Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Chants of Southern Italy Come to the Mehanata Club, NYC

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

On June 11, 2009, The Mehanata Club on Ludlow Street reverberated with the rituals, chants and work songs of ancient Southern Italy. I Giulliari di Piazza, a music and dance troupe dedicated to the preservation and rejuvenation of the healing drumming tradition to cure the mythical bite of the tarantula, worked its magic on the enthusiastic crowd. Alessandra Belloni’s clear, bell-toned singing voice soared as she whirled, danced and played various frame drums, at often astonishing speeds.
John T. LaBarbera, co-founder of I Giulliari and Belloni’s musical collaborator for some thirty years, brought his profound understanding of the passionate rhythms to the fore. On both guitar and mandolin, LaBarbera’s articulation expanded the ancient melodies and made them accessible to contemporary listeners.

Joe Deninzon, known as the Jimi Hendrix of the electric violin, played at a sometimes dizzying pace while whirling on his back on the dance floor.

Along with Belloni, Vinnie Scialla played percussion and his driving, relentless beats laid the perfect rhythmic backdrop for the ensemble.

Antonio Fini, the fire dancer in Belloni’s show, Techno Tarantella, danced many of the pieces with Belloni, with audience members or alone. A member of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Fini performed with an almost fearless quality of blending choreography from ancient times to the Renaissance to Modern.

Audience participation was the watchword for the show, and many of us couldn’t resist the siren call of the spider dance. Despite the venue’s small size and the rising temperature on the dance floor, the audience improvised its own dance steps and joined in the exhilaration. At the end of a raucous Tarantella Pizzica and Belloni’s announcement that the show was over, the audience chanted, “One More Song!” until she gave in.

To learn more about Alessandra Belloni, listen to our Podcasts with her or read the podcast transcripts on our Italian Journal page.

To learn more about John T. LaBarbera, listen to all 3 of our Podcasts with him or read the podcast transcripts on our Italian Journal page.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Alessandra Belloni Part 2: Techno Tarantella

This is a transcript of the podcast appearing on our Podcast Page.

Carolyn: Techno Tarantella is a show that blends myth, reality, fevered dance and music, fire, gods and goddesses. In recent years it’s been performed at various New York City venues, including the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This show is being developed and nurtured by Alessandra Belloni, a world-renowned percussionist, singer, dancer, composer and arranger. The Techno Tarantella was born from another of her shows, called the Dance of the Ancient Spider.

Alessandra: It’s been a long journey. I began to visualize a show about the myth of the spider bite, of the tarantula, in 1995 and I was commissioned by Lincoln Center Community Arts Project to do a show at Alice Tully Hall. I said, OK, this would be the time to do it because I saw it in a grand style. So I wrote the show called The Dance of the Ancient Spider and it premiered at Alice Tully Hall.

So I wrote that story back then, and how the bacchante, the women at that time became possessed by the Dionysus god to release all of the poison out of the body and it had to do with the depression of young women connected to the myth of Aracne.

In that show, we used only folk music and acoustic music, and I kind of told the story of a woman who became a tarantata and how she was healed by the dance and the rhythm. So we did that show for about 4 years on and off, and it was the title of that CD, Taranata, Dance of the Ancient Spider. But then I started to listen to this really interesting electronic music fused with folk music. The way I used to do this was very folk music, beautifully done, but very much of an elite audience that would never grab young people, on a bigger level.

Carolyn: So has the change to techno music changed your audience?

Alessandra: I used more of the techno music and modern dance, now it grabs more of a younger audience.

Carolyn: So how did this change begin?

Alessandra: I would say starting in the year 2002, 2003 I was in Brazil, I was performing in a club. A friend of mine owns this fantastic place called Grazie a Dio in Sao Paulo. And he has a very good DJ working there and very good sound people. So, as we finished the performance, we ate and then we came back to the club to dance and I heard this really cool music. It sounded very familiar and I said, “Wait a second, I heard this before!” and it was my music they had recorded in the concert but the DJ put a techno feel to it.

