous path!
    E ci la canti tre voti la dì,                   And who ever sings this three times a day,
    e Santa Rocchi li leva la mala via!    St. Roche will keep from the dangerous path!

  • Art & Culture

    “O’ Giglio e Paradiso”: An Italian-American Musical Classic


    Today is the opening of the annual Brooklyn giglio feast in honor of the fifth century bishop St. Paulinus of Nola (Naples province, Campania), introduced by Nolani immigrants to the United States in 1903. The contemporary Williamsburg festa features approximately 125 men lifting and carrying a multi-storied tapering spire, known as the giglio (lily), or, more accurately, u’ gigl’, consisting of a painted papier-mâché façade attached to an aluminum frame. The feast’s dramatic climax is the meeting of the tower and a second ceremonial structure—a boat, complete with mast, sail, and rigging—at the intersection of Havemeyer and North 8th Streets in an enacted evocation of a mytho-historic moment when the jubilant townspeople welcomed home their manumitted bishop by waving lilies.  
    Music is a vital component of the Brooklyn celebration, so much so that it is said the giglio tower is “danced.” A singer and brass band ride on the tower platform and inside the boat, respectively. The “lifters” carry the giglio and boat down the streets not in a continuous parade but in a series of approximately three minute “lifts” led by a capoparanza (crew leader). The signal for the men to lift the structures in unison is encoded in a seven note crescendo of the song “O’ Giglio e Paradiso” (The Giglio of Paradise). 
    Trumpeter Phil Caccavalle and clarinetist Antonio Rosalia (1895-1970) composed the music in 1957, and Pasquale Ferrara wrote the Neapolitan lyrics the following year. The new song made its début in 1959. Up until that point, a new feast song was composed annually, in keeping with the tradition introduced by immigrants in 1903. Inventing a new tradition of a single, familiar song played from year to year occurred as the neighborhood was experiencing a series of dramatic changes (see my article for more on this topic).
    The song was transformed into an auditory symbol for the community, summing up in a concise and emotionally charged way a series of associations and memories about the feast and, by extension, the imagined community. As one man told me:  
    You get a feeling when you hear the music. When they play the giglio song, you start bouncing with the music. It goes through you. You can’t fight it. It’s a feeling that automatically comes to you. It gets in your blood.
    All this can be achieved with just a few notes, as when people beep on their car horn the seven note crescendo as they drive by or when trumpeter Joe Speruta had the song’s musical notes tattooed on his arm a few years ago.
    The song soon traveled beyond the neighborhood. In the early 1960s, Ferrara’s son, singer Salvatore “Tutti” recorded the song on a 45 RPM (Variety Records, #856, MTC-1) with the Ralph Tuorto Orchestra. In 1964, the song traveled to Italy, where Neapolitan singer Gino Maringola cut his own version (Universal, PH 103), which was, in turn, sold in New York City. WMCA-AM deejay Joe O’Brian gave the song considerable airplay on his popular radio show before and during the feast, subsequently re-releasing the original recording on his collection Joe O’Brien’s All-Time Great Italian Hits (Baci Records, CS 1691). As an instrumental, “O’ Giglio e Paradiso” has entered the religious processional repoitoire for festa bands throughout the New York metropolitan area, and as far west as Chicago. 
    As the two performing ensembles ensconced on the ceremonial structures move closer, the joyous cacophony that is the soundtrack of public display events of this size fills the Brooklyn streets like a dissonant summer symphony scored by Charles Ives. I can’t help but imagine what guitarist Marco Cappelli or Vinicio Capossela, whose concerts last week in New York reworked folk and pop musics from the Italian and Italian-American repertoires, would make of “O’ Giglio e Paradiso.” Imagining the sounds in my mind’s ear reminds me of a forgotten version of giglio music that remains shrouded in mystery. 
    When I was researching “O’ Giglio e Paradiso” in the mid 1980s for my master’s theses, I was given the 1983 album “Giglio Carnivale” (United International Records, SUI 2003) by Damian and the Criterions. The liner notes (penned by a Salvatore Carino of the National Association of Italian-American Artists) were pure hyperbole, crediting “Damiano”—“a product of New York’s Italo-American community, [who] grew up with the Giglio”—with creating “an instant ethnic hit” with the 1963 “modernized Giglio song called Giglio 108, also known as Giglio Wobble.” The same—“an instant ethnic smash”— was said to be true of two other songs on the album.     
    The music was certainly like none performed at any American giglio feast, or, for that matter, in Nola. The music obviously did not emerge out of the Italian-American giglio tradition and was not suited to “dancing” the structure. The liner note’s incessant hype billed the album’s first song “Gee Leo USA (Giglio USA)” as a “blend of new-wave punk-rockabilly rock Italian style” and, I might add, just a tinge of schlocky Italian wedding band music. 
    Nobody I interviewed about giglio music in the States and Italy knew anything about Damian and the Criterions. I had collected scores of American giglio sheet music dating back to the 1920s and never came across them. I couldn’t even figure out a suitable footnote for the group in my thesis. I always wondered who they were.  
    A quick google search revealed that Damian and the Criterions was a one-man band—Damian Vecchioli of New Jersey—and that his 1982 album “Avant Garde” is a cult classic. Not much info on “Giglio Carnivale.” The meager information found on the Net leaves Damian’s story relatively untold. 
    Yet his somewhat messy intrusion in the history of the giglio feast and its music alerts to the simple fact that “Italian-American culture” is not some static entity hauled over in suitcases by mythic immigrant nonni and preserved in musty curio cabinets in the Italian-American museum of nostalgia and lethargy. It has always been an impure hybrid transformed, subverted, forgotten, and reclaimed by the likes of film directors and academics, street corner gavons and boardroom CEOs, Italian musicians and bloggers, so that we see ourselves as refracted reflections in funhouse mirrors of the mind.

