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"Megghiu perdiri 'na figlia, ca tantu oru nun trovu cchiù"
The Life and Music of Rosa Balistreri

Nondas Kitsos investigates the life and music of Rosa Balistreri, the voice of Sicily

The Life

cd cover Rosa Balistreri was born in Sicily in 1927, not exactly the Belle Epoque on the island. This was a province, still in the grip of a feudal system of incomprehensible brutality that is hard to come to terms with. Her life has much more in common with the tales of Charles Dickens, the same sense of having no control whatsoever over your life, especially if you had the double bad luck of being born both poor and a woman.

Listen!
Listen!
In her sincere discussion with Giuseppe Cantavenere, published as a little book "Rosa Balistreri: Una grande cantante folk racconta la sua vita" (Rosa Balistreri: A great folk singer recalls her life) in Italian by La Luna Editions, one can find her life's story, a life that was full of sorrow, poverty, famine, inhumanity but also pride and singing. A life that revolved around a mother who was sharing the same stream of bad luck and need to survive, and men (father, brother, husband, lovers) of little courage, much drinking, little money, many debts, little humanity, many faults, little culture, much exploitation. A life where a job as a maid became tolerable if she was allowed to share the same dinner table with the host family.

"Megghiu perdiri 'na figlia, ca tantu oru nun trovu cchiù"
(Better lose a daughter than all this gold that you will never be able to find again) - from a traditional Sicilian song.
She broke out of this circle of violence and intolerance, when in the early Sixties things got so bad for her that she got on a train and fled to Florence. It was there that life first smiled at her, when she found herself, partly by luck and partly by sheer talent, hanging around with a circle of liberal friends who for the first time treated her as a human being and as an equal. Her battered self-esteem needed that break and she embraced her only chance with all her strength. Suddenly, her only escape from a dire life became her window to a better world, and her unique talent thrived in the environment of a much more prosperous Italian north, where the feudal system was far less strong; she was becoming someone.

A few years later she was back in Palermo, this time, however, away from the suffocating environment of rural ignorance and everlasting poverty where she grew up, but instead as an equal in a circle of intellectuals of the Left who allowed her to express herself without fear. The records kept on coming, the music that was brewing inside her for all the previous years, now finally coming out. Her music moved from traditional songs to songs written especially for her, some of them her own compositions.

Following the late Seventies, she moved away from the public eye, establishing an axis with Florence, where she also moved again for a period.

She died in 1990, the time when Sicily (as the whole of the Italian south) was finally catching up with the spirit of the Italian north, a time of great upheaval in Italy and great changes, when the Sicily of her youth was finally coming to an end as well.

The unique voice of a unique past had nothing more to say, except those words in a song which is also something of her testimony:

"When I die
act as I'm still amongst you
tell everyone
what I have told you myself
When I die
Don't feel alone
For alone I shall not leave you
As solely my body will be away" - "Quannu moru"

The music

cd cover Rosa Balistreri possessed a voice whereupon her whole life was depicted: the trouble, the pain, the clear cloudless skies of the Mediterranean summer, love and desire, the happiness of finding dignity and respect when you had given up. It is truly a voice from another timespace, as strange to our ears as it is familiar in its timelessness.

I find it very difficult to describe Balistreri's music in a detached manner. It seems highly inappropriate, as she is truly a 'folk' singer, rather than a vernacular one: her style has more in common with Joan Baez than a lady in the street. Her guitar was more than an accompaniment, it was also a way for her to describe what she was singing about, when her voice was busy recounting stories. Her renditions of vernacular songs, therefore, are on one level rather too faithless to the tradition - no fancy vernacular instruments for her or passionate research of original sounds. Her repertoire was partly researched songs and partly her own memories of vernacular songs from her youth. What it may be missing in ethnomusicological fidelity, however, is more than made up with this voice, hastily recorded sometimes but deeply penetrating, that speaks of times and places as faraway as a fairytale, but equally real.

cd cover It is, therefore, a bit strange to consider that the records that Teatro del Sole has issued (a full list here) will probably most appeal to those who are most interested in researching the roots and the history of traditional music, than the general public who just want some beautiful or thought-provoking music to listen to. This is, however, music that is impossible to reproduce today: it is Sicily itself singing through Rosa Balistreri, this is the voice of a people and of a land that has seen a lot of injustice and a lot of pain, but also a place where (perhaps for that reason) the simple pleasures of life somehow were projected at the appropriate grandiose dimensions. There are love songs from people who were never able to be with the ones they desired, protest songs of those who could only protest (and not too loudly) as there was no chance of putting right the wrongs, lullabies by those for whom the only hope was that their children might end up living better. And all those songs came true through a person who lived long enough to accept that fate for herself, before somehow miraculously being able to rise above her fate and become the person that she knew she could be.

One should also note the excellent job done by CieloZero and Teatro del Sole, the record and publishing companies responsible for the re-release of Balistreri's oeuvre. It is clear they have a deep affection for Balistreri and have treated her work with dignity and love, the two things she was most respectful of.

The testimony

cd cover Although in many cases, the songs of Rosa Balistreri sound dated, a product of their times, as well as far removed from our times, there is still an incomprehensible power associated with them.

Although her voice is not exactly what might be called 'beautiful' or 'haunting,' it is nevertheless unique and overcomes our presumptions and removes the barriers between people; it touches us on a subconscious level, making us aware of a past more inhumane than most people have experienced, coupled with the deep love of life that only one who has been through the worse can attest to. Her songs remind me time and again of the original American blues, or the Greek rembetika, music of people who life had dealt a raw hand, but who were fighting on, unwilling to give up.

Rosa Joan Baez, feudal societies, the blues, arranged marriages, rembetika, a powerful Left, Amalia Rodrigues (who some have considered Balistreri to be the equal of): there is something deeply old-fashioned about Rosa Balistreri, a sense of "they don't make them like that anymore." It's funny, that a radical person like her would be associated with nostalgia. It's also strange because then you think again of her life and realize that there is nothing to be nostalgic about, that it is wonderful that the life she encountered as a child has been blown away, never to come back. Nonetheless, you are glad that someone first thought of teaching her to play the guitar and someone else to record her, before the life she knew would become the realm of fairytales.

"When I die
act as I'm still amongst you
tell everyone
what I have told you myself
When I die
Don't feel alone
For alone I shall not leave you
As solely my body will be away"

 

Article written by Nondas Kitsos
Many of Rosa Balistreri's recordings have been reissued on Teatro del Sol and are available at cdRoots


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