Carolyn: So it’s your music done in a techno style?

Alessandra: Yes. And then I went , “Wow, what is that?” and he said “It’s you!” “Really? That sounds really good!” So we started talking about this project in Brazil, you know, like, we’ve got to do this techno thing and that was back, the end of 2002, beginning of 2003.

I went back, then I did a show 2005 for Carnival in Brazil and this guy has a group that is well known for electronic music, improvised on stage with acoustic music on top. He asked me to be a guest in his show, and I said “I have this dream of one day doing a show called Techno Tarantella” and he goes “I don’t know what it is, but let’s try it.” So we did. I started singing and they started improvising and they put all the technology in it and it was beautiful I thought “Wow, this can really work”. The whole audience was dancing, my voice, my drum and everything was looping then I stopped playing and singing and I started dancing and I said “I can really do that. I can have a machine reproduce what I do, and dance.”

Carolyn: Since then, Alessandra’s show, Techno Tarantella, has developed and showcased the talents of certain artists she met along the way.

Alessandra: Originally the group was founded by me and John LaBarbera, the guitarist.

I owe a lot to Joe Deninzon, who is a violinist from Russia. He has fantastic training of classical, jazz and rock. His band is a jam band and he’s known around the country as Jimi Hendrix of the violin. So when I first got this idea of the Techno Tarantella I thought to ask him and he was totally into it. He the one who put the most time into developing those sounds because he’s specialized on all the effects. So he created all of those amazing sounds. I think that’s why the show works, because it’s not my usual ensemble that has guitars, violins, flutes, mandolins, and all that. I don’t think it needs all that. I think Joe, with all of the effects is great and a lot of percussion. Percussion’s very important.

Carolyn: Well, what I remember about Joe is that during the Pizzica, he was dancing and he was on his back playing this incredibly fast, complicated rhythm, rolling around on the floor.

Alessandra : I think it’s spectacular. Joe Deninzon, yeah, he’s the man.

So the other person that is important in this is the actor that plays the narrator, Ivan Thomas. He’s a baritone, and he’s part Italian, part African American and he’s an opera singer who has toured all over the world. And his main role was in Porgy and Bess. When we met 20 years ago he was doing a lot of opera but because he feels so close to Italy because of his grandmother was Italian from Siena, he loved working with us, always. And then he got cast to be in River Dance, and he was the only live singer that they had, everyone was on playback in River Dance. The singers, not the band. The band was amazing. So he gave me a lot of input about how to evolve a show that has the potential of River Dance.

Carolyn: Another artist who brings Techno Tarantella to life is Antonio Fini. Dionysius, the Greek god of ecstasy and wine, plays a large part in the myth and in the Techno Tarantella. Antonio plays Dionysius and his breathtaking dance of fire is one of the show’s highlights.

Alessandra : Antonio I met here in NY. He was studying at the Martha Graham school, the ensemble, and he’s from Calabria and he’s a really gifted dancer from the South of Italy and the region I love the most, Calabria. His main training is modern dance. And when I started to audition dancers for the show, when he came, I just saw what he did and I said “This is it! It’s him!” But I didn’t know what else he could do. Then he told me “I dance with fire and I do this, and I do that” and I know we share a very similar spiritual quest in our life. He’s very young but he’s got an incredible mind.

So I kind of took a leap of faith because he wasn’t a choreographer but a young dancer with a lot of gifts. But because we both believe in many things and we know these dances in Italy were done for the solstice and were done in the woods as gatherings. Sometimes people were accused of witchcraft, and they were not witches but were someone in the power of the fires, the elements, of the sun god. We both agreed that these scenes had to be part of the show.

Carolyn: So Techno Tarantella not only signals a change in the musical style of the story of the ancient spider, but also a change in the breath of the show.