  • Art & Culture

    Watching “Serpico” with my Thirteen-Year-Old Son


    During a Sunday night downpour in Brooklyn, my son Lucca and I scrounged through our humble DVD collection for something new to watch. After reading aloud several titles, we both agreed on Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973), part of an Al Pacino collection I received as a birthday gift in April. 
    I was eager to re-watch Serpico with my son because the film had a special resonance for me. I had seen it at age 18 when it was released. With my long hair and Italian parents, Serpico was a larger-than-life, celluloid refraction of who I understood myself to be, a Brooklyn Italian wannabe hippie.  Untroubled by any ethnic identity crisis, I wasn’t searching for a role model or an alternative Italian-American hero when I first saw the film. On the contrary, the cinematic representation of the New York City cop Frank Serpico became my first Italian-American hero. 
    The youngest child of an immigrant father and an Italian-raised mother, Brooklyn-born Serpico served on the police force from 1959 to 1971.  He was an oddity; not only did he sport a beard and long hair as an undercover detective, Serpico was a ‘clean cop” unwilling to take bribes and payoffs. In 1970, Serpico went public on widespread police corruption, prompting Mayor John Lindsay to establish the Knapp Commission, an independent investigating committee. Although he retired from the NYPD in 1972, Serpico continues to speak out on police corruption and brutality.
    (Frank Serpico)
    Frank Serpico is conspicuously missing or, at the very least, downplayed in the Italian-American pantheon of “positive role models.” Italian-American hagiography obsessively calls upon the usual cast of characters in a psycho-social commedia of uplift from disesteem and victimhood that has long ago become tedious, retrograde, and moribund.  The canonization of Renaissance greats (Why no mention of that hooligan Caravaggio?), the repeatedly indicted Genovese profiteer (found guilty of “crimes against humanity” in my daughter’s high school social studies class), second rate muralists, moneyed CEOs, conservative politicians, and the multiplicative Mazzei, Meucci, and Basilone is a project of ethnic boosterism cum therapy that sadly illustrates the cautious and uncreative ways that “Italian American” is imagined. Will we ever see New York’s Italian Heritage and Culture Month Committee honor visionaries and heroes of social justice like Frank Serpico, Angela Bambace, James Groppi, Tina Modotti, Peter Panto, Mario Savio, and others? I’m not holding my breath. In the interim, I’m celebrating Frank Serpico Day in Brooklyn with my thirteen-year-old son.   


  • Art & Culture

    Linking the Diaspora Musically

    A series of recent email exchanges concerning the now inextricably conjoined topics of Italian identity and hip hop linked such disparate places as Marseilles (France), Turin (Italy), Kenosha (Wisconsin), Oakland (California), Syracuse (New York), and good old Brooklyn. 


