Healing Journeys with the Black Madonna

photo by Jonathan Slaff

The Black Madonna is the Goddess, also interpreted as Earth Mother or the Christin Madonna. Her worship dates from pre-Christian rituals. Alessandra Belloni has studied the current rituals in Italy and created a wonderful concert of music and dance presented by The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in a side chapel (a side chapel in this huge, magnificent building is the size of a church somewhere else).

From the opening song, a traditional chant for The Madonna of Seminara from Calabria which Ms. Belloni sings accompanied only by a flute, to the last, a song that she wrote herself in praise of the moon goddess, we find an astonishing variety of emotion, tone and rhythm. There’s a healing chant, ritual drumming, a medieval prayer - even a chant to the Orisha goddess of Love and the Sea from the Afro-Brazilian Yoruba tradition.

Ms. Belloni takes the lead vocals. Her middle and upper registers are rich and expressive. At its best, her upper register and sweet and clear, but she’s not as comfortable up there. She’s aided by five performers. Two sing and three dance, and all play instruments: clarinet; flute; saxophone; a guitar; violins. Most interestingly, Kevin Nathaniel plays the mbira (a kalimba in a bowl) and the percussion shekere (a gourd with beads woven around it).

And the dancing! It’s sometimes familiar, graceful folk-jazz, but at other times it’s almost savage, like the choreography of Le Sacre du printemps: dancers kneel in the center aisle of the chapel and flail their arms above them. At one point a pair of them hook knees.

It’s all lovely to look at: the dancers in purple, white or red; Ms. Belloni herelf, a striking woman with long black hair, in a full blue dress and a print shawl, playing a tabor with a portrait painted on it.

The evening was marred only by the sound system. Combined with the high-ceilinged Gothic room, it served not only to amplify but to distort as well. Couldn’t we enjoy the music as our ancestors did for a millennium, with the natural echoes of the cathedral?

But no matter. When the performers and the audience sang, a cappella, “Ave, Ave, Ave Maria,” we couldn’t have been happier.

And thanks to St. John’s for allowing this largely heathen program!

Steve Capra

March, 2019

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