The tradition of the tarantella stretches back to Dionysian rites of ancient Greece, during which feverish women would run through the streets, swing from tree branches, dance wildly, chant, and pound on tambourines until they entered a trance. Participants, usually women from the underclass tormented by anguish and subjugation, were considered tarantatas
, women bitten by the tarantula spider and inheritors of a curse placed on the princess Arcane by the goddess Athena. During the rise of Christianity, the tarantella was absorbed, becoming the devotion of the Black Madonna. During the Black Plague, the purification dance and shamanic aspect of the percussion was said to have eased the suffering of the afflicted, but today the tarantella is most commonly recognized as a wedding dance. Huge festivals still take place during the summer solstice in southern Italy, where Alessandra Belloni
was first exposed to her instrument of choice. Unlike in the past, it is usually men now who vigorously pound the tammorra napoletana
, 16-inch goatskin tambourines strung with the tops of tomato cans. The playing is very complex and furious, and can carry on for nine hours or more, until the hands of the players are streaming with blood. Few women apart from Belloni seem to have the inclination or stamina to participate in the ritual these days. On more than one occasion, she has been the last player standing, eyes half-lidded, her dress soaked through with sweat, her palms bleeding. For her skill on the much-underestimated tambourine, Belloni has been recognized as one of the greatest female percussionists in the world, an Italian drumming diva, and one need only look at the photos adorning her recent release, Tarantata: Dance of the Ancient Spider
, to know that the orgiastic nature of the traditional music of her home has not been lost. Accompanied by frame drum, classical guitar, Indian-style bansuri
flute, and Russian violin, Belloni captures the full breadth of the tarantella on Tarantata
, from healing trance chants to medieval prayers to soulful folkloric laments, with a voice that is as powerful as her drumming. With ecstatic Neapolitan scales accented by Islamic tones, and sustained notes of operatic excellence that bear witness to religiosity rooted in ancient symbols of garden, fountain, castle, sun, sea, virgin, mother, and mountain, Belloni never sounds anything but madly inspired. Although she has lived in New York for the last 25 years (she's currently an artist-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine), Belloni still sings in Sicilian, Sardinian, Old Neapolitan, Calabrese, Latin, French, and Spanish, carrying the ancient healing tradition found in countless field studies to the psychiatric department of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, and now to us. Alessandra Belloni performs on Sunday, May 28, as part of "Set Five" of the San Francisco World Music Festival at the Cowell Theater with the Azerbaijan Ensemble and Tuvan quintet Chirgilchin at 1 p.m. Tickets are $22; call 391-1317 or 441-3687.
Is it possible to find a singer more droll, more wry, and more engagingly uninterested than the Falls' Mark E. Smith? And with a band more catchy, quirky, and irresistibly lickable than No More Heroes-era Stranglers? My heart goes pitter-patter. It's Lifter Puller. The fixed, unrepentant, unconditional sermonizing of singer Craig Finn, laid over a thick, oddly precise, organ-laced jungle gym of Minneapolis post-punk rock with a nod, makes my belly feel like jelly. But it's the comically malignant stories that make me want more, those dark, indifferent, cruelly blatant narratives that reel through generations of degradation, addiction, and general psychotic malaise with a sideways glance. Characters from the Lifter Puller pantheon -- whores, junkies, and failing hoods who seem to have stumbled out of Nelson Algren's worst nightmare -- reoccur from time to time; on the band's most recent effort, Fiestas and Fiascos, they find a happy home in the Nice Nice nightclub, which is neither. One hero lives in an airport bar putting "her lips like a leash up to a Sex on the Beach" because "She's got the action/ You've got the issues"; others peel off their tights in the back of taxicabs, wake up in assless chaps, commit arson and petty larceny, lie to themselves and their own, and get high at all costs. While trying to contend with see-through skin and curly fries, they are beguiled by roofies, dope, television, Ecstasy, and wine that tastes like propane. It's not easy -- "Your arms look just like speaker chords as you crawl out of the pager store/ Your eyes, they look like open sores/You make love to the Jersey shore .../ The swindles and the bindles are keeping you from sleeping/ The tattoo mags and the sandwich bags/ And now you've lost your feeling" -- but it's funny, as is evident by the bouncing melody and the jubilant shout-outs accompanying the above lyrics: "Yes! Yes! All right! Smoking weed and making money! Lifter Puller! All right y'all!" You have to keep your sense of humor when visiting Lifter Puller on Tuesday, May 30, at Bottom of the Hill with Pomegranate and Jolly opening at 9 p.m. Tickets are $6; call 621-4455.