The Dance of the Spider: A Musician’s Journey to Revive the Feminine Legacy of the Italian Frame Drum
Miriam the prophetess… took the timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dancing.
by Isabel Spiegel
The year was 1983, at La Festa di San Rocco, the Feast of Saint Rocco, in the Apulia region of southern Italy. Alessandra Belloni grasped her moon-shaped tamburello and stepped boldly into the ronda, a circle of thirty male drummers. She followed the frenetic rhythm of the pizzica-tarantata while men dueled in the center of the circle, slashing through the air with their bare hands as they performed the ancient knife dance la scherma. They eyed her with displeasure, as if she were crashing a bachelor party.
“Ferma!” shouted one of the lead musicians, and the drummers stopped in unison. They walked away from Belloni, moving their circle to another part of the piazza. Flushed with hurt and indignation, she realized her thumb was bleeding, rubbed raw from the rough goatskin of her tambourine. She resolved that one day she would return and be accepted by the male drummers.
“Even if you’re bleeding, you just keep going,” says Belloni, master Italian frame drummer, vocalist, and music healer. “It’s an initiation.”
Thirty-seven years later, Italian-born Belloni speaks with me via Zoom from her apartment in New Jersey. Behind her, the dining room wall is decorated with drums she designed for Remo Inc. Picking up a tambourine to demonstrate, she strikes the drumhead with her thumb and the back of her hand, moving faster and faster until her fingers blur like the wings of a hummingbird. During rituals and religious processions, she explains, the percussion often begins late at night and lasts until sunrise.
“It became my obsession,” says Belloni, who wears her signature fabric flower pinned to the right side of her dark mane of hair. “I promised myself that I had to learn to play for at least five or six hours without stopping.”
Gaining technical mastery of the instrument was a catalyst for Belloni to discover the Italian frame drum’s ancient feminine legacy and its capacity for healing women suffering from trauma and abuse, both in Italy and around the world.
The Drum of the Goddess
“The frame drum is a women’s tradition. I didn’t invent it,” Belloni says. “Some male musicians acknowledge that their mother or grandmother played, but they don’t talk about its history.”
Almost every culture around the world has its own frame drum: the Middle Eastern daf (Persian, Kurdish, Pakistani), the Brazilian pandeiro, the Moroccan bendir, the Irish bodhran, and many others.
In her book Healing Journeys with the Black Madonna, Belloni draws upon her fieldwork in southern Italy and extensive scholarly research to exhume the mystical origins of the Italian frame drum and its connection to pre-Christian goddess worship.
The earliest known frame drummer was a Mesopotamian priestess named Lipushiau who lived in the city-state of Ur in 2380 BCE. Belloni writes that in ancient Egyptian and Sumerian culture, the frame drum was played in honor of the goddesses Isis and Inanna. Later, the Greeks and Romans honored the goddesses Artemis, Diana, and Cybele, as well as Dionysus or Bacchus, the god of the vine through ritual drumming and ecstatic dance.
In her book When the Drummers Were Women, percussionist and composer Layne Redmond describes how in every ancient Mediterranean civilization she studied, the gift of music making was transmitted to humans via a goddess. Priestesses beat drums, sang, and danced during religious ceremonies to incite trance and connect to the divine realms.
The mystery cults and pagan practices flourished throughout the Greco-Roman world in the first three centuries CE. The female followers of the Cult of Dionysus or Bacchus were known as Maenads or Bacchantes. They played tambourines, drank wine, and danced with abandon as an act of devotion. From early on, these female frame drummers were associated with libertine madness, an uninhibited freedom of expression that challenged the patriarchal order. When Rome adopted Christianity in the fourth century, women’s role as sacred percussionists was outlawed. In southern Italy, however, where Rome’s cultural influence was less prominent, the female legacy of the drum persisted into the twentieth century.
