Rosa Balistreri, the voice of Sicily

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Feb 20 12:31:29 MST 2002

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You can also use the above link to read this article on the web.


(Better to lose a daughter than all this gold that you will never be able
to find again) - from a traditional Sicilian song.

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

(Listen to the music:

The Life

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 frankly impossible for us 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.

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.

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

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.

It is, therefore, a bit strange to consider that the records that Teatro
del Sole has issued (Rosa Balistreri, Un matrimonio infelice, Rari e
inediti) 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

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.

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"

 - Nondas Kitsos


Many of Rosa Balistreri's recordings have been reissued on Teatro del Sol
and are available at

Louis Proyect
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