    CAVEAT: If you dislike rap music, remember: “Trahit sua quemque voluptas.” If you think all rap is homophobic, misogynistic, and violent, educate yourself. If anything related to mediated mafiosi gives you agita than this ain’t the post for you. 
    The great French rapper Akhenaton aka Phililppe Fragione emailed me out of the blue after visiting my site He wrote “I want to thank you for putting me on your site and, above all, for crediting our contribution (we Italians) to hip-hop culture.” In 1998 I created my site to document hip hop in Italy for Anglophones. Soon after launching, youth from around the world who identified as Italians and were down with the Hip Hop Nation emailed me. The profusion of rappers, DJs, B-boys, and graffiti writers compelled me to create a separate page I called “Hip Hop from the Italian Diaspora.”
    Two years later, experimental musician and transnational culture worker Lorenzo Brusci invited me to co-curate a three-day cultural extravagance in Tuscany around the theme of “Hip Hop from the Italian Diaspora.” Together with the Calandra Institute, we brought artists from Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, and the United States together for a sort of Italian hip hop Woodstock in the towns of Montevarchi and Terranuova Bracciolini (province of Arezzo).
     (Piazza Varchi, Montevarchi, 2000)
    I had invited Akhenaton but unfortunately he was scheduled to be in the studio recording at the time of the event. I was particularly intrigued by Akhenaton’s work that specifically addressed his transnational upbringing between Naples, New York, and Marseilles. The title song of his 1995 solo CD “Métèque et Mat” (Mestizo and Check Mate) boldly proclaims:
    La pro-latinité est mon role,
    pas étonnant venant d’un napolitain d’origine espagnole.
    Les surnoms dont j’écope reflétaient bien l’époque.
    Je suis un de ceux qu’ Hitler nommait nègre de l’Europe.
    I’m pro-Latin
    which is not surprising being a descendant of a Neapolitan of Spanish origins.
    The surnames that I have reflect well the epoch.
    I’m one of those that Hitler named “Europe’s Negroes.”
    His song “L’Americano” is a condensed history of southern Italian migration and its mediated depiction that cleverly uses the chorus of Neapolitan singer Renato Carosone’s 1956 hit “Tu vuo’ fa’ l’americano.”
    Social network sites like and are enhancing rap’s Italian diasporic consciousness. The “Italian Hip Hop Movement” on myspace has forged links between countless artists and fans across the globe. Those involved with the site brought together sixteen MCs from Chicago, Detroit, Montréal, New York City, Paris, and Rome (Italy) to produce the song “The Movement (Who the Fuck Are You?)” by emailing digital files of their vocal tracks. The “Italian Hip Hop Movement” now has West Coast, Midwest, Southern, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and European “chapters” constituting what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has termed "diasporic public spheres."
    The Italian hip hop transnationalism takes many forms. JoJo Pellegrino of Staten Island, New York raps about a fictitious “return” in his boastful remake of Rosemary Clooney’s 1955 hit “Mambo Italiano”:
    You know the ice don’t melt,

    the tight flow felt.

    Live from Staten Italy,
    Baby Brooklyn,
    Exit 3 on the Belt.

    World famous,
    took a bird to the Boot and grabbed the mic in Naples.