Alessandra : It was no longer just the story of the tarantella, as I had done before, and the woman, the tarantata. It had to embrace all the elements that are a part of our magic ritual ceremonies. So that’s why the show has all those elements.

Carolyn: Let’s go through the different elements of the show.

Alessandra : It starts with the myth of Aracne and how this young princess was such a skilled weaver and how Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom is very jealous of the young princess and all the nymphs admire her. I chose to be Athena who challenges her, because the relationship being older and younger woman, the crone and the maiden. And Athena accepts the challenge to the weaving contest and Aracne wins. Athena gets very angry, destroys the linen and Aracne, out of humiliation, hangs herself, and Athena transforms her into a spider. That’s the prologue part.

And in the show, very important to have Athena have a mask to represent the gods. A lot of the things I do go back to the ancient Greek, Roman theater and some of it is Renaissance. So using the narrator as the one character out of the story and describes the story. That’s typical way of actor and chorus. And then I chose to use masks again following that kind of style and my dream was always to have an aerial dancer that could be the spider. So of course I’m really glad I met Fran Sperling as the aerial dancer. So when I transform Aracne the aerial dancer comes out and she used the net, which was amazing. So she hangs herself from the net and it’s very powerful because I directed her a little bit but not much. I just said, please work with spider moves and feeling of hanging and killing herself. Which she did.

The show goes on how the girls are affected by the suicide mania because they are not free. So I use that piece during those scenes; the transformation to the spider. And it’s a sad song of a young girl that dies of love.

In the first part of the show we show also the Middle Ages, death coming, the plague, the stilt dancer. I think he’s amazing. I couldn’t believe what he was doing. But that’s the first half. The ending of Act I is a dance that comes from the Renaissance called Bailo di Sfezania, where people dress like devils and dance to exorcise the fear of death and contra malochhio, against the evil eye.

In the Renaissance it was a very popular thing and people dressed like that in the streets to do this dance. The awkward movements using the fingers in the position of the horns. And to do that dance I studied prints from the Renaissance, then I gave it to Antonio and another dancer, and then became a modern dance choreography.

Carolyn: So the roots of that Renaissance dancing is in this Tarantella?

Alessandra: It’s all based in authentic tradition. What I always do is look at the books, the prints, and study them and then direct and come up with the choreography.

Then the beginning of Act 2 is rebirth; the hope of light coming after darkness. That’s why we began first with the sun chant which is so much part of our tradition. It’s a very powerful healing chant and then the fire. And that song for the fire was the song I wrote for my mother and that helped me heal my pain but also, when we do it I really feel her and I feel the meaning of it, the rebirth. That she’s not really dead, and that fire brings her back to life.

Then we talk about how the people suffer from the tarantismo and the woman tries to win the love of the young man and then the group dances that develops. And I used those songs from Puglia that are used for the cure that are really strong. And Antonio did a great staging of the madness scene when they are all going crazy together. And the spider is there, still biting in the subconscious mind. And at the end we did the techno Pizzica which I think works really well because it gets you going. It’s much more powerful I think than the acoustic one that I’ve done for 27 years.

I like things that are much more wild. And Tarantella is much more wild. That’s why I think it has a great potential. It has the flavor of some Cirque du Soliel. I have a vision. If I had, even a quarter million dollars, I could have a lot of dancers flying at some point, so when they are bitten, they go up and they’re flying.

And I conceived the show also with a real group of Arabs coming, when the Moors meet the Christians. In the show you saw, because of our low budget, we have to do everything ourselves. All I know is I was always changing masks and costumes. Who am I next?

Carolyn: Although Techno Tarantella is steeped in myth, many of the rituals it depicts are still with us.

Alessandra: The spirit of Dionysius never died. He is still celebrated in Brazil more than anywhere. But it’s also celebrated in New Orleans, Caribbean in Carnival. That’s why I wanted to leave the audience with a blessing of love because once you celebrate Dionysus, you are much more in ecstasy.

