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Brooklyn Bike Beat talks with Alessandra Belloni

BBB: Did you come from a family of musicians?

AB: Not directly, my grandparents played.

BBB: What was your first exposure to Italian Folk music?

AB: When I was a child my grandparents on my mothers side, every Sunday they had these family gatherings. My grandfather played the tambourine, the snare drum, and the mandolin and my Grandmother sang folk songs. We didn’t like going because we liked rock and roll…My grandfather’s brother played the accordian. They played the folk music of Lazzio, which is outside the city of Rome. It’s different from the music of the south but similar rhythms, the 6/8 rhythms.

When I left to come to NYC I was about sixteen, I wanted to be a musician and an actress but never thought I would study folk music at all. I was really into cabaret. I was searching for what I wanted. It didn’t occur to me until the late 70’s when I heard, in Italy, a group performing Italian dance and folk music. It really touched my heart and soul. I was studying pantomime, Commedia Dell'arte, music and theater. I didn’t know this was going to be my path until I saw this group and said, “Ah-ha that’s it!” I just fell in love with the sound and decided that was what I wanted to do. I also saw this Sicilian Shepard play the tambourine. He played in such a wild way. It really got to me. I had to do it. It didn’t occur to me that it was (the influence) of my grandparents until a year or two after I formed my group, I Giullari di Piazza (the Players of the Square). Then my family went wow, “Do you know what you’re doing? You’re playing your grandparents’ music!" They were shocked that I came back from New York to play tarantella.

You studied by actually participating in the ritual…

AB: I was going back to Italy every summer. (The research can be studied in “Rhythm is the Cure” published by Mel Bay)

I spent all summer going to the drumming rituals and folk festivals in the region of Campania outside of Naples, Puglia, Calabria, Sicily, Bitetto. By participating in these rituals, I learned from the older people.
We did a lot of library research too. The south of Italy is such a complex and interesting place because in Ancient times it was a part of Greece. So first it was the Greek culture embedded in there, then Arabic, then French, and then the Normans… That’s what the music represents.

There was no school to teach you. Now within the last 5 years there are some schools that finally teach southern Italian folk music and some tambourine. When I started in 1980 no one would do that. My way to learn was to follow the people, who didn’t know how to teach, they often don’t speak classic Italian, they speak dialect, most of them are peasants, people who work in the field. They couldn’t figure out why we came all the way from the United States to learn this. But they were always very open, most of them, and happy to see us learn this tradition and bring it back to America. As you know, the Italian immigrants didn’t keep this tradition, Not at all.

BBB: Yes, no trace of it from my personal lineage…

AB: …It’s a real shame because our folk music and rhythms are just as beautiful as the Irish, and the African and it’s a complex tradition because of the layers of cultures that are embedded in it.

BBB: You talk about your connection to Yoruban culture… it’s my understanding that what the Southern Italian folk musicians were doing was concealing the pagan rituals within the Catholic Church…

AB: Yes, absolutely in the same way the African slaves of America did, plus there is a connection to Africa because the South of Italy is closer to Africa than to the rest of Europe. That 6/8 rhythm is the same African rhythm that we use as the Tarantella, it’s really the same, just different accents. So all these rhythms that I play are connected to the pagan pre-Christian culture that is so popular still in the South of Italy, that’s what’s so interesting about it. Christianity came and changed things around especially for rituals that had to do with women, they were not allowed to do this wild Tarantella. They found a way to keep and it’s still going on, if you go there now you’ll find lots of groups playing and dancing. What the Christian church did was build their Church on top of the ancient temples. The drumming that I love to do, as prayer, as devotional, is called Tammoriata from Naples. It’s done now in honor of the Madonna but really the Black Madonna, who was the ancient mother earth and different aspects …Artemis goddess of the moon, the goddess of Love Aphrodite, Pisces… All of those rituals were lead by women drumming. Now there are many men that play, but up until about 30 years ago it was mainly women.

BBB: I think of the Tarantella as having it’s own clave.
AB: (laughing) Yes! Totally!

BBB: Can you talk a little about that 6/8 rhythm?

AB: It’s a very obsessive 6/8. Sometimes it’s a 12/8, and the accents vary according to the songs. It was already know in ancient times, going back to the ancient Greek rights of Dionysus.
People used the tambourine to induce trance with 6/8, mainly for women who suffered from forms of depression caused by repression of sexual desires. The women were let loose and went completely crazy through the. The women were called Bacchus, Bacchante in Italian and later on in the South of Italy they were known as Tarantati because they were thought to have been bitten by the spider, the tarantula. It was the rhythm that had the power to drive the venom, the poison out of the body.

BBB: Is the story another layer to disguise the rituals?

AB: Yes, it is. Absolutely, a big disguise! I’ve dedicated a lot of my life to this because I work with a lot of women from different parts of the world and I find these feelings of longing, repression/depression, being caught in the web… they’re not something of the past. It’s something we have today. I’m intrigued how the Southern Italian women found a way to get it out. They knew how to express this really erotic dance by becoming the spider, possessed by the spider. Of course, with the tambourine rhythm used to expel the poison out of the body. I’ve done a lot of research on this because I have a big show called, “Spider Dance” that I’m working on to present.
It goes back to the myth of Arachnid…Arachnid was a skilled weaver of the Ancient Greek land, a young virgin. Everyone thought she learned from the Goddess Athena to weave. She said no, she was proud and she challenged Athena to a weaving contest and Arachnid won. Athena destroyed her linen. Arachnid in humiliation hung herself from a tree, committed suicide. Athena transformed her into a spider condemning her to weave her web forever… WATCH THE LIVE INTERVIEW FOOTAGE FOR THIS BEAUTIFUL MOMENT IN THE INTERVIEW!

BBB: So many cultures have drumming rituals that exclude women, here we have one that is mainly women.
AB: Yes, and it survived for a long time until the late 1970’s. Now it’s different.

BBB: So the crossover has come the other direction?

AB: Because, the drumming is very physical. Many of the women drummers were peasants who worked in the fields. They built the tambourine with the strainers that they used to plant the seeds and then put on the goatskin. A lot of that has changed because the women don’t work so much in the fields. A lot if has to do with media, Media gives you an idea of what the female should look like and it’s not the peasant doing this hard work and drumming. So in Italy it’s an interesting thing, women left the drums. Not the men told them to leave, not at all. Now there is a revival it is coming back slowly. Even though I’m the only woman who keeps it at a professional level, made it my life. I designed my drums with Remo. Lots of women don’t have the stamina. It takes a lot of stamina to play, the rituals are three days and three nights. It’s a long time to play.

When I learned you had to play six or seven hours, you had to bleed and get calluses. It doesn’t look attractive for a women’s hand. I think that’s what happened in the south of Italy not that men told them not to play.

BBB: How are you received today by the Catholic Church in Italy?

AB: (Laughing) Whoops! Well, I don’t know, I go to the processions where there is the Black Modanna. Most people might think of me there as a Catholic. It’s very funny I’ve done a whole show about the Black Modanna connected to the Goddesses. So when I’m with them, what can I say…” That I know that that’s not really the mother of Christ, you’re lying. It’s not the Mother of Christ, she’s the Earth Goddess!” No, I don’t do that. I don’t go there and try to make a point with the people that are following this from that point of view. But my interest, because the Black Madonna has been such a strong part of my life, is to find support. St. John the divine they are open to my interpretations and they’ve given support for me to perform with my show about the Black Madonna, about the goddesses, and the earth. That’s been only on my terms.
When I go to Italy, I observe that procession as a faithful.
When there is a drumming ritual in front of the church… that’s totally pagan. The dance is sensual. The lyrics are all about sex. It’s different because the priests don’t even come outside.
The drumming ritual happens at night. You find this at churches all around Naples. The priests don’t even show up. When the feast dance ends, people usually walk into the church, pay homage to the Black Madonna, they chant in the church and then they get a Mass. None of us will go there, all the people that are celebrating take off. The ritual is done and it’s a pagan one. But it’s all mixed which is why it’s survived that long. In other places like Spain they have similar processions but they don’t have the ritual. In Greece, France they too have similar traditions but the church wiped out all the pagan parts so the South of Italy is really a jewel because it never died.

BBB: You have performed all over the world, can you share one of your most memorable experiences?

AB: As a percussionist, my most memorable and powerful, transformational experience was in Brazil, it’s a place that is really open. I was invited by Nana Vasconcellos to be a part of a festival in Bahia, Brazil. I didn’t know until I arrived, I was the only woman and soloist of the festival. It was directed by Gilberto Gil, an incredible artist. When I arrived I had this moment of panic, why did they invite me. I had just designed my signature series with Remo, but they had watched my videos and loved them, so they were very much in tune with me…
Two things that happened: One, They staged my entrance, gave me this choreography because I sing, dance and play… It was difficult because I had to walk a ladder to come down on stage. It was really crazy. Then, out of the blue while, Hermeto Pascal was performing, Gilberto Gil and Nana come to me and say, “ He wants you on stage with him!” It was really only two years that I had come out as a percussion soloist. I said, “No, no I can’t!” They said, ”Yes, yes you can!” and they gently pushed me on stage. There were TV cameras and I’m thinking, ”What am I going to play now! He just looked at me and implied, “do it”. I remember I did something that now I do all the time if I’m in that situation. I closed my eyes, really listened to my heart, because that’s the essence of drumming. And I listened to them with my heart. I thought, if I just listen to my heart something will happen! Then I started playing in twos, which I normally never do, like a samba. It just came automatically. I added something with a finger trill but I still kept my eyes closed… I didn’t want to open my eyes…Then when I opened my eyes, all of them turned to me, I was getting thumbs up, the whole audience, which was thousands, was cheering. It was an amazing experience… Normally if you’re on stage you’ve got to be precise, you have to be in time. This was a moment I had no clue whatsoever what was expected of me. Not rehearsed at all, Felling not capable to match the skills (of the performers around me) because they were way ahead of me in their careers. I just listened to my heart and closed my eyes to do it. I’ll never forget that. Then, I played my set, which was very special. By the time I did the dance of the spider on the floor, which is very erotic, I heard all these other sounds. The directors of the festival had joined me. They were above me improvising. That was something that changed my life. I started going back to Brazil, made a lot of friends, got known there…It was all about improvisation, go with your heart open and don’t think at all… Which is what I teach my students now. Don’t think! Listen to your heart! Because I went through it… Or else, I would have been frozen on stage and do nothing.

Interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Many Thanks, Alessandra, for your participation in this project.