    They was losin’ their mind, drinking vino,
    dancin’ on the tables, singing,
    Hey Mambo, Mambo Italiano. . . .
    In 2000, New York rapper Manifest aka Marco Guglielmo did travel to Italy to perform and record with Italy’s famed rappers Esa and Turi. His “contaminated” recording “S.O.S.” with Turi is a macronic mash up that exemplifies language’s hybridic vibrancy, mixing Italian, English, and Jamaican: 
    It’s Turi, man.
    and Manifest
    Why you wanna mess with the best?
    Must be pazzo.
    West Coast aroma
    Cuz who wan test
    gwan cease.
    (the song can be heard at
    Three years later, Cost’ Ovest from Oakland also went to Italy to record with DLH Posse from the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and the Sicilian duo Miniera Sicula in yet another diasporic contribution to this transnational popular culture.
    Just this month Nick Case aka Nick Galluzzo aka DeCoy from Syracuse, New York visited Turin, one of the places where hip hop took root in Italy. 
    Film director Piero Passatore, 27, documented DeCoy’s visit and is currently producing a documentary video entitled Pizza, Pasta, Mafia, & Hip Hop
    In a recent email he told me that he “grew up going back and forth from New York to Italy. I lived in NY for ten years.” (Similar to the late “Italian” rapper Joe Cassano who grew up in New York, as well.) Passatore explained his documentary in this way:
    The concept is that DeCoy journeys to Torino as an ambassador/spokesperson for Italian-American Hip Hop and he’s on a journey to research the past, present, and future of the local rap in Torino, with interviews, clips from music videos, shows, etc., of the best rappers, DJs, B-boys, etc. from different angles.
    In conjunction with the documentary is the production of DeCoy’s fourth album, “The Italian Album,” where all 15-17 tracks will be co-produced with different Italian talent, a different producer and rapper on every song, like 15-17 singles, about half with the hottest names in Italian hip hop and the other half with well scouted promising talent.
    An important if not vital aspect of rap and hip hop is communication, and no one would argue that it’s not, by far, the most expressive and communicative form of music. With the documentary and DeCoy’s “Italian Album” we are aiding the long repressed dialogue between Italian and Italian-American cultures.
    Considering American rap as the main influence for Italian rap music, the documentary will reveal parallelisms between the reception of rap and hip hop culture in Italy and its role in the Italian-American rap community, whose collective mental image of Italy is predominantly shaped by Mafia movies and stories told during pasta dinners handed down from grandparents and great grandparents about an Italy that no longer exists.
    In this way, the Italian film will scrutinize the profusion of mafia references in Italian-American rap, a subject I hope to post about here in the near future.
    Italian-American hip hop alerts us to the simple fact that the dynamics of race are changing for young Italian-Americans, especially those creatively involved in the African-American dominated rap scene. Italian-American MCs, DJs, and producers are closely collaborating with black artists and business people to get their music out to the public. The situation is not the distant admiration for sport and music figures represented by John Turturro’s character Pino in Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing
    Turf battles between Italian Americans and blacks (and Latinos) in places like New York City no longer appear in the news. In 2005, when an Italian-American teenager was arrested for a racist assault in Howard Beach, Queens the narrative of white-on-black violence that emerged was a far more complicated one than heard in the aftermath of the 1986 death of a black man in the neighborhood that inspired Lee’s film. The 19-year-old’s lawyer maintained that his client was another “wigger” who used the word “nigga” as part of a hip hop flavored salutation and not the racist epithet “nigger.” (Nonetheless, Nicholas Minucci was found guilty of a hate crime and sentenced to fifteen years.) 
    (Howard Beach, 2006. Photo: Robert Stolarick, The New York Times)
    Music of any kind is no panacea for America’s racist legacy. Yet Italian Americans’ involvement as whites in hip hop offers fruitful opportunities to reposition themselves as proponents of an anti-racist politic – as the music does for their counterparts in Italy – and to do so as part of the larger Italian diaspora.


  • Art & Culture

    "C'è la luna": Anatomy of an Italian-American "Folk" Song

    Searching the web for references for Neapolitan music in the United States, I came across a fascinating video clip of American folk singer Pete Seeger performing an English version of “C'è la luna." Recorded for the 1967 “Rainbow Quest” TV series, Seeger’s tune is labeled “The Butcher Boy,” followed by Ralph Marino (I couldn’t find anything on him) singing in Italian. 

    There have been numerous versions of this ethnic pop classic, from Lou Monte’s 1958 “Lazy Mary” to Morgana King’s (as Mama Corleone) rendition in The Godfather. This song is usually attributed as a “Sicilian folk song.” 

    Seeger comments that the song made the 1932 “American Hit Parade.” “C'è la luna mezzo al mare” on the music charts during the Depression?! A couple of clicks and I found the intriguing back story on “Behind the Hits,” an informative site based on Bob Shannon’s and John Javna’s 1986 book of the same title.
    Turns out the song is based on music and lyrics by Gioachino Rossini’s 1835 “La Danza (Tarantella Napoletana),” “Sicilian seaman” Paolo Citorello claimed authorship, the Italian Book Company of New York City copyrighted it in the 1920s, it was first recorded in 1927, it was involved in a lawsuit the following year, and it was a hit for Rudy Vallee in 1938 as a novelty number entitled “Oh! Ma-Ma! (The Butcher Boy).” And the rest is history, or, at least, buried history.

    (Luciano Pavarotti singing Rossini's "La Danza.")

    The web site has excellent resources, including the excerpted decision from the copyright case to several audio files, including a version by Italian-American Rockabilly singer Tony Martin (Tony Marchianda).
    The Web site quotes folklorists Frances Malpezzi’s and William Clements’s Italian-American Folklore (1992), which claims that “this almost infinitely expandable song was collected from Sicilians in Tampa, Florida, in the late 1930s,” a reference found in Manuael Ramirez’s “Italian Folklore from Tampa, Florida” Southern Folklore Quarterly 5 (June 1941): 101-106. Could it be that the Sicilian folk of Tampa actually adapted any one of the recordings from 1927, 1928, 1930, as well as Vallee’s 1938 hit? 
    It seems more than likely that this so-called "Sicilian folk song" actually entered the Italian-American repertoire through the means of mechanical reproduction, becoming, in turn, an "Italian-American folk song" through vernacular performances and the reinforcement of endless recordings, ultimately returning to Italy as an example of "exportable Italianess," a global pop phenomena.