Today, there are two styles of Italian frame drums. The tamburello is smaller than the tammorra, but both are traditionally crafted out of round wooden frames and goatskin. The tammorra has two rows of jingles made from the tops of tomato cans, which were readily available in the agrarian south. Both instruments are played by hand. The wrist of the hand holding the drum moves continuously as the other hand strikes the rhythm, creating high, low and mid-range tones on the drumhead with the tips of the fingers, the palm, back of the hand, and thumb. Throughout central and southern Italy, there are a myriad of playing styles, percussive techniques, and musical repertoires.
Songs of Joy, Songs of Suffering
As a teenager, Belloni left Rome where she was born and moved to New York City to pursue acting and musical theater. After meeting her Italian American musical partner, guitar virtuoso John LaBarbera, Belloni became immersed in the Italian folk music revival of the 1970s and the songs of her grandparents’ generation. Belloni and LaBarbera formed I Giullari di Piazza (The Players of the Square), a highly acclaimed Italian folk music and theater group. Every summer over the course of five years, they traveled to the regions of Calabria, Apulia, Naples, and Sicily to study their folk music traditions.
During these pilgrimages, Belloni was mentored by master tambourine players Raffaele Inserra, Nando Citarella, and Alfio Antico of Sicily and Vittorio di Paolo of Calabria. While there were still some elderly women in the villages who played the tamburello and tammorra, the younger generation viewed the frame drum as a masculine instrument.
Belloni says that in the south of Italy where the frame drum had become associated with the peasant class, tambourines were originally made with the same round, wooden sieves that farmers used to plant seeds.
From the late 1960s until the late ’80s, Italy underwent a period of social and political upheaval. Many young, southern Italian women left behind the toil of agricultural work to seek jobs in offices, stores, and factories.
“When women lost touch with the earth and stopped working in the fields, they didn’t identify as being peasants anymore,” Belloni theorizes. “Once these women saw themselves as being part of the ‘modern world,’ they also lost connection with the drum.”
The vast repertoire of Italian folk music Belloni learned to sing with tambourine accompaniment reflected the rhythms of peasant life. Music was imbued with the power to invoke a bountiful harvest, heal the sick, and protect fishermen at sea. There were also rhythms and trance rituals performed during religious processions in honor of Catholic saints and the beloved Black Madonna, whose origins are shrouded in mystery and speculation. Despite the region’s reverence for the sacred mother, some folk songs convey the abuse many southern Italian women faced in their daily lives.
“If you look at folk music and folk songs, they tell us stories of events that take place. A lot of times in southern Italian music, there are songs that talk about women who were murdered because they went against their father’s will,” John LaBarbera says.
Divorce had only become legal in Italy in 1970. Franca Viola from Sicily made history in 1966 by becoming the first woman to publicly refuse to marry her abductor and rapist—rejecting an Italian law called matrimonio riparatore, allowing a rapist to expunge the crime and “repair” his victim’s honor through marriage.
LaBarbera described how canti popolari (folk songs) were adopted by Italian leftist political groups and other social justice movements of the era. The songs were used to bridge the hardships of the past with the struggles of the present. “This music became connected to feminism in Italy at that time. It exposed the repression of women in southern Italy. That’s why it was performed again, to make people aware.”
Fimmene fimmene ca sciati ailu tabaccu
Ne sciati doi e na turnati quattro
Cu vu lu dici di sciari allu tabuccu
Lu suli e forti e vi lu sicca tutto
Fimmene fimmene ca sciati a vindimmiari
Sott’a lu cippone ve la faciti fari
Women, women who go to pick tobacco
You go in twos and come back four [metaphor for being raped and returning pregnant]
Who told you to go pick the tobacco?
