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Works

The Sicily-New Orleans Connection: Jazz is the Art of Encounter par Excellence

Sicilian saxophonist Francesco Cafiso talks about Sicilian immigration to New Orleans, his experiences in the Crescent City, and jazz as democracy

Bettye Lavette's "Things Have Changed"

Bettye Lavette's new album offers supremely soulful renditions of 12 Bob Dylan songs.

Ry Cooder's "The Prodigal Son"

On The Prodigal Son, Ry Cooder's first album in six years, the guitarist, singer, and songwriter leaves behind the pointed political commentary that defined a series of albums beginning with Chavez Ravine (2005) and continuing with My Name Is Buddy (2007), I, Flathead (2008), Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (2011), and culminating in Election Special, his intervention in the 2012 Obama—Romney race. Although politics aren't entirely absent, the new record favors songs of comfort and consolation, many of them with religious themes.

Camp, Satire, and Serious Artistry in Carnival Krewsing

Unveiling the Muse: The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans, documents a heretofore obscure but significant piece of Crescent City culture. Howard Philips Smith, who began writing about New Orleans gay life in the '80s, brings a journalist's attention to detail and a social historian's focus on lived experience to his account of "gay Carnival", from the '50s to the present. 

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

October, by the British author China Miéville, is a gripping account of the Russian Revolution that offers the pleasures and rewards of a great novel. The book has vividly drawn characters, high drama, suspense, and an irresistible narrative momentum that sweeps the reader along from the first page to the tragic – but not inevitable – conclusion.

The World of Captain Beefheart

Guitarist and bandleader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart, one of rock's originals in this interview I did for Popmatters

The Poetics of Displacement

Professor and poet Michelle Messina Reale documents the lives of refugees in Sicily by turning their words into verse. Her aim is to create awareness of the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time. "I use poetry because it's evocative, it's humanistic, and it can be read and understood by everyone," she says.

The Original Blues

Contrary to popular belief, the blues were not born on the Mississippi Delta. Historians Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff debunk myths about the origins of blues music, locating them not in the Delta but in southern black vaudeville.

Serpico, Part II

Antonino D'Ambrosio's documentary "Frank Serpico" reveals the man behind the myth more than 40 years after the maverick cop exposed massive corruption in the NYPD -- and was immortalized in Sidney Lumet's 1973 biopic.

Face Forward and Forgetting

Rabih Alameddine's novels are richly imagined works that through the enchantment of storytelling, give form and meaning to lives fragmented by violence, displacement, and disease. The Angel of History, the sixth novel by the Lebanese-American author, explores modern culture’s refusal to remember the catastrophes of history.

From the Brooklyn Docks to the State Supreme Court: Recalling Frank Barbaro's Radical Life

Frank Barbaro, a working-class champion whose long life spanned the Brooklyn docks, the New York State Assembly, and the State Supreme Court, died September 2016. Barbaro was the last link to the tradition of working-class radicalism exemplified by his hero, Vito Marcantonio, the US Congressman from East Harlem. Born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents from Sicily and Calabria, he maintained a lifelong commitment to fighting on behalf of working people, tenants, and the poor, as well as for women’s and gay rights.

Fire and Blood: The European Civil War, 1914-1945

An Epoch of Annihilation Whose Consequences Still Reverberate

Marco Tullio Giordana's The Hundred Steps: The Biopic as Political Cinema

During the 1980s, the political engagement that fuelled much of Italy's postwar realist cinema nearly vanished, a casualty of both the domin ance of television and the decline of the political Left. But as the twentieth century drew to a close, the director Marco Tullio Giordana made "I Cento Passi" (The 100 Steps), a biopic about Giuseppe 'Peppino' Impastato, a leftist murdered in Sicily in 1978 by the Mafia.

