TWH — When Pagan musician Mama Gina landed in a St. Louis hospital while touring in the summer of 2016, doctors told her they had to amputate one of her toes due to complications from her diabetes.
But the singer-guitarist knew the real cause: ’Twas the dragon!
“This crazy song came out of me in August 2015 and it actually took several months to write,” Mama Gina said by phone from her home in Tampa. “This story was circulating in my brain about this bard who has a curse on her that nobody can remember her name – which totally sucks if you’re a bard. You want to get a gig again.”Mama Gina continues: “So, she makes a deal with a dragon. In return for giving her a name that everyone will remember, she has to spend the night with the dragon and give him whatever he wants. Well, the dragon has a toe fetish. He takes a toe and she becomes – ta-da! – Nine Toes the Bard.”
Yes, that timeline is correct. Mama Gina, whose real name is Gina LaMonte, wrote the song “Nine Toes the Bard” in the third quarter of 2015. And – in a strange case of life imitating art – 10 months later she literally became Nine Toes.
“I was in the hospital the day after my surgery playing ‘Nine Toes’ for the nurses,” Mama Gina said. “They’re crying and laughing and they’re saying ‘Did you just write that?’ And I go, ‘No, that’s the really funny part – I wrote this last year.’ ”
Over the past decade at such festivals as the Florida Pagan Gathering, Pagan Spirit Gathering, CalderaFest, Phoenix Phyre in Lakeland, Fla., and many others, Mama Gina has performed such songs as “Summer of the Fae,” “Cerridwen’s Cauldron,” “Ravens of the Nine Worlds,” “The Empress Down Rattlesnake Road” and musical tales of Coyote, the Morrighan, Oshun and Freya.
Festival-goers gathered around a campfire as the rhythms of a nearby drum circle spiraled into the night sky may have heard Mama Gina announce, “OK, I’m gonna channel the dead chick.” Whereby she would toss back her long auburn hair, guzzle a metaphorical cup of gravel and proceed to conjure a dead-on imitation of Janis Joplin singing “Mercedes Benz.”
But channeling this Nine Toes chick, which Gina, a former paralegal, has described as “this 15th-century Welsh lass” . . . well, that’s a different story.
“She literally showed up in the hospital,” Gina said of that fateful day after the surgeon — er, the dragon? — took her toe.
“Maybe it was the combination of antibiotics they had me on. Maybe it was the fact I wasn’t feeding myself sugar like crazy for the first time in 20 years. Whatever the reason, whatever the mental state, she was in that hospital room with me and she just started telling me story after story after story.”
“Now it’s a year and a half later,” Mama Gina continued, “and I really feel she’s a piece of my soul that just went on walkabout in another timeline and she’s back and we’re integrating. We have conversations. I let her do her own shows. We’re playing some pirate festivals and some Ren festivals where I just dress up like her and I step into the fair with the guitar and a drum and she takes over for the day. Or she’ll take over for an hour concert. And she’s not done telling me stories.”
Mama Gina released her CD Nine Toes the Bard in spring 2017. While she gleefully noted the title track is “a drinking song” and the CD has other silly, fun pieces, she also confessed that, like any decent fairy tale, the collection has its dark sides.
“ ‘Thorn’ is a story about the Blackberry Knight,” Gina said. “There are people who so much believe they are broken that even when they find happiness, they can’t hold onto it because they keep telling themselves how broken they are. That first line: ‘I am unlovable’ — when I play that song people snot-cry in the middle of it. They come to me afterwards and say, ‘You broke me. I know that person. I am that person.’ ”
Mama Gina also released a four-song companion CD titled Nine Toes NAUGHTY! Those who think a dragon with a toe fetish is rather risqué should cautiously approach the song “St. Joan’s Balls,” about medieval religious relic traders (and yes, that song plays upon speculations that maybe Joan of Arc was a man, or androgynous).
Sound clips of all of Mama Gina’s songs, as well as numerous videos and a listing of her many upcoming performance dates, are available on her website, mamaginamusic.com.
But the arrival of Nine Toes wasn’t the only dramatic transformation in Gina’s life.
She landed her first paid singing gigs at age 16 in her hometown of Tampa. At 19 she hit the road with a show band, playing pop, rock, and R&B for 52 weeks a year across the Southeast, Northeast, and Midwest.
Gina was 31 when her son, Jesse, was born. “I knew I needed to get off the road and settle down to raise this baby,” she said.
Gina became a paralegal even as, conversely, her Pagan path began to beckon to her.
Asked to define or describe her spiritual path, she replied: “That’s complicated for all of us, isn’t it? This all began with me picking up Tarot in my mid-20s, and it grew and it grew and it grew. My Tarot path brought me into the world of Paganism. As I was raising Jesse, I started teaching Tarot, and that really anchored me into the Pagan community because they were the most welcoming and I resonated with most of those ideas.”
“About that time, I also started studying Kabbalah, the mystical, magical side of Kabbalah and a little bit of the Judaic side,” Mama Gina continued.
“I am a Kabbalist first and a Pagan probably an extraordinarily close second. My world view is more Kabbalistic than anything else, but I resonate so much, I feel so comfortable in Paganism. And the ideas overlap so very, very much that this is where I’ve wound up. It’s home for me in the Pagan community.”
A decade ago, Gina and son Jesse were about to attend the Pagan Spirit Gathering (PSG) in the Missouri Ozarks, and on a whim she decided to take her 12-string guitar and drum – “and I hadn’t played that guitar in about 10 years,” she said.
At that rain-rattled PSG, “My soul got cracked wide open,” Gina said.
“I started writing. In fact the first song I wrote for Mama Gina — I didn’t know it at the time — was ‘Flicker and Flame’ (a chant piece backed by soft drumming). That was my experience of all the fireflies that came out that night – there were hundreds of them. It was amazing.”
Gina sensed “this new incarnation [she] was becoming.” Along with writing the book Tarot Spreads, Threads and Mandalas (penned under the name Gina Estevez) and teaching Tarot workshops at Pagan gatherings, she began writing songs at every festival.
She released her first CD, Goddess Kiss’d, in 2013. She inquired with festival organizers about performing at their events, “and people were so generous to give me time at their festivals,” she said. “That’s really where the solo Pagan thing started.”
With Jesse about to graduate from high school, “I went to my family and said: ‘Here’s what’s gonna happen – we’re about to have no money (laughs) because I’m going to go be a solo Pagan musician,’ ” Gina recalled.
“With the full support of my family, by the time I was 50, I was out playing. My last day on my day job was Sept. 30, 2013.”
Goddess Kiss’d was followed by her CDs The Undertaker’s Daughter (yes, an accurate title) in spring 2014, Solitaire in 2015, I Remember Love later in 2015, and then the two Nine Toes collections.
The songs on I Remember Love reveal Mama Gina’s wide stylistic range.
“Binding Wood” is a vocal and drum track that she wrote for the handfasting of two friends. “The Eagle and the Owl,” an incantatory djembe/rattle/chant piece that she wrote for a ritual, finds her singing: “Dance the eagle, dance the owl, one by daylight, one by stars . . . drape yourself in all that light and watch the Goddess in you rise.”
For “The Empress Down Rattlesnake Road,” she summons muscular guitar strumming and grit in her voice to explore, she said in the interview, “my love affair with Kali.” “BeBop Betty” is a spry, jazzy song about a jazz- and blues-loving “amazing little sprite” who “sits right there on the bell of that trumpet, listening to Miles have his way.”
“Collapse,” a gentle, elegiac ballad, was written about a dying father’s love for his daughter, both friends of Gina’s. Or was the song written by that father?
“I was sitting with my guitar in my lap at about 10 o’clock at night — I remember everything about this,” Gina said. “I felt this brush on my shoulder and I just felt him come through me. I thought ‘This is so bizarre’ because I don’t do a lot of the things that Pagans do – I don’t do the whoo stuff a whole lot.
“But he stepped right into me. And I said, ‘Oