By Tommaso Cartia
An American Exclusive for Creative Pois-On. International Singer-Songwriter Alessandra Salerno and her ‘NoQuiet Women Orchestra’ performed (You Make me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, on the occasion of #internationalwomensday. The Sicilian music sensation tells us how the idea of the performance came about, and reflects on what it means to be a woman ‘on stage’ in the music industry of today, and on her relationship with the female icons of the blues American tradition. These days, Alessandra is on the front line producing musical acts remotely to stand up for Italy during the tough times of the quarantine imposed on the country to prevent the spread of the COVID-19. We were expecting her to come back on New York’s stages this spring, and although the wait could be longer, she is positive that: “when this panicking climate ends, we will get back on our feet, even stronger than before. New York is a city dear to my heart, and I can’t wait to go back with my new album in my hands Alessandra Salerno – VOL.1 and a live show that will see me more mature, aware and ready to move my audience singing in my three languages: English, Italian and Sicilian.”
Let’s meet Alessandra Salerno backstage and dream away with her music while waiting to see her back on stage soon.
It’s a sudden epiphany. Like opening your eyes and your ears on a new energetical vibration, when you experience Alessandra Salerno performing for the first time. Like the sudden eruption of a volcano. And it’s the volcanic land of Sicily, both bitterly harsh and exotically sweet like an African breeze, that forged and painted the alchemic colors of her voice. Her voice and her image are an instrument of Beauty, an enchantment that finds in its apparent contradictions, its subliminal harmony. Framed in what seems a regal Flemish painting, her porcelain skin and the long red hair echo those northern lands that had once conquered the Sicilian island. But the texture of her voice and the autoharp that she embraces takes us on a journey, far away in another country, in the American country and folk tradition that Alessandra embodies with the grace of a fairy of the woods and the soul of a resilient blueswoman.
Alessandra is the definition of ‘force of nature’, explosive, creative, unpredictable and so exuberantly generous on stage. I’ve witnessed her performing several times, and each time I saw her abandoning herself completely to gifting her audience with raw, unbridled emotions. She sparks on stage with her histrionic humor and her absolutely delightful personality. Every stage is The Stage for her. From an impromptu concerto in a remote location to the much-viewed one of The Voice of Italy talent show that saw her rise to fame; from the maxi concerts that she often organizes as Artistic Director in her city Palermo alongside big names of the Italian and international musical scene, to prestigious American venues. She had the chance to perform in Washington at the NIAF Gala, The Bitter End in New York, at the NYU at the popular Sofar Sounds circuit, and also, at a Baptist church in Harlem where she magically was asked to perform with a chorus of all-black singers. She just stepped in, asked to sing… and the miracle happened.
Extraordinary things seem to happen when Alessandra is around, her spirit is contagious, and her strong sense of community and aggregation produces entrepreneurial acts that would take a nation of music producers to put together. And she does them overnight. Like the homage for the International Women’s Day and the ‘NoQuiet Women Orchestra’ that did not exist before March 8th 2020; or the streaming concert that she performed last week from her terrace to give a moment of solace to all the Italians living the nightmare of the quarantine.
“Carole King is an icon, for any woman musician. In paying homage to her I wanted to speak to the future generations that maybe know her less. The business world of today is still very chauvinistic, and the music industry is no exception; on the contrary, it is one of the toughest fields for women. She has been writing music for 50 years, collaborating with the biggest artists, winning the most prestigious awards and she gifted the world with this powerful hymn. It is a ‘necessary’ song, for humankind and for us women, we savor a taste of freedom when we listen to it and when we sing it. But it speaks to men also, to make them understand our strength, our sensitivity, our freedom, and the beauty to be women that they should respect. That’s why I decided to honor all women with this song on the occasion of #internationalwomensday and the #womenshistorymonth.
It seems that the idea of the performance was born from an instinctual artistic act, a sudden eruption, strong with creativity, sound, and feminity. You created the ‘NoQuiet Women Orchestra’ basically overnight right?
Exactly! I was watching a documentary on Carole King that night and the inspiration came immediately, like a burning fire. I thought that to send a strong message to women I should have done something big. So, I called 18 female musicians, and I invited them to be part of the project. We risked being almost 40 because the enthusiasm with which my idea was welcomed has been extremely powerful. Each one of them wanted to invite a fellow female colleague. I needed to contain the project, because of the timing and the capacity of the stage hosting us. But this project is destined to grow. The night before releasing the video I was looking for a name for the ensemble, for something that could have all represented us and mean something also for all the women listening. ‘No Quiet’. That was it, the exact meaning I had in mind. Because we women should not stay silent, as artists that struggle to succeed, and as friends, daughters, mothers, lovers, human beings. It’s an invitation to raise our voices to the world, in unison. This is the ‘NoQuiet Women Orchestra’.