Gay Jamaican’s Epic Tale of Violence & Sex in His Homeland

When Marlon James won Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for fiction in October, it came as a surprise to many — including the 44-year-old, out gay Jamaican author. James won for A Brief History of Seven Killings, a long, violent, sexually explicit, and altogether brilliant novel that takes off from the 1976 attempted assassination of reggae icon Bob Marley to encompass the CIA-backed destabilization of Jamaica during the latter years of the Cold War; political warfare in the ghettos of Kingston, the island’s capital; the crack cocaine scourge of the ‘80s and early ‘90s; and sexuality — and particularly homosexuality.

What is Carlo Ditta Talkin' About?

When it comes to New Orleans music, Carlo Ditta might not be a household name. But the 59-year-old producer, songwriter, and guitarist has been a vital figure on the Crescent City scene for decades.

Addio, Cosimo

Cosimo Matassa, who died September 11, 2014 at 88, was a son of Sicilian immigrants to New Orleans who settled in a working-class, multiethnic French Quarter neighborhood. Matassa became a pivotal figure in American vernacular music through his role in creating “the New Orleans sound” in his recording studios. According to music historian Jeff Hannusch, “Virtually every rhythm and blues record made in New Orleans between the late 1940s and early 1970s was engineered by Cosimo Matassa, and recorded in one of his four studios.”

Piano Professors of New Orleans: 12 Essential Performances

From PopMatters, my roundup of classic jams by great New Orleans pianists, the innovators and those keeping the tradition alive

Pane, Vino, e Finocchio: In (Gay) Sicilia

Personal essay from VIA (Voices in Italian Americana), Purdue University about my first trip to Sicily

“A Burning Hatred for the Ruling Class”: Frank Barbaro’s Radical Life, from the (Brooklyn) Docks to the (New York) Supreme Court

Frank Barbaro, born in 1927 in Brooklyn, New York to Italian immigrants, is one of the last living links to a milieu that has been called “the lost world of Italian American radicalism.” An organizer on the mob-infested Brooklyn docks, Barbaro became an attorney and then ran for political office. He represented his Brooklyn district in the New York State Assembly for 26 years, where he chaired the Committee on Labor. After leaving the legislature, he was elected to the New York State Supreme Court, serving until he reached the age of seventy-five. Barbaro, though largely retired, occasionally practices law, taking cases that have political import.

Rocking Chair Blues

For 12 consecutive weeks PopMatters ran my track-by-track analysis of Howlin' Wolf's Rocking Chair album, one of the most influential recordings in the history of the blues and an ur-text for many rock artists -- The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, The White Stripes, Lucinda Williams, and many more.

Bread, Wine, and Soul

In 1995,I interviewed the great saxophonist Joe Lovano for the journal Voices in Italian Americana (VIA)about his career in jazz, and how his Sicilian background has influenced his music.

Mafia Movies encourages mafia aficionados to explore the rich variety of classics and rarities within the genre with provocative analyses of over forty films. The essays in this volume provide a comprehensive exploration of the myth of the mafia onscreen, identifying key features and connections to styles such as film noir, thrillers, and even westerns. Mafia Movies also questions whether there are uniquely American or Italian ways of depicting the mafia, exploring how filmmakers from both countries have approached the subject in divergent ways.

Mediated Ethnicity, a new collection of critical essays, includes my "Identity Crises: Race, Sex, and Ethnicity in Italian American Cinema"

"This collection offers a fresh re-reading and re-imagining of Italian Americans in film, from actors to directors, from subject to agency. The trans-Atlantic discourse that emerges from these keenly insightful essays offers a guidepost for future analyses. As we come to understand the evolving paradigm of Italian Americans, whose cinematic representation has long been object of discussion and debate, Mediated Ethnicity constitutes a prismatic lens through which the contemporary viewer/reader may re-discover the cultural positioning of Italians in America." - John Tintori Associate Arts Professor and Chair, Graduate Film Program New York University Tisch School of the Arts

"A Finook in the Crew"

"A Finook in the Crew: Vito Spatafore, The Sopranos, and the Queering of the Mafia Genre" looks at one of the most controversial and compelling Sopranos narratives -- that of the gay gangster Vito Spatafore. From The Essential Sopranos Reader" (University of Kentucky Presses)

