Alessandra Belloni: “When We Played This Music for People, It Wasn’t Only Healing for Us; It Was Healing for the Communities”

We sit down with Italian singer, teacher, ethnomusicologist, and percussionist Alessandra Belloni to discuss her experiences learning tambourine from the people of Southern Italy and the role in bringing the music associated with the Black Madonna to people all over the world.
Alessandra Belloni

What are some of your earliest musical memories?

The earliest memories of the music that I play now comes from my maternal grandparents in Rome, even though they came from outside of Rome. My grandfather played the tambourine, snare drum, and mandolin even though he was almost completely deaf. At that time, nobody asked any questions; they just knew he was a great musician. He and my grandmother sang a lot of folk songs from our region of Lazio. On Sundays throughout the year, my family would gather and play music together; my grandfather on mandolin or percussion, his brother on accordion, and my mother sang. I started out as a singer, but the truth is, at the time, me and my siblings were much more interested in rock and roll. Listening to folk music was more like something we had to do. I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy it, but we listened to Elvis Presley and The Beatles as much as we could.

I eventually came to New York to try to be an artist as a singer and actress, but then I found out this music was being revived by a famous group in Naples. I really fell in love with the music even though I was starting to be cast in films and stage productions, especially the drumming. It became my obsession. This was my early 20s, and it felt like my life was coming full circle back to my childhood. I started making trips to Italy, doing research, and spending time with some incredible folk musicians in 1979 and 1980. That’s when I decided to dedicate myself to mastering the tambourine.

Was there a specific moment where you decided to dedicate your life to percussion, or was it more of a gradual transition?

It was a specific moment when I went back to Rome in 1977 and was part of a group of all women that was playing this music. It was a really special experience for me. Then in 1978, I went to Florence to watch a rehearsal with my guitarist John La Barbera with his group Pupi e Fresedde. Their percussionist, Alfio Antico, was unbelievable. He was a shepherd from Sicily then and was not known, but is now very famous in Italy and Europe. The way he played that big tambourine caused me to make the decision to become a percussionist. It was December 1978. I was young and doing so many other things, but that really went into my heart and felt right. It’s funny; I didn’t connect it with my grandfather at first. I think it was two years later, when I went back to Rome and told my family I was starting to play this music, that everyone looked at me and told me that I was doing just what my grandfather did. It was amazing. Maybe there is such a thing that the love of music can be passed down through your blood because that music struck me and became my obsession.

I was going back and forth between Italy and New York in the late 1970s. In 1977-1978, I was exposed to the revival of folk music. It was in 1979, after I met John La Barbera in New York, that in our early 20s, we just took a chance. Even today, lots of people don’t know about the folk music of Southern Italy, but since that revival, people are much more aware. At the time, nobody knew what we were talking about. For me, the only way to learn this instrument was to go and be with the masters. It looks like a simple instrument, but the technique is challenging. I think I was able to pick it up rather quickly because of my heritage.

Alessandra Belloni John La Barbera
Alessandra Belloni and John La Barbera.

Was there a lot of folk music in Italy in New York at this time?

No, there was nothing. John is a classical musician, so he was the first to score some of these folk songs. He was studying the music in Florence and Siena, and at some point, he met this group called Pupi e Fresedde, collaborating with Bread and Puppet Theater in New York. It was so good it caused him to hang up the classical guitar for a bit. They did everything by ear, so his work in transcribing their music was essential for people that weren’t able to travel over there.

Once we became a group officially and became a non-profit organisation, we were able to get funding for our research. Alan Lomax, the famous ethnomusicologist who first went to Italy to record their folk music in the 1950s, had a daughter who lived in New York. She knew people from some of these regions who lived in New Jersey and Queens, and so we were introduced to a few “authentic” musicians who played the music of Southern Italy. She connected us, and we did some events together. There was, however, a big difference between what we did and what they did. These people were peasants who had emigrated, and when they sang, it was very rustic. Most of the time, they didn’t play or sing in tune. In Italy, the people who played this music had a much higher standard of musicianship. There was a moment of dispute between us because some people thought to be “authentic”, we had to sing and play like the people who were singing and playing out of tune, which is absolutely not true. Just look at the United States.

People who play folk music don’t play out of tune; they sound fantastic! We even had a dispute with Alan Lomax because he kept saying that the way we moved wasn’t authentic. What are you talking about? I’m a real Italian; I know how to move! Then he would tell John La Barbara that he needed to take off the frets from his ten-string chitarra battente (strumming guitar) from Calabria. Unfortunately, we would have received more help from them if we had been content to stay more amateurish, which we didn’t, obviously. That collaboration didn’t last very long. I felt that it was a situation where the music was being manipulated by anthropologists and ethnomusicologists.