March is #womenhistorymonth and also in February, the U.S. celebrates the #blackhistorymonth. These are two worlds that are very dear to your heart. Tell us about your love for the black female voices of singers like Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Billie Holiday and your relationship with the blues, folk, and gospel American tradition.
I followed the #blackhistorymonth a lot over social media, and you are right, I’m in love with the African American culture. I’ve always felt a sort of a very distinctive form of spirituality within myself since I was a kid. My women, my Muses, were Aretha, Etta James, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Whitney Houston, Nina Simone. I dreamt to be like them, and in their voices and skin color, I’ve always identified myself, in those shades so significantly rich. I still cry over the same songs, like “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday. I found the gospel, the one I was looking for. I’ve been part of a choir for a very long time, and my last time in New York gifted me with an unforgettable experience. I sang in a Harlem’s cathedral accompanied by a wonderful choir. My African American colleagues tell me that I have a black soul. I wish I could find out who I was in another life…
Some time ago I had the chance to interview another great Sicilian Singer-Songwriter, Carmen Consoli. She was telling me about her love for the ladies of the American blues music, and she compared them to Rosa Balistreri, the myth of the Sicilian, female songwriting tradition. Because in her opinion, Blues as a genre and an attitude, comes from the same suffering, the same cry of pain that turns into ransom, and from a similar sense of belonging to one’s roots. Do you agree with this definition and what is blues for you?
I totally agree! And I always made this parallel. The music from the South of the world has blues in its veins. The ‘blue notes’ are by definition dark, and the color blue connects with some nostalgic, suffered feelings. Modern music comes from the slaves’ working the camps, from those prayers that would mark the days passing by and the job’s rhythms. The south of the world is united by this hardness of life, this sense of ransom and this strong spirituality. You can find all of this in Rosa Balistreri’s voice. I started singing Rosa when I was 8 years old. These are natural inclinations, everything would lead me to those singers. They are all women, singers, souls made of the same matter. Among them, I would also mention two other icons of the Black Music from the South: Chavela Vargas and Cesària Évora.
Recently, you’ve been the recipient of an award dedicated to Rosa Balistreri; and you are the first performer ever to translate her in English. How important it is for you Rosa’s exemplary as an artist and a woman, and what do you feel when you embody and present her to the foreigner’s stages.
The award has been a great honor for me. As I said, I started to pay homage to her since the very first time I went on stage as a kid. Rosa would tell me of a Palermo I didn’t know. Some would argue that I was too young at that time to understand her, but I’ve always been a very empathetic person, and I would say that she helped me develop my sensitivity, as an artist and a human being. She was one of the first-ever female songwriters in Italy, and her life has been very troubled and, as it happens to many artists, she ended up dying poor and misunderstood. To me, to bring her with me today and putting her on the setlist of my shows alongside my own songs and the tributes to the women that we talked about before, is a moral duty as well as an artistic pleasure. The idea of translating her popular song ‘Cu ti lu dissi’ in “Who Told You”, came because I thought that I needed to gift the world with a version that everybody can understand. Towards the end of the song, I sing in the Sicilian dialect as well, to honor my roots. Every time I sing it in front of an American audience, I witness many different emotional reactions, that move me and for which I’m so so grateful.
Alessandra is a woman…?
She is a woman with her feet on the ground but with her head chasing dreams. I don’t fear death, but I can be afraid of the future. I wish I will have all the time to make all of my dreams as an artist and a woman come true. I’m very determined but I always try to act out of respect for the others, generosity and giving space to my inner child, who keeps on giving me the enthusiasm needed to keep on going and appreciate life’s little pleasures.
The World Stage is shutting down at the moment, but the show must go on and will go on. We were expecting you on the New York stages this spring, but I’m sure that the waiting will just make the comeback even more explosive. After all, even a volcano stays quiet before the eruption. What can we expect from your next artistic eruptions?
When this panicking climate will end, we will get back on our feet, even stronger than before. New York is a city dear to my heart, and I can’t wait to go back with my new album in my hands Alessandra Salerno – VOL.1 and a live show that will see me more mature, aware and ready to move my audience singing in my three languages: English, Italian and Sicilian. I wish to establish myself, even more, for who I am – an exotic artist always looking for something special and unique to communicate. My Autoharp will always be here with me of course, but I plan to play also other instruments on stage and also to dress up my songs with my own style. Remember, I’m also a fashion designer!
For more info on Alessandra Salerno please visit: www.alessandrasalerno.com