The sun is too strong and will dry it all
Women, women who go to gather the harvest [pick grapes]
You let them do it to you under the trees
“Fimmene, Fimmene” describes the state of anguish that some Apulian women experienced prior to being “bitten” by a poisonous spider, the tarantula. The spider’s bite was symbolic in character, yet women complaining of a wide range of psychological and physical malaise blamed it on the malevolent arachnid. These symptoms could only be relieved by dancing wildly to the rhythm of the pizzica-tarantata (pizzicare is “to bite” in Italian) and praying to Saint Paul. The afflicted women were known as tarantate, and the musical-ritual ceremony to draw out the spider’s poison was called tarantism.
Tarantism—The Dance of the Spider
“She is becoming the spider. She’s going through her crisis. Sometimes the women crawl under a chair or hang from a rope hung from the ceiling like a spider would,” Belloni explains, narrating over a clip of the 1962 Gianfranco Mingozzi documentary La Taranta, which we are watching together via screen share on Zoom. It was the first film to document tarantism.
The camera focuses on Maria di Nardò’s young son, whose chin rests on a framed portrait of Santu Paolo, Saint Paul. He calmly watches his mother rock back and forth, face-down on a white sheet spread on the floor of their kitchen. The violinist saws out the electric, scrambling melody of the pizzica-tarantata directly over Maria’s head while she moves back and forth in time to the frenetic 12/8 rhythm of the tamburello.
Belloni had already been studying the frame drum for several years when she learned about tarantism in the book La Terra del Rimorso (The Land of Remorse) by the Italian ethnographer Ernesto De Martino. Belloni refers to the book as her bible, since she has read it so many times, both in Italian and translated into English. She was intrigued to learn about the women who coped with depression, trauma, and psychosis through this ritualized music-dance therapy driven by the beat of the tambourine. She also discovered that many of the tamburello players who performed for the tarantate were women.
In the summer of 1959, De Martino assembled a team composed of a psychologist, a social worker, a doctor, two anthropologists, an ethnomusicologist, and a photographer. They traveled to Salento—the southern “heel” of the Italian peninsula’s “boot,” situated in the Apulia region and home to the last vestiges of tarantism. The Catholic Church had been suspicious of tarantism for centuries, but it continued to thrive in village life under the guise of devotion to the Catholic martyr, Saint Paul. De Martino’s team observed the ritual in the homes of the tarantate and how the musicians took on the role of exorcists and healers, playing until the victim had danced herself free of the spider’s mythical poison.
The research team found that many of the affected women experienced symptoms at the same time every year, usually in the hottest months of summer harvest, which coincided with the Church-sanctioned festival of Saint Paul. De Martino also noted that many of the women first became tarantata after a traumatic event or during puberty, when they were “bitten” after experiencing heartbreak.
The spider’s bite was so widespread in the region that the musicians who performed the exorcisms were paid more than doctors. Despite annual “treatments,” many Apulian women were tarantate for life. The dance of the spider belonged to an endless cycle of poverty and marginalization—the disease of being a woman in Apulia, which had no cure.
Putting the Mingozzi film on pause, Belloni sings a short refrain from one of the most common pizzica-tarantata chants: “Ti prego Santu Paolo falla guariri / che l’ave pizzicata a tarantella/ addo t’a pizzicao a tarantella… sotto la putarria de la vunnella…” Then she translates: “‘I beg you Saint Paul, heal her because she was bitten by the tarantula.’ When they’re singing to a woman, they say, ‘where did the tarantula bite you?’ And the answer is, ‘the tarantula bit you under the skirt.’ And for a man, ‘On the cologni, the balls.’ It’s very sexual. It’s letting go of repressed sexuality and abuse.”
The sexual nature of the lyrics and the suggestive movements of the women who oftentimes gyrated their pelvises on the floor, their hair loose and dressed all in white as “brides of Saint Paul” was accepted in the south as a Catholic ceremony, even though De Martino draws strong parallels between tarantism and Indigenous trance rituals around the world.
When Belloni traveled to the south with LaBarbera in the 1980s, she would ask where she could find the tarantate and the women who played the rhythmic cure, only to be told that the tradition had died out. Even though she did meet male musicians who taught her the pizzica-tarantata rhythm and some of the songs, none of them had assisted with a musical exorcism.
