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Memories

Laura and Rosa Balistreri

 

I met Rosa Balistreri for the first time in 1979 in the changing rooms of the Teatro Biondo, in Palermo, at the end of her show La ballata del sale by Salvo Licata. She was still wearing her stage clothes and, oblivious to friends and admirers around her, she carried on eating olives bought at the Vuccirìa market straight from a paper bag. I was amazed by her attitude. Rosa was the opposite of a diva. Her simplicity, her candour in every manifestation of her life and her profession was, at times, bewildering. When she, later, wanted to hear me sing we set up a date in Palermo at a friend of hers, the singer-songwriter Lillo Catania. I took the guitar and sung Cuteddu ‘ntussicatu, a song of incarceration drawn from a collection Rosa had published with Fonit Cetra. I did my best to unleash my voice, its colour and power. When I was done, Rosa told me that my voice had truly impressed her, but that I was too young to sing a song of revenge, sorrow, outrage and betrayal. “At your age what do you know of such passions? Wait at least until you are forty.” I was just sixteen and could notunderstand what she meant. Later, life taught me…

​Laura and Ignazio Buttitta

I do not recall when I first met Ignazio Buttitta. I only remember that he told my mother, who was accompanying me as I as too young to drive myself, that once in Bagherìa she would have to ask for the house of the poet. With Ignazio we toured Sicily with what he called recitals (with an improbable English pronunciation) and he would always open with the lines “the newsagent’s here sells more fotonovelas than newspapers!”. After having thus insulted the spectators by implying they were but an ignorant lot, and the public looking at him stunned rather than vexed, he would proceed, flipping through the pages of his poetry book, and recite his memorable works, from Ncuntrai u Signuri to Mamma tedesca. Ignazio loved me singing Baronessa di Carini, not because my name is Laura, just like the protagonist, but because he considered especially pathetic and quite sensational to have that cruel tale interpreted by a delicate fifteen-year-old girl. He once wrote me this dedication: to Laura, who sings with the voice of Sicily, stolen from the heart of the Sicilians. Thank you, Ignazio.

Laura and Ciccio Busacca

I performed just a few times with the cantastorie Ciccio Busacca and this because he was not living in Sicily anymore. We toured with the show Sicilia meli e feli where he narrated the story of a farmer whose land is taken away. Once I finished my performance, I would step down from the stage built in the square and would wait, among the public, for his entrance. A short man with penetrating eyes and a voice both powerful and cavernous aiming straight for the heart, or should I say the reason, for his narration always spurred reflections on theways of the world and life itself. Ciccio was a true force of nature, his energy was immense. In those days it was customary to carry a recorder and to ask notable colleagues to perform in front of one’s microphone. Ciccio Busacca left me some extraordinary recordings.

​Laura and Michele Pantaleone

I had a special affection for Michele Pantaleone. He used to call me cicchitedda, blackcap. When I first met him, I acted brazen. I rushed to him, linked arms with him and asked “Are you the famous mafiologist Michele Pantaleone? Well, I am a folk singer”. Michele was a very charming, highly educated man. My family and I would often visit him in his home in Villalba that everyone knew by the name of a Pitrusa. A large carob tree provided shade to his abode just outside the village. A wall of prickly pear bordered a luxuriantorchard of which the host was proud. We would often walk along the Via Libertà, in Palermo, and stop for an aperitif at Bar Nobel. He would ask me to link arms a little closer on entering the bar so that his friends, seeing him accompanied by a much younger, attractive female, would feel more envious of him. He would often talk about his books, quoting dates, names and circumstances. He would say it was the only way to keep alive. He would repeat that when you are no longer perceived as an “uncomfortable presence”, the mafia gets rid of you. Though he suffered more than one attempted assassination in the course of his life, I am glad he passed surrounded by the loving affection of the nephews he so deeply loved.

Laura and Pippo Fava

It was Michele Pantaleone who introduced me to Pippo Fava. Michele told me I could reach him at his newspaper’s. He was the director of I Siciliani, a front-line magazine, unique for the courage it put into denouncing the Catania and wider mafia connivances. Pippo was a wonderful, extraordinary man whose memory I treasure. He was fun and passionate, not a handsome man but possessed of uncommon intelligence and endearing qualities. He met me at the coach station and, after lunch on a seafront trattoria, he introduced me to some directors and artists form Catania. It was a fantastic day. I remember, as if it were yesterday, the day the news of the ambush by the mafia, near the Teatro Verga Stabile in Catania. I was twenty-one. To this day I cannot face passing by the place where he was killed.

Laura and Giacomo Giardina

​​The first time I met the futurist poet Giacomo Giardina I think it was in the ‘70s for an event organised by the town of Marineo. The show was the same Ignazio Buttitta and I were touring Sicily with: a mixture of poetry and folk music. Giacomo Giardina arrived with his large leather bag full of sheets, so full he could hardly close it. What a strange character… an old gentleman, gaunt, his white hair slightly ruffled, who reminded me of Don Quixote. He would read his poems in Italian. They were beautiful. We met on several occasions while touring with our recitals. I regret that, back then, I was too young to fully appreciate the great privilege life was affording me of growing up next to these great characters that have marked thecultural life and the history of our Sicily so.

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Laura and Mariele Ventre

This picture takes me back in time to 1967 and my debut when, aged just three, I was selected by the strict Antoniano of Bologna’ s board to sing La mini coda for the Zecchino d’Oro, a television music show second in Italy only to the San Remo music festival. The lady next to me is Mariele Ventre, the indefatigable director of the Piccolo Coro. I must thank my parents for understanding my inclination for singing and for encouraging me to take on this profession that, although full of hardship and struggles, is the expression of my true nature as an artist. I am forever indebted to them.