So I see it as a spectacle that has a lot of possibilities. A message of healing through music and dance and drumming and with a multi-cultural cast, and with a message of peace. Because I think the world is going crazy. What I would like to convey is that young people can have fun and have a Techno Tarantella ecstasy without taking ecstasy. We are all one when it comes to rhythm and dance. The Islam, the Christian, Brazilians, Africans, we all worship Dionysus or Allah or you name it, it’s the same God.

Carolyn: To watch video clips fo the Techo Tarantella performance, go to the Essence of Italy links page and click on Essence of Italy at YouTube.

To learn more, visit

This is Carolyn Masone at Thanks for listening!

Alessandra Belloni Part 1 - Rhythm is the Cure - The Healing Power of the Tarantella Spider Dance

This is a transcript of the podcast appearing on our Podcast Page.
Carolyn: The image of a spider weaving its web means different things to different people. For some, the meaning is sinister, as in ‘weaving a web of lies’. For others, a web evokes connection, support and communication, as in the internet, which we call the World Wide Web.

The spider and its web have been active symbols in the human mind for thousands of years. The concept of a person trapped in the web of society’s rules, unable to free themselves, has been recognized, contemplated and remedied in different ways throughout the ages using myth, literature, music, song and dance. Many times, these remedies were rituals that allowed the affected person an essential outlet for the expression of their trapped emotions. This ritual provided a limited, protected time during which that person could freely express themselves without restraint. It was understood by all that after the ritual, the person would return to society and follow its rules, until those trapped emotions built up once again, and another freeing ritual was needed.

There is an ancient Southern Italian dance called the Tarantella. This is not the Tarantella we usually think of, a tune we often hear at weddings. Instead, this Tarantella is a music and dance ceremony connected to the mythical bite of the tarantula spider. The musical instruments used in the ceremony are violins, mandolins and most notably, the tambourine or frame drum. The dance is a frenzied, wild, spinning expression of repressed emotion.

A person affected by the mythical bite of the spider is called a tarantata. And the condition caused by the bite is called tarantismo.

Alessandra Belloni has devoted her life to the exploration and rejuvenation of this Tarantella. Alessandra is a world-renowned percussionist whose talents include singing, dancing, composing and arranging. She has published a book called Rhythm is the Cure, Southern Italian Tambourine, complete with an instructional DVD, published by Mel Bay. Alessandra is a REMO Signature Series artist who has designed her own line of tambourines, also called frame drums.

Alessandra, let’s talk about the origins of the myth of the spider and how it connects to repression and ultimately, to release. The Greek myth tells the story of Aracne, a talented princess who challenges a goddess.

Alessandra: It starts with the myth of Aracne and how this young princess was such a skilled weaver of ancient Greece. Italy was part of ancient Greece, called Magna Grecia. And how Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom is very jealous of the young princess being such a skilled weaver and all the nymphs admire her. Athena accepts the challenge to the weaving contest and Aracne wins. Athena gets very angry, destroys the linen and Aracne out of humiliation, hangs herself.

Carolyn: But Athena takes pity on Aracne at this point.

Alessandra: Athena transforms her into a spider.

Carolyn: So Aracne continues to weave forever, as a spider. Now, the myth continues with the nymphs, who so admired Aracne. They are heartbroken by the events and sink into a deep depression and begin committing suicide. The people call upon Athena for relief. Athena tells them that the nymphs have been bitten by the spider, causing the depression, and the only cure is a frenzied dance ritual to expel the poison and heal them.

Alessandra: There’s a lot in that myth of young woman-older woman relation, the jealousy, the competition, the web, how we weave our web. And then this fear of not being accepted and then committing suicide. It spoke to me in many different ways. Now that I’m older, I think it’s the archetype of our subconscious mind so we all connect to spiders in different ways. Some of us love them, and some people don’t and they have arachnophobia!

