Who is Alessandra Belloni? A singer? A musician? A dancer? A writer? Master Federico Fellini’s muse? A leading feminist of the beat generation in 1970s New York? A healer? A shaman? All that and so much more. Getting to know Alessandra is like exploring one of those caves along the sea that continues to open and expand underground, causing you to lose the sense of where you are. Getting to know her is like venturing into the secrets of Mother Earth’s healing womb. Interviewing her, it is already a form of healing. Let’s allow Alessandra to guide us through this special ‘poetic interview’ to understand more about her, the healing power of her art and the mystical inspiration behind her brand-new book+CD ‘Healing Journeys with the Black Madonna: Chants, Music, and Sacred Practices of the Great Goddess’.
The burning Mediterranean sun irradiates a late summer day. The sea whirrs far away behind some monumental white rocks, cliffs, so far away that sounds just like a lulling dream, that wakes you up but in which you want to dive eternally. A woman’s voice, so crystalline but deep, malicious but innocent, insinuates, digs in and nestles in the deepest regions of your auditory perception, and beyond any human perception. Your heart races as if it is attuning to a new frequency, a new more vast and impeding breath.
Hastens, hastens, hastens, your heart, and guides every single one of your further steps, faster, you walk and you feel like you are already running, you run and you feel like you are already dancing. A drum’s sound weaves together with that sinuous voice, it marks your rhythm while you proceed down on this cliff of white stones stained by black volcanic ash erupted from some original sin.
It is down there, where the cliff bends into bumps and opens up into caves, that suddenly a vision, generously, opens up to your eyes, a vision of a woman, of a goddess? Her long black hair scattered to the wind like sails spread over her white dress, her hands voluptuous over the surface of that drum, around her disheveled dancers and women enraptured in mysterious hysteria follow her voice and the sound of that hammering drum like a mantra. Immobile in the mobile scenario, a statue of a Black Madonna stands out, enthroned against the white rocks, emblazoned with a benevolent, fiery and suffered expression in her eyes. And you know that you entered that reign to exit it somehow transformed, somehow saved.
These were the images, the sensations, the visions that overwhelmed me when I first saw Alessandra Belloni perform in concert. But I didn’t find myself listening to her in some quaint little seaside town in southern Italy, but rather in New York at NYU’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò. The artist was in concert with the group she founded—I Giullari di Piazza—and with an extraordinary Native American trio, The Silver Clouds.
It was a trip through the sounds of the southern world, from Taranta and Southern Italy’s Pizzica to Native American sounds, which share many similarities.
On the occasion of the publication of Belloni’s brand-new book+CD Healing Journeys with the Black Madonna: Chants, Music, and Sacred Practices of the Great Goddess, which it will be out this March, 19th, I got the chance to interview Alessandra and fall in love not just with her formidable voice and percussionist virtuosity, but also with her inspirational healer’s mission.
I always like to begin my “poetic interviews” by remembering that the term “poetry” derives from Ancient Greek and it literally means “to do,” “to produce,” and “to create.” Therefore, I would like to ask you, what exactly do you do? What do you produce, and what do you create in your life?
The first thing that comes to mind is obviously music. Above all, in the last few years, the things that I create are always linked to traditional songs that I research and from which I make my arrangements. I do this with my voice and through my hands as a drummer. I’ve been doing it for 25 years now. I also express myself through writing because I’ve always written my shows ever since I founded I Giullari di Piazza. I never thought of only creating music though; what I do is also theatrical. I tell a story through rhythm, dance, and narrative.
Tell me about your beginnings and how you came across music.
I’m originally from Rome. My maternal grandfather wasn’t a professional musician, but he was able to play the tambourine, the mandolin, and the bass drum extremely well by ear despite the fact that he was deaf. I never learned anything from him though because he was gone by the time that I was ten years old. My grandmother loved to sing the Saltarellos and Tarantellas from Lazio, but at the time, I didn’t want to listen to that music. I just wanted to listen to rock. I later discovered that I had that music in my blood. That’s actually how my grandparents met; my grandmother was singing, and my grandfather was playing the mandolin.
How did you begin your career?
I began doing theater in Rome. I was immediately chosen by Anna Magnani for La Lupa. However, my father was a controlling, old school, patriarchal type of man, and he didn’t let me do it, so I had to stay home. It was then when I realized that if I wanted to be an artist, I was going to have to leave Italy. I wouldn’t have been allowed to do it as a woman in Italy.
Tell me about that particular moment in history and about your move to New York.
I’m from the ‘68 generation that tried to change the course of history. As a young girl, I was going to demonstrations and rallies. Given that my father was so strict, he never let me do movies or theater. My sister, Gabriella, had already run off before me, and she came to New York. She worked for RAI (the national public broadcasting company of Italy). A year later, my mother brought me here in NY, and I stayed. During that time, I began to study theater, the art of miming, and the Commedia dell’Arte. Upon my return to Italy, I rediscovered the beautiful music of the people of southern Italy that I had snubbed as a girl, and I fell in love with it. Thanks in particular to Roberto De Simone’s Compagnia di Canto Popolare.
During that time I also met John Labarbera, a guitarist of Sicilian origin, and together we began I Giullari di Piazza. We were young and in love. I realized that I loved my grandparents’ music, and this sort of shocked everyone because they thought that I went to America to be a Rock Star.
And then came your great encounter with Federico Fellini…
The meeting happened thanks to my mother, Elvira, who decided to become an actress at 58 years old. She wanted to do it ever since she was young. She was very beautiful, but my father never let her do it. When my parents separated, my mother began her acting career. She met Fellini before me while I was doing theater. I was also in a film in America–Paul Mazursky’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village. She showed one of my photos to Fellini, and he immediately wanted me for Zemini, the Turkish princess in Casanova. It was an incredible experience. He hypnotized me with his eyes. It was such a beautiful sensation. He watched me a lot. He once told me, with the great actress Giulietta Masina at his side, ‘you should follow my advice. You’re a serious person. You’re a good actress, and you’re very beautiful. Here in Italy, aside from me, people will ask you to go to bed with them if you want to further your career. I can see that you’re not like that. You need to go back to America. If I knew how to speak English, I would have moved there already!’
You had only abandoned Italy in a physical sense because then you began a very important musical and ethnographic research project on southern Italy, right?
With Barbera, we knew we had to go back to Italy to do field research. We were in New York, and we were artists in residence at NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò. We were the first company to inaugurate the space in 1999. We had access to the very well-stocked library. That’s how I discovered the various ritual tarantellas–some Lucanian, some Sicilian, and some Calabrese. Every region has its own traditions and its own songs.
It fascinated me that these customs were carried out in natural, remote locations–in these magical places where I began to hear how the Earth is really alive and how closely it’s linked to dance, to songs, and to the rhythm of drums. I then began to see Black Madonnas all over and the people who were devoted to her. It was there that this love for that culture born. I felt better, and my energy changed completely.
Tell us more about your encounter with the Black Madonna icon and what she means for you.
By studying Pizzica and Taranta in Apulia, and by doing it in theater, I felt this incredible energy that put me into a trance–I was becoming “tarantata.” In the beginning, I didn’t realize why it was happening to me considering that I wasn’t born in Apulia. In 1986 I became ill; I had dysplasia, uterine cancer. It was such an intense experience…I woke up from the anesthesia, and the first thing I saw was the Black Madonna above me. She told me that I should follow her and that I should feel the pain of others. This is how my work “Voyages of the Black Madonna” was born. Then, I fell ill again, and instead of undergoing surgery, I cured myself through dance–Pizzica and Taranta. I knew that it had not only an entertainment value but also a therapeutic one. Being on stage healed me. It all just went away. This became a mission. I knew that I should also help cure other women.
Let’s take a step back. Can you explain to us what Taranta is and what its therapeutic effect is?
It was born from the myth of the spider woman, an archetype created by mankind, that brings us into our subconscious. The virgin was turned into a spider and became stuck in the spiderweb, but she also bites from inside the web. Along with this myth, there’s also the Dionysian tradition of Bacchanalia, of orgiastic dances lead by women, and this is the true origin of Taranta. It had been changed over the centuries, until its pre-Christian ritual form, where women were already aware of their power. They were shamans who transformed energy; they used the drum and its obsessive rhythm of six octaves to alter the mind. This is a trance dance. That same six-octave rhythm is more than just Italian–it’s also African, Cuban, Brazilian, and Moroccan. This rhythm was born in Africa, and it has the power to free us from certain mental blocks. For example, for those who are victims of abuse, their minds remain stuck in the spiderweb, but the body knows how to free itself from this trauma if you let your mind go. I have many testimonials from people who changed their lives thanks to this. We could really use this type of cure today for women who suffer from depression and sexual assault, even for men, as well as gay and transgender individuals. There’s something in the rhythm, in the expression of dance, that takes away the poison and cuts the spiderweb.
Today you’re also a healer and a shaman. You circle the globe with your workshops entitled “Rhythm is the Cure-Healing Dance & Drum.”
Yes, this is what I really love doing at this moment in time. Healing and trance dancing. At first, I didn’t believe that I had this shamanic power. It was a gift that was given to me after I saw the Black Madonna. It took me years to accept it.
Your path of healing has the female figure at the center of your research. How would you explain all of the clamor and the media’s uproar regarding the #MeToo movement?
I believe that we all come from Mother Africa. At this point in history though, racism has increased, and there’s a lot of prejudice towards women because the society in power today is predominantly white, anglo saxon, and patriarchal. The Black Madonna represents the womb of mother earth, of where we come from, and also of Mother Africa. The Earth was quickly destroyed by human beings, and the ecological situation is declining even more quickly than originally thought. There’s not much time left.
This is one of the central themes of your new book that in presale alone, it reached first place on Amazon USA.
Yes. I’ve always had catastrophic prophetic dreams, and my book begins just like that: with a prophetic dream, with the voice of the Earth asking me for help. The Earth is a living, thinking being, and the same thing is happening to women. When the Earth’s womb is destroyed, the mother’s womb is also being destroyed. This awakening is automatic in women. There’s the return of the Divine Feminine, which was historically known in the south of Italy. It’s a Greek archetype that maintains harmony and equilibrium on Earth. Perhaps this is salvation. This motivated me to write a book that calls upon my research and my experiences in order to better understand the conscience of people long ago so that we can make use of it today.
To learn more about Alessandra Belloni please visit her website at the link here >>>