The Tambourine Player for the Tarantate
Ten years after her failed “audition” to join la ronda, Belloni returned to the festival of San Rocco in 1993. The atmosphere was quite different. This time there were young women who danced, but none played the tambourine. It was time for Belloni to prove herself and claim her place in the circle.
“The younger generation didn’t know that the tamburello had been a female instrument for hundreds of years, and they now believed that men were stronger and were the only ones who could play for a long time. They came directly to challenge me, playing faster and louder without stopping,” Belloni writes in her book. After two hours of intense playing, the men’s thumbs started to bleed but Belloni’s didn’t crack.
“Then they said in a vulgar way, ‘where the hell do you come from?’ ‘Who the hell are you?’ in dialect. And then we became friends, and it was beautiful,” she concludes, laughing heartily.
When the festival was finished, one of Belloni’s new “friends” encouraged her and the other musicians to come to an after-party at his family-owned taverna.
Like a scene from a Fellini film, Belloni and her musician friends played for hours at an abandoned gas station across the street from the tavern. While they played, the tavern owner’s diminutive white-haired mother sat in a chair in her front yard and watched them. Afterward, Belloni and the other musicians went to eat at the tavern.
“I didn’t understand her dialect at all. But then her son told me that his mother had been watching me and wanted to show me something,” Belloni recalls animatedly. “And then she said in dialect, ‘I used to play for the tarantate. For three days and three nights.’ I think at that time she was ninety-three. She asked her son to bring her drum, which was seventy years old, and then she started playing.”
Belloni was moved to tears as Stella, the elderly woman, played the pulse of the pizzica-tarantata and began to sing traditional verses. They were the strongest, loudest triplets she had ever heard. She could not believe the powerful rhythm was coming from one percussionist, let alone a ninety-three-year-old.
“That night was my real initiation into the healing power of the tambourine,” Belloni says. “Stella played a trance dance rhythm. My male mentors didn’t know about these beats because they didn’t play the cure.”
Sometimes Stella would nod at Belloni to see if she was following. The accents were very different from the pizzica-tarantata she had learned from younger male percussionists.
With her son acting as translator, Stella described how during the exorcism, she would have to find the right beat for each tarantata until the woman began to spin and spin and then collapsed on the floor.
The collapse that Stella described was part of the cycle of the ritual. The victim would dance until totally spent, fall to the floor, and then resume again. Finally, in the last cycle of the dance, which could sometimes last three days or more, the trance would break, and she would be “cured.”
The taranta that simultaneously poisoned and possessed each woman was unique and would express itself differently during the musical exorcism. De Martino described how some spiders were depressed and rendered the victim listless and sad, while others were angry or lustful. It was up to the musicians to figure out what kind of spider the victim was possessed by so they could coax it out with the right rhythm and melody.
De Martino speculates that the tarantism ritual became a space where the women of Apulia were able to act out their own internal conflicts or mental illnesses and find relief. The summer season of the tarantate and the ritualized trance is described as the one time in their lives when they were the center of attention and could act out whatever they were suppressing. Public displays of lasciviousness, rage, and pain became acceptable to drive out the “spider” holding them hostage.
I ask what would have happened in Belloni’s musical journey if she hadn’t met Stella. She replies, “I would never have learned the right way to do this. I don’t think I would have done my workshops. She opened a portal for me, and I think it was meant to be.”
La Tarantula Non è Morta (The Spider Isn’t Dead)
“Like the earth’s womb, the wombs of women have been broken…Women from all over the world, share the same pain.”
—Alessandra Belloni, Healing Journeys with the Black Madonna
The first few times Belloni guided women into a tarantism trance, she felt unprepared for what unfolded in front of her.
“At first, I took it lightly, because I didn’t really know how powerful this was going to be. It’s one thing to read about the ritual in De Martino’s book and watch Mingozzi’s film, but it’s another to actually participate in a ritual.”
After an experience of profound personal healing with a shamanic tambourine player, Belloni decided that she would try to assist other women with the rhythms she had learned from Stella. It started as an experiment. After all, she considered herself first and foremost to be a musician and documentarian, not a music-dance therapy practitioner.
During a spiritual drumming workshop in Glastonbury, Belloni met a young Swedish woman who was manic depressive, on multiple medications, and deeply traumatized from years of childhood abuse. Belloni invited her to her first Rhythm Is the Cure workshop retreat in Tuscany. Assisted by a psychologist, Belloni played the rhythms of the pizzica-tarantata and performed the ritual she had learned from Stella and her other mentors. The young woman went into a deep trance and didn’t wake up for hours. Belloni was frightened and looked to her psychologist assistant for support, who helped her throughout the whole ceremony. When the young woman finally woke up, she experienced a common effect of the trance as described in De Martino’s book: she threw up on Belloni.
“I had no idea that was going to happen,” says Belloni, who worked with this young woman for over eight years. Eventually, she weaned herself off various medications and was able to transcend her history of sexual assault through the dance-music therapy. Belloni went on to facilitate drumming and dance workshops around the world for hundreds of women. She has also worked with transgender people and many gay men, who Belloni says have been tarantati as a result of being unable to freely express their sexual identity or live their truth.
“Stella told me that she had a beat for each person that was sick. That she could feel the sick person and that she had to play that beat. But did she know where it came from? No. Now I understand what she meant. I can explain what happens in Shamanic terms but not scientifically,” Belloni says.
Belloni’s mission to revive the therapeutic aspect of the pizzica-tarantata hasn’t been well-received by many male tamburello players. Belloni attributes this resistance to fear of the feminine—of a woman wielding the power of the drum. But she also explains that many southern Italians are hesitant to bring back an ancient practice, one so steeped in folklore and pain. Yet Belloni is convinced the ritual is still relevant for those who need it.
“Women all around the world suffer from abuse and domestic violence. When I teach a workshop, when I have twenty students, at least twelve have experienced abuse,” she says, at one point moved to tears when discussing the personal stories of several participants.
“I think we’re all tarantate,” she says. “All women have experienced that feeling of being caught in a web—the mentality of patriarchal society. I experienced domestic violence. I watched my mother suffer a lot with my father. We all resonate with this aspect of the female condition in some way.”
In the United States alone, one out of every five women will experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetime, and one in four will be victims of domestic violence. With these figures in mind, it is easy to understand why hundreds of Western women have looked to Belloni for support.
“This [music-dance therapy] frees us from pain,” she says. “It breaks the web for people who have been traumatized.”
Though the ritual element of tarantism had lain dormant since the late 1960s, the music of the tarantula has seen a fairly recent revival and renewed interest.
Every summer, the music festival La Notte della Taranta occurs across Apulia, attracting thousands of young people who gather around concert stages to free-dance to renditions of the pizzica-tarantata and other canti popolari.
La Notte della Taranta has featured musicians from Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, who Belloni lauds as “the best group on the scene.” Musical directors for the festival have included world-renowned composers such as Ludovico Einaudi and Stewart Copeland.
While on their website La Notte della Taranta describes its purpose as “a recontextualization of the curative function of the [spider’s bite] to exorcise today’s ills,” the festival is not a mass musical exorcism. It is a concert showcasing dazzling musicianship and cultural pride.
Is it possible to compare Belloni’s work with La Notte Della Taranta? According to her, they are two completely different mutations of the ancient musical tradition, which are both valuable but serve different functions.
Once associated with poverty and tobacco fields, the music of the spider has even crawled onto haute couture catwalks. In July 2020, Dior showcased their 2021 collection with runway models strutting through a sparkling piazza in Lecce, while musicians played traditional pizzica-tarantata music. At one point, a female dancer clad in black acted out a spider-induced fit.