An Offer We Can’t Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America

(Faber and Faber/Farrar, Straus, Giroux)

"For years, Italian antidefamation groups have denounced "The Sopranos," as well as such films as "The Godfather" and "GoodFellas," for reinforcing stereotypes ... De Stefano elevates this argument beyond a routine diatribe into a thoughtful, thorough analysis tracing the evolution of these vexing pop-culture icons, why their "dangerous allure" remains an enduring attraction, and how they impact perceptions about Italian-Americans."
--Boston Globe

A whip-smart meditation on the power of ethnic myth, in this instance the one that supposes that to be an Italian American is by definition to walk among the dons and the goombahs. The Mafia, some say, is fading away. But "if the mob indeed is dying, American popular culture tells a different story," writes cultural critic De Stefano. Thanks to The Sopranos, organized crime has been restored in the popular imagination to its proper role as heart and heart" of italianità. So culturally accurate is the show, De Stefano allows, that it may not be possible to correct that perception; even as the mobsters surrounding Tony Soprano take their cultural cues from earlier Mob classics—particularly The Godfather, the touchstone of it all--there are few pop-culture pieces that do not echo The Sopranos, few that depict Italian Americans as being, well, just plain folks without conniving, murderous streaks to wrestle with. De Stefano writes elegantly of self discoveries: As a bearded radical (à la Al Pacino's Serpico, one imagines) just beginning to be aware of being gay, he was still thrilled by Don Corleone, only to wonder later whether there weren't more to the story. He examines the rise of the mobster in popular culture, tracing its origin to the 1930 film The Doorway to Hell (and not, as many histories do, to the following year's Little Caesar), and follows its course through the thick stereotypes of the Untouchables era, to the pensive doings of Martin Scorsese's rebel gangsters and, finally, to David Chase's current depictions, which have anti-defamation groups at a constant boil. Should they be so bothered? De Stefano is sympathetic, but he wonders whether an unlinking from the mob and all its symbolism might not mean "the end of the Italian American as a protagonist in American popular culture." What's worse, to be seen in a negative light--or to not be seen at all? A good question, and a very good source for those who like to scratch below the surface. Kirkus Reviews

“De Stefano knows the gangster genre inside out, making it a pleasure to follow his thoughts on favorites like ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Donnie Brasco,’ ‘Goodfellas’ and the ‘Godfather’ trilogy, as well as lesser-known films like ‘A Bronx Tale.’"
Marilyn Stasio -- New York Times Book Review

“…De Stefano takes a careful look at the appeal of the Mafia in popular culture: how the image of the Italian gangster developed and how it affects Italian-Americans. He traces the evolution of the gangster in film, from the "roguishly charming" Irish gangster (James Cagney in Public Enemy) to the sinister Italian who replaced him (Paul Muni in Scarface). Southern Italian immigrants, who came to the U.S. in unprecedented waves, were seen as "unassimilable... irreducibly foreign" (according to an 1883 New York Times editorial), and De Stefano presents their history and the history of the Mafia, debunking some commonly held ideas, especially the myth that the Mafia is rooted in a centuries-old Sicilian tradition. De Stefano meticulously documents books, TV and films, especially the Godfather series, the work of Martin Scorsese and The Sopranos. He cites Italian-American writers and academics on how the perception of Italians as mobsters affects the community and contributes his own responses. And despite his conclusion that the Mafia "is now the paradigmatic pop culture expression of Italian-American ethnicity," De Stefano allows that Italians have succeeded in mainstream America. The book lacks a narrative arc, but the author has done a fine job with a complex and provocative subject. -- Publishers Weekly

“Not a history of organized crime but a study of how we think about organized crime, more precisely about Italians and crime. . . Valuable and interesting.”
Elliott J. Gorn -- Chicago Tribune

"Finally, a book that helps to explain America’s enduring fascination with the mythology of the Mafia." -- John Turturro

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