  • Art & Culture

    Brigand or Emigrant, but Ultimately Film Protagonist


    Not too long ago, my Dutch paesan Francesco Pepe told me about the film Li chiamarono. . . Briganti (1999) by Neapolitan Pasquale Squitieri, known for his spaghetti westerns and crime films, and starring Enrico Lo Verso, Squitieri’s long term companion Claudia Carnidale, and Franco Nero. I haven’t seen Squitieri’s film about southern Italian brigands because, as far as I know, it hasn't screened in the States (clips can be seen on 
    That fact that right-wing Squitieri – he has pronounced that “Italian culture is right-wing” and defended Mussolini’s 1938 racial law (Rome's new mayor, "former fascist" Gianni Alemanno, recently appointed Squitieri head of the Rome Film Festival) – made a film about peasant rebels fighting the nascent Italian state alerts us to the ways in which representations of southern Italians and, in particular, southern Italians as brigands have shaped perceptions of Italy and its people.
    It is estimated that some 115,000 Piedmontese soliders decended on the southern regions of Abruzzo, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, and Sicily to brutally put down peasant rebels, killing over 5,000 during the ten years after Unification in what many scholars call a civil war.
    In his book Darkest Italy, historian John Dickie reminds us that “the brigand is a figure prominent in genres ranging from the oral narratives of the peasantry to the novels and plays of the bourgeoisie.” Writings about peasant bandits were used to both exalt them as heroes and demonized them as part of violent military campaigns to suppress them. Dickie’s work on brigandage during post-Unification points to the “cultural significance of brigandage” that can be extended beyond the time period in question to help us unpack discursive imaginings of those invented entities sometimes known as “Italy” and “Italians.”
    “NEW YORK IS FILLED WITH ITALIAN BRIGANDS” screamed a New York Times headline in 1905, expressing the prevaling concern that southern Italians choosing to be first brigands and then emigrants. (It was Italian prime minister during World War I Francesco Saverio Netti who is credited with the statement "Either brigand or emigrant" to descripe the southern working poor's limited options.)   Indeed there were plenty of brigands roaming the imagination of New Yorkers, especially that of the newly arrived Italian immigrants. Bandit-heroes in the form of rod puppets walked the wood plank stages of the Sicilian opera dei pupi from Boston to Brooklyn during the late 19th and early 20th century. Cheap broadsides with titles Storia del brigante Antonio Gasaparone ed I suoi sei Compagni, stati graziati in Roma dopo 47 anni di prigionia (1912) and Maria Nambrini bella giovane di anni 16 che commise trw omicidj (sic) per cause d’amore e poi divenne célèbre Brigantessa (1907) were sold throughout the United States. (I bought my copies during the 1980s from the E. Rossi and Co. in New York City’s Little Italy.)
    Sicilian poet Vincenzo Ancona from who emigrated from Castellammare del Golfo (Palermo province) to Brooklyn composed “La storia d’un briganti” (A Brigand’s Story), an epic of fifty-eight octaves about Castellammarese Pasquale Torregiani (1842-1870), a twenty-year-old who led a revolt against military conscription in the nineteenth century until he died at the hands of the authorities in March 1870. 
    Nenti e’ la vita, puru di cent’anni
    quannu c’un omu nun lassa ‘na storia
    e nenti e’ la figura d’unu granni
    quannu a la morti non passa a la gloria
    di chiddu chi cuntavanu li nanni
    rinnova a cui la senti la mimoria
    doppu di tantu tempu ormai luntanu
    la storia d’un banditu, Turricianu.
    Life is not worth anything if you are a hundred years old
    and don’t leave a mark on history
    a great man is not worth a thing
    after death and achieves no glory
    if he leaves behind no stories for the elders to tell
    For those who hear this story it will renew the memory
    after so much time
    the story of the brigand Turricianu.
    Completed in 1974, Ancona’s narrative verse was an indictment of the historic exploitation of the Sicilian peasantry and an expression of hope for a different and just society. With these poems, Ancona offered a diasporic voice critiquing the economic and political conditions that were the basis for his own emigration.
    Blood Washes Blood is a brilliant account of journalist Frank Viviano’s attempt to solve the 19th century murder of his great-great grandfather, a legendary bandit nicknamed “The Monk” who traveled the Sicilian countryside around Terrasini (Palermo province). The Monk’s betrayal by powerful elites in a system of favoreggiamento (favoring bandits and mafiosi) and manuengolismo (using bandits and mafiosi to achieve one’s goals) is a story similar to the one told by Francesco Rosi in his 1962 film Salvatore Giuliano. (Jane and Peter Schnedier write about this system of pwer in their excellant book Reversible Destiny.)
    In 1991, rappers Lupo (Giuseppe Paterniti) and Vulcano (Raffaele Riberti) joined forces with DJ Nicita in the city of Messina. Rapping in Sicilian and Italian about social issues such as the disparity between North and South and the hard drug trade, the group thrived in the early days of rap italiano. The name they chose for the groups wasI Nuovi Briganti, the New Brigands. Twelve years later, the folk-combat band Legittimo Brigantaggio (Legitimate Brigandage) from Lazio has taken on the mantel of the armed  southern Italian peasantry in the ever rescripting of the concepts "Italy" and "Italians."