Don’t get me wrong, the people who do the research are very important. But there is quite a difference between those who go into a new setting and take notes and recordings and those who go in and become an active participant — totally different experience. I’ve become known worldwide because I do both. I am a scholar because I do research in different parts of the world, but I am also a practitioner. How can you speak about being induced into a trance with a tambourine if you’ve never experienced it? I love ethnomusicologists, but I respect their work more if I know that they themselves have experienced the transformative power of the music they write about.

Can you talk a little bit about what types of music you use the tambourine to play and why it is such a big part of your life’s work? How do you use different types of tambourines for different types of music?

All tambourines fit under the larger umbrella of frame drums. If it doesn’t have the jingles on it, it’s just called a frame drum, and adding the jingles makes it a tambourine. In our tradition, the big frame drum is called the tammborra (the Italian word for frame drum), and it’s used for the tammurriata (dance). Then there is the tamburello which can be anywhere from 12 to 16 inches — it’s lighter and has one or two rows of jingles. These are the two drums most often used in our tradition. They are all part of a family of ancient frame drums that were used for traditional rituals in pre-Christian times. We still use these instruments today for ceremonies.

Are the different types of frame drums used in specific types of ceremonies?

The one without the jingle isn’t used as much for ceremonial purposes. The ceremonies where we play the Tammurriata for the Black Madonna produce an altered state of mind, but it’s not a trance. The muted sound is more grounding and doesn’t necessarily affect people in the same way. These are fun and used in parties; people might have a spiritual experience with these drums but probably not a religious one. The jingle sound that comes from the tamburello is used in the pizzica dance because it has to be played really fast. The smaller the drum, the faster you go, and that is what produces the trance. I know in other parts of the world, frame drums without jingles are used to induce religious states of mind, but there is something about the higher-pitched sound of the jingles that is very powerful.

Can you describe the way that the tamburello affects people? How has it been used, in your experience, as a tool for healing or spiritual awakening?

It is not easy to put into words. It is music and dance therapy from the ancient times, but modern academics don’t officially recognise it since you have to obtain a license to practice music therapy. The tarantella is a fast, obsessive 6/8 or sometimes 12/8 rhythm with specific accents. It has the power if done correctly, to allow a person who is dancing to release certain things that may be in their subconscious. They will start to spin and feel the accents strongly enough until they fall to the ground and really let go completely. This sequence naturally happens to people who surrender to the accents and the rhythm; it’s not choreographed. With the accents in the rhythm, I can guide the person in a trance.

I can see and feel if a person is entering the trance state, and when they’re not, I can see it too. Sometimes people resist. Most of the time, when people come to the workshops, and they enter the trance, they are able to release trauma that is in their subconscious, especially sexual abuse and extreme grief that causes them to be blocked. The name tarantella comes from the association with madness from a tarantula bite, and the dance allows for people to release themselves from the “spider’s web”. In the beginning, it really wasn’t pleasant because I could feel their pain so strongly. In my experience, people will express the pain from different parts of their body. Throughout the movement of the dance, people are able to unlock something from deep within. I don’t think there is a scientific explanation as to why this works, but it does. All they can say is that it’s music and dance that causes people to experience a trance-like state. A lot of people throw around this word these days, but the tambourine was a shamanic instrument. Since ancient times, people have used it and other drums to induce altered states of mind.

Could you tell us how you became interested in researching the Black Madonna and how you came to write your book Healing Journeys with the Black Madonna?

When I started this research back in the early 1980s, I didn’t know much about the Black Madonna, but I would see her in all these churches in Southern Italy. The people played for her, especially the big frame drum. When I started asking about her importance and why she was black, the priests would say it was just the smoke from the candles or something like that, which is obviously not right. I felt the calling, though. Why were they drumming and dancing for her? Why were people making vows to her? The research I did went far back into history. It turns out the Black Madonna represents the ancient Earth Mother goddess in different forms. The ancient goddesses Diana or Artemis and Venus or Aphrodite, and the main one that captures the essence of the mother of Christ is Isis from Egypt. Most of these depictions are thought to come from Egypt, Ethiopia, and other parts of Africa. She represents the darkness we come from (the womb) and the African Mother we come from. That’s a very important part of my work today. We worship black sacred images, and they are everywhere. People in this country are not as aware of that, even though they are still recognized in the European Catholic tradition. She is not easy to explain, so that’s why I wrote such a big book.

It’s also part of our ancient creation myth that a black meteorite fell from the stars in Anatolia and Turkey and that black stone became a goddess who was later carved into a goddess in Rome. She also represents the darkness of the cosmos that we come from, so it’s a little complex, but it’s beautiful. I think right now, people are becoming more aware of her because of the time we are in. In the Middle Ages, people prayed to the Black Madonna to heal them from disease and to ward off the plague, and they pray to her now for deliverance from sickness. She’s also emerging because of the high level of tension with racism that we have seen in recent years. I’m hoping my book can help people to have a dialogue about where we all come from and how we have a shared past.

