Rosa Balistreri: Beautiful Music Born from an Early Life of Struggle

Few have heard of Rosa Balistreri, but she left behind her beautiful music and quite a life story. She led a life full of sorrow and faced poverty and sexism; troubles that fed her folk music. Her songs remind us of the original American blues, or the Greek rebetika, as her music is the music of people who were dealt a raw hand, but faught on, unwilling to give up.

Rosa Balistreri guitar

Rosa Balistreri: Early Life

Rosa was born in 1927 in Locata on the southern coast of Sicily, then a seaport, and now largely a vacation destination. While we now think of Sicily as a beautiful place to visit, it has experienced many hardships. Rosa was born during a time of incomprehensible difficulty due to a feudal system that left the residents with little control.

Born as the daughter of an alcoholic carpenter, she received no education and instead worked menial jobs like cleaning fish and working the fields. Her brother was a paraplegic, and her mother and two sisters also required her care. Rosa was illiterate, but soon learned the power of her words.

She faced horrors most of us cannot even imagine before her mid-twenties, she had a violent husband, lost a child, and had to survive her sister’s murder when her father killed himself from the grief. She turned to music to handle the pain and heal.

Rosa Balistreri sad

At 24, in 1951, Rosa fled the misery and squalor of Sicily, still in the throes of upheaval as the new Italian Republic took shape, and so took a train northwards. She found a position for herself as a maid in a household in Florence; being a servant in Tuscany was far better than living in fear and destitution in Sicily.

The Turning Point

At last, Rosa had a life she could call her own. Music, singing and the guitar – these had helped her get through the almost unimaginable hardships of her early life and now began to play a significant part as she began to share her music with the Florentine public. No overnight success for Rosa, but her break did come in 1966 when Dario Fo, an artistic polymath who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997, chose her to star in one of his shows. She began recording the following year, producing two albums as the material she knew so well was put on vinyl.

Rosa Balistreri guitar and singing

These albums and the eight that followed in her lifetime showcased a mixture of folk songs, songs written for her and self-penned numbers. They are not an easy listen, every song is sung with passion and power, and you can feel the pain as she sings of sad love affairs, deprivation and loss.

Although the haunting tunes are so different in musical content, they remind us of the early American blues of Charlie Patton and Son House, songs performed by singers with experiences to match their lyrics. Not every track is sorrowful, but there is an underlying sense of struggle and wretchedness, and if art should depict a truth, then these songs are high art. Incidentally, as she sings in Sicilian, the meaning of the songs is not always clear, but they speak directly to the heart.

Rosa Balistreri guitar

Rosa’s Later Years

An artist of some celebrity, she returned to Sicily to live in 1971, a different person from the one who had fled the island 20 years before. She now enjoyed the company of other well-known Sicilians of the political left, such as the poet Ignazio Buttitta, the artist Renato Guttuso and the writer Andrea Camilleri, together with academics and journalists who supported the communist ideology. She certainly regarded herself as an activist as well as a singer.

Rosa Balistreri guitar and singing

After going out of print, the digital age means that her recordings are readily available to entertain and inspire another generation of music lovers who like to hear real music played by real musicians. Who knows, given other circumstances, she may have achieved the fame of a Joan Baez. She stepped back from the spotlight towards the end of the 1970s, having achieved a quite phenomenal career from the humblest of beginnings.

She died of a stroke at the sadly young age of 63 in 1990. She left behind a legacy that will continue to inspire musicians and performers for many years to come, not just in Sicily, not just in Italy, but all over the world.

Rosa Balistreri portrait

If you’ve only just discovered her, be sure to spend some time with her music.

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