  • Life & People

    The Garden of Earthly Delights in Fresno


    I attended the Vernacular Architecture Forum’s conference in Fresno early this month, in part, to visit one of the great folk environments, the “Forestiere Underground Gardens.” Listed as a California Registered Historical Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places, the privately owned site is an underground labyrinth of chambers carved from the San Joaquin Valley hardpan by Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere (1879-1946).
    The arched passage ways, vaulted ceilings, and open skylights are part of a truly hybridic Italian/American site crafted from childhood memories of grottos and caverns from the Sicilian countryside and with the excavation skills honed digging Boston’s subway tunnels and as a “sandhog” working New York’s Holland Tunnel and Croton Aqueduct for five years after arriving in the States in 1901. Forestiere’s horticultural expertise also conjoined the training received among his father’s Sicilian olive and citrus groves in Filari (Rometta township, Messina province), and as a hired hand working as a grafter for valley farmers. 
    Forestiere arrived in California around 1906 and purchased seventy acres in Fresno intended for citrus only to discover the land was unsuitable for planting due to twenty-five feet of impermeable sedimentary soil. With the searing valley heat – summers could top 105 degrees – Forestiere barrowed underground to find relief. Over the course of forty years, Forestiere used only a pick, a shovel, and a wheel barrow to carve almost one hundred chambers over ten acres, digging as far down as twenty-five feet. There he grew a variety of grapevines and fruit trees – grapefruit, lemon, orange, pomegranate, quince – in oversized, handcrafted planters below opened skylights. Forestiere’s subterranean retreat is a marvel of architectural engineering and horticultural ingenuity. 
    Narratives, often mythical and contradictory, spring up around a number of historical folk environments like Sabato “Simon” Rodia’s Watts Towers. Vernacular architecture scholar Dell Upton notes,
    Once introduced into the landscape, the identity of a building and the intentions of the makers are dissolved within confusing patterns of human perception, imagination, and use. Consequently, the meaning of a building is determined primarily by its viewers and users. This process of creation goes on long after the crew leaves the site; it never stops. Every structure contains several different buildings as imagined by different segments of its public.
    It is this multivocality that often enlivens and enriches a particular site. Was it an unrequited love that spurred Forestiere to dig ever deeper as some stories claim? Was Forestiere a recluse, living “far removed from the Italian community” of Fresno, as literary scholar Kenneth Scambray writes, and embarrassment to some of his family? Baldassare’s great-niece Lorraine Forestiere, who led our tour of the troglodytic abode, is quoted as saying, “He was not a recluse. He drove a car and took flying lessons so he could commute to his orchids in Coalinga. He even invited visitors to tour his gardens on Sundays from May through September.” But was he “forced to open his caves to the public to raise funds” when his mortgagees foreclosed in 1931, according to one online post? These competing discourses perpetuate the site lingering mystery of “Why?”
    Other stories are unspoken, at least in front of out-of-town guests. The unmarried Baldassare left no will when he died in 1946. According to the Los Angles Times, the property became a “contentious legacy” for two generations of Forestiere family members. The family “feud is famous in Fresno,” ending up in the California Supreme Court. Fresno city leaders are eager to resolved outstanding familial tensions so as to develop the Underground Gardens as a major city tourist attraction.
    My brief sojourn to this garden of earthly delights in Frenso was a much desired and joyous treat that I eagerly anticipated for some time. Now, this modest blog post contributes, in a minor way, to the polyphony of overlapping voices that constitute the site’s shifting meanings.