Carolyn: Alessandra, what introduced you to this myth and its meaning?

Alessandra: Back in 1981-82 I met Glen Velez, the drummer who was my first tambourine student. As a gift he gave me this book that I’d been searching for a long time, and at that time it was out of print, called La Terra Del Rimorso, the Land of Rimorse. To me it’s like a bible for who wants to study this, of the myth of the spider. From the myth of Aracne and how they studied the tarantate in the early 60’s, late 50’s. So it gives you all the history behind this form of madness, malady, ritual that was still popular then in Puglia. I studied that book many, many times, I read it over and over again, I almost memorized the book by now. Ernesto di Martino is the author.

Carolyn: One of the messages of the myth is recognition, compassion and restoration of those suffering from various forms of cultural repression.

Alessandra: In the Greek times, the young girls were repressed by the male dominated society and they were not allowed to express their sexuality. They became afflicted by this. All I know is that they suffered from a malady that came out as an explosion of euphoria. They said they were possessed by the god Dionysus. If you read Euripides Bacchantes, you read there are all these women, the Maenades, running around wild. And they were allowed to do these crazy things, orgiastic rites and more, even devouring men. Incredible scene of the Bacchante, because they were possessed by the god Dionysus, the god of ecstasy and wine.

Carolyn: So, putting this in its cultural context, marriages were arranged so the women often did not marry the men they loved.

Alessandra: Young women not being allowed to be free and express themselves sexually, psychologically, artistically, everything. The myth of Aracne embodies a lot of things. The web is a big thing, it could be anything, but it’s mainly sexual. Dance comes from that. But I think it embodies other things that are part of that. The suffering that caused people to go crazy and sometimes to commit suicide.

Carolyn: So this kind of wild dance ritual, sanctioned by society, acted as a safety valve to calm depression and prevent suicide?

Alessandra: Exactly. And to not be accused of witchcraft.

Carolyn: Because they could have been killed for witchcraft.

Alessandra: That’s why it’s a healing trance dance. Because the women in the trance danced, and healed themselves. And thru the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, that’s how the dance evolved. And no one accused them of anything because they were bitten by the tarantula. They were free to express who they were, because they were sick; they suffered from the poison of the spider.

Carolyn: This myth and its remedy have taken various forms over the centuries. In the Middle Ages, during the time of the Black Plague and the Crusades, people suffered from the fear of disease and death.

Alessandra: It goes on into the Middle Ages and the meeting with the Islamic world in the time of the crusades. That’s when we first know that the Tarantella evolved as we know it today, with the spinning. I learned by being part of a Sufi community that we have almost the same elements, Christians and Islams have the same things. Yet, we’re in the crusades right now. We feel that we are at the end of the world and it was the same then.

Carolyn: And certain dances during the Renaissance also have their roots in the Tarantella.

Alessandra: In the Renaissance it was a very popular thing and people dressed like that in the streets to do this dance. Where the people danced like devils and danced to exorcise the fear of death and contra malochhio, against the evil eye. The awkward movements using the fingers in the position of the horns. It’s all based on authentic tradition.

Carolyn: So now we fast-forward to more recent history, and we find that areas of Puglia and Calabria have continued this Tarantella ritual, in honor of the Black Madonna. This brings us back full circle to the work of Ernesto di Martino and his book, Land of Rimorse. In the 1950’s and ‘60’s, he studied the tarantate and how their families handled the situation.

Alessandra: The ritual of the tarantate happens, after a person was bitten and they found out it was the tarantula, they went into a state of mind. They couldn’t talk or move or do anything unless the musicians came and played the cure. They started spinning and stomping and doing the spider dance on the floor, in their home for 3 days and 3 nights.

And the shamans, who were the musicians, had to find the right melody. And the tambourine had the biggest part of that. Because the tambourine, being the accents released the body and the body started to move, to free the poison, symbolically speaking. Even though for a long time people did believe it was the poison that did that. But the families did know that it was a disease, that it was not the poison. But the excuse was the poison of the spider that bit them during the hot days that they were working in the fields.

So when they were cured after 3 days and 3 nights in their home, all the tarantate gathered on June 29 in this little church called San Paolo di Galentina in Puglia and went completely crazy in the church, screaming, running, seeing the spider. And after that ritual they would come out of the church, healed, for another year, with no memory of what happened to them.

Carolyn: Alessandra continues this ritual in her healing workshops, called Rhythm is the Cure. Her workshops are offered all over the world, for a day, a weekend or a week.

Alessandra: My lifetime research on the myth of the tarantula and how the women are still suffering from what I think is called the tarantismo, the mental disorder that is normally a form of depression or sometimes suicide mania. I think women today, and men sometimes, still have that syndrome and need to cut free from the web of society. So I think that show will always be part of my mission. How can we help, as artists, the people of today identify their web? How can they cut it thru music and dance?

Carolyn: Alessandra holds a Rhythm is the Cure workshop in a gorgeous villa in Tuscany, Italy for a week every August. She uses Southern Italian folk dances and rituals as a joyous form of music and dance therapy. She teaches drumming and ancient Neapolitan chants used for healing and to honor the Black Madonna. She teaches how to release stress, unblock energy, open your heart and throat chakras and achieve deep relaxation.

To learn more, visit

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

La Notte della Taranta Orchestra in Staten Island

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

On May 31, 2009, the orchestra of La Notte della Taranta played to an enthusiastic crowd in Snug Harbor, Staten Island. La Notte della Taranta is an annual festival in Puglia, Italy dedicated to the revival of the Tarantella Pizzica, a spinning healing trance dance to expel the poison of the mythical bite of the tarantula. The festival also features other musical genres, including world and rock.

But on May 31st, the orchestra featured the sounds of the Salento region, both ancient and recent compositions. The seven artists, under the direction of world renowned Maestro Mauro Pagani, presented the frenzied percussion, strings and evocative vocals that are the hallmarks of this tradition.

During several renditions of the Pizzica, many of the audience (myself included) couldn't resist the pull of the tarantate and poured into the aisles to dance. Each of us exorcised our personal ethereal poisons through our sweat and joy.

Roberto Benigni Spectacular in Tutto Dante in NYC

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

Roberto Benigni is perhaps best known for the film, La Vita E’ Bella or Life is Beautiful. A friend of mine described the film this way: “In the first part you laugh, and in the second part, you cry.” Benigni uses the same structure in his one man show, Tutto Dante, which played at the Manhattan Center Theater in New York City on May 30, 2009.

Benigni bounded onto the stage amid circus music and moving spotlights, poking fun at his tenuous command of the English language. In fact, his English was delightful even though it required careful listening. He soon launched into his lexicon of Berlusconi scandals, sexual and political. (He claimed to have been willing to poke fun at the Democratic Left, but each time he started writing a joke about them, the party was out of power before he could finish it.)

From this comedic beginning, Benigni deftly moved into the subject of Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy. It soon became clear that if Benigni were not an actor, he would be a professor; the kind who makes material come alive and the kind you never forget. His presentation is testimony to the power of passion. His deep appreciation and connection to The Divine Comedy translates into a mesmerizing presentation of the complexities of life, death, and love as told by Dante.

Benigni took each line from Canto V and laid bare its broiling emotion. Canto V contains some of Dante’s most enduring images: the tail-curling Minos, lustful souls swirling in the terrible winds, and the timeless story of Paolo and Francesca. When Benigni inhabits this tale of torn love, he cries as Paolo cried. And we cry with them.

The final segment and breathtaking highlight of the show is Benigni’s recital of Canto V in ancient Tuscan. The sold-out crowd held its breath during this passionate recital. The final line of the Canto, “E caddi come corpo morto cade (And then I fell as a dead body falls)” pierced us all.