(Licata, 1927 – Palermo, 1990)
By Amanda Pascali (Fulbright Fellow)
Rosa Balistreri was one of the first Italian women to publicly denounce social inequality through music. Her iconic, hoarse voice brought songs about Sicily’s jarring poverty in the 20th century to the forefront of Italian folk music in the 1960s. A blue-collar worker for most of her life, Rosa Balistreri learned to read and write at the age of 32 and to play the guitar at the age of 40. She is a universal symbol of the working class who protested social injustice in one of the bravest ways of her time period: with a voice and a guitar.
Rosa Balistreri was born in Licata (province of Agrigento) in 1927 into a very poor family. She was the daughter of a housewife and a carpenter and was sent to work very early in her life without having the chance to attend school. Domestic violence was an ever-present force in her home life from a young age. In her accounts of her life, documented by Giuseppe Cantavenere, Rosa describes her memories of her mother being raped and physically abused in front of the family. They shared a one-room house where they all slept, ate, and lived. At age 15, she received her first pair of shoes so she could go into church to sing.
Rosa Balistreri was forced into marriage with Gioacchino Torregrossa, whom she later described as a “latru, jucaturi e ‘mbriacuni,” or a “thief, gambler, and drunkard.” Shortly after they married, he gambled away all of their money. Fed up, or perhaps defending herself (the accounts are unclear), Rosa attacked him with a knife. She then faced six months in prison.
Once free, she made a living by selling capers, snails, and prickly pears on the streets of Licata. She then moved to Palermo, where she worked as a maid and nanny for a noble family. Here she was accused of stealing from the family, ending up in prison again. At 32, she learned to read and write.
Her music career didn’t start until she moved to Florence and picked up a guitar at the age of 40, encouraged by the local community of artists and intellectuals. Among them were Guttuso, Sciascia, Camilleri, and Dario Fo, who in 1966 cast her to star in his theatrical performance “Ci ragiono e canto” (literally translated as “I Think and I Sing”). This performance is considered by many to be her “big break.” Mario de Micheli, an academic and art critic, gave her the opportunity to record her first record. It was in Florence where she met and became romantically involved with the painter Manfredi Lombardo, with whom she lived for 12 years.
Her sister followed her to Florence in search of freedom from her abusive husband. However, the husband found her and killed her. Devastated by the event, their father hanged himself. After this, Rosa wrote “Un matrimonio infelice” (“An Unhappy Marriage”), a 40-minute long story-song in the Sicilian “cantastorie” style, recounting the story of her sister’s femicide.
Rosa did not just sing about the most pressing issues of her time; she lived them. Her experience can be felt through her voice and powerful delivery of the age-old message: when things are too dangerous to say, sing. She described herself not as a singer but as an activist whose tools were a guitar and a voice. She is a universal symbol of the working class who, like many musicians from marginalized groups (Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the American South, Chavela Vargas in Mexico, and Miriam Makeba in South Africa, for example), sang against injustice and carved a permanent record of their people’s existence and experiences in song.
In 1990, Rosa Balistreri suffered a stroke while singing onstage in Calabria and died at the age of 63.
Cantavenere, Giuseppe. Rosa Balistreri. Una grande cantante folk racconta la sua vita, Sciascia, 2018.
 I wish to thank Felice Liotti, Francesco Giunta, Francesco Pira and Mauro Geraci for sharing their memories of Rosa with me. A special thank also to the Associazione Cantastorie Busacca and to Prof. Alessandro Carrera.