Alessandra Belloni Black Madonna

Can you tell us a little bit about the virtual Voyage of the Black Madonna?

I started to lead a pilgrimage to seven sacred sites of the Black Madonna back in 2013. The story goes that there were seven sisters, and one was the ugliest, so she ran away to hide on a sacred mountain. Then, when they found her, they saw that she was black and the most beautiful of all, so they called her Mamma Schiavona, the Nurturing Mother. There is a description there that says, “I am black, and I am beautiful”, which is very ancient and taken from the Song of Solomon. I thought the pilgrimage would eventually become a book and even possibly a film. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I took VHS footage from Southern Italy of all of this. I combined this footage with what I have from the last six or seven years to create something new. Obviously, because of the pandemic, I wasn’t able to lead the tour anymore, so I felt really compelled to create this film. I spent a year going through the footage with an editor and produced eight episodes, one for each Black Madonna going from Naples down through Calabria and Sicily. Each episode has the history through my narration and the live processions and rituals. Nowhere else in the world has these types of practices, so I thought it very important to preserve them in this way. It’s amazing because these musicians can play in the heat without stopping for twelve hours. What makes this ritual different is that it is done for devotional purposes, to the Black Madonna, and not just to induce a trance. It is so beautiful.

Do you have one or two experiences with this music that were outstanding in their transformative power that you would be willing to share?

Yes, there have been many, but I can talk about one or two. The pizzica, which means tarantula bite, is a dance that was supposed to cure people of the poison. When I was learning this music at first, I thought I was good, but I wasn’t really that good. In 1984, I tried to be in a ritual, but I was kicked out after about 10 minutes. It was an all-men’s group, even though it was traditionally an all-women’s practice in the past. They all looked at me and asked me to leave. When I eventually went back, six or so years later, I was finally accepted. I had practised and became obsessed with the music. You can even hear the guys in the old videos I took saying in their dialect, “Who the hell are you?” What was interesting is that everyone knew it used to be a women’s tradition, but none of the women did it anymore. In 1995 or 1996, I was invited to a ritual that went from 10 pm to 6 am nonstop. This is why the film is so important. It was here that I met an old woman who used the tarantella to heal people. Her name was Stella, and she was 92 years old at the time. She showed me how she played for the cure. She showed me these specific accents that she said would help women release their pain which was actually different from what I had learned so far. This was one of the most important moments of my life. I had been healed by the power of the tarantella a decade earlier, but I didn’t know how to bring this same healing power to others until I met this woman. This is when I started my workshops and began my work as a healer through music.

Other powerful experiences occurred in Calabria. I learned different rhythms of the tarantella with my main teacher, Vittorio de Paola, and we would go into some very remote areas. I’m telling you, it’s like you stepped back in time. When we played this music for people, it wasn’t only healing for us; it was healing for the communities. Hundreds of people would come together and release their problems and troubles. They asked for miracles and received them in certain instances, and that was amazing. These were just a few instances of the transformative moments related to the drumming. There are also many moments related to the dancing. That will have to wait for another interview.

Do you have any advice for younger percussionists who want to pursue a less traditional career path such as yours?

Well, things have changed quite a bit since I started. People are now very curious about music from all over the world and especially percussion from different regions. Even since I signed with Remo 20 years ago, frame drums have become very important. Don’t think you can’t make it because it’s way more commercial than when I started. People are more aware of bringing back ancient traditions. My advice is this: if you are drawn to ethnic percussion or world percussion, do both. Travel to the source. You cannot learn about it if you are not immersed in the location with the folk masters. Doesn’t matter where, you must respect and learn from the people of the land.

At the same time, if you want to make a career and can’t travel or are just getting started, find a university department with a strong faculty. I can say that NYU here in New York and CalArts both have wonderful departments and would be great to attend. These are just the first that come to mind, but there are certainly others. But really, it is best to find a group of teachers that can teach you from the land and from the source. It’s even better if they can read sheet music and help you to understand what is happening from a base of knowledge you already have, rather than just diving in blindly. If you can go somewhere where singing, drumming, and dancing all happen together, that’s the best-case scenario. For people that study with me, I have a method. The people in Italy don’t always have a method, so it can take a really long time to learn. With a method, there are steps and a sequence that can help students learn properly, especially if you are from the States and were classically trained. If I had the time, I would study all the different forms of percussion all over the world. Sadly, I don’t! In the end, I would say mastering one instrument would be enough. If you really want to make it, focus your energy and become an expert. It will take a lot of practice, but it is very satisfying.

Leave a Reply