In one sense, Belloni has revived the integrity of the ancient tradition, but she is also quick to acknowledge that she, too, is expanding its original framework. She invokes the Black Madonna and Brazilian Candomblé goddesses instead of Saint Paul. She does not usually have a guitarist, violinist, or accordion player to accompany her during therapeutic sessions, or the support of a village. The phenomenon of tarantism and its ritual cure once belonged solely to the Italian region of Apulia, but Belloni now facilitates healing rituals around the world. Many of the women seeking her assistance have made lasting progress, unlike so many of the women documented by De Martino who endured the ritual year after year and found temporary relief but never recovered.
Passing It On
Teaching music over Zoom is no easy feat. Teaching the tamburello, which becomes a beige blur when played at top speed, seems impossible. Yet, like so many obstacles encountered over the course of her musical career, Belloni has taken on the challenge six days per week since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One newcomer, a soft-spoken young Italian American woman, hasn’t purchased a drum yet and is practicing on the back of a plastic Mickey Mouse plate. An intermediate student sings and plays simultaneously on one of Belloni’s beautifully crafted Remo tambourines, though the sound of the drum is distorted through the computer’s speakers. Belloni peers into the camera and watches carefully, telling one student to angle her wrist closer to the rim, another to strike the head softer.
In the advanced class, Belloni explains the lyrics of the pizzicati-tarantata song and demonstrates the 12/8 rhythm pattern at half tempo. One by one, the students imitate her. Perhaps Belloni can appreciate the irony of teaching southern Italian folk songs via video chat, but in the moment she appears frustrated. One man’s camera stops working and he’s frozen with his tambourine in midair. Belloni tries to sing the chant as another young man plays, but his rhythm and her singing are out of sync.
“I can’t teach the pizzica on Zoom,” she says afterward. “I give up,” and laughs, surrendering to the reality of the current moment. But in typical Belloni fashion, she emails me a couple weeks later and says that she forged ahead despite the technical glitches and now has a number of students who’ve picked up the rhythm.
During her thirty-plus years of teaching, Belloni has only found three students—all gay men—who have been physically competent and spiritually inclined to carry on the therapeutic ritual. Readjusting herself in her chair in front of the camera, Belloni tries to find a comfortable position for her right arm. Lately she’s had a shooting pain from her wrist into her shoulder from a torn tendon.
“I hate to admit it, but I don’t have a young woman taking this on. The strength, the stamina that it takes to play for a long time, you have to make it your path. You have to have a calling to play it for hours,” Belloni says, her voice growing serious. She goes on to say that times have changed. Most Western European and American women don’t have the stamina they used to from working in the fields and making everything by hand. The Italian frame drum is a physically daunting instrument, one that requires physical and emotional muscle to master. Playing it for five, six hours at a time without stopping as the trance ritual demands would mean finding a very particular individual.
When I ask why it’s important for a woman to carry on the legacy, Belloni replies bluntly, as if stating the obvious: “Since ancient times, women were the drummers, the healers, the herbalists. I’ve met women in Italy who are really good at the tammorra and tamburello, but they don’t do the ceremony.” Then she pauses, considering. “If I invited them to do the ceremony, I have no idea what their reaction would be. I could try and see what happens.”
Until Belloni finds a female apprentice to carry on her work, she’s on a mission to remind women in Italy and around the world of their ancient feminine birthright: the healing power of the drum and ecstatic dance.
Before the pandemic, she brought a group of her students to Tindari, Sicily, which Belloni says was once called Persephone’s Island. Under the light of a full moon, Belloni and her musician friends played traditional Sicilian music and tambourines while the women in her group danced wildly, like the bacchantes of ancient times. Then one by one, the Sicilian women who’d been observing quietly from the sidelines got up and joined the circle, as if the Goddess herself had emerged from the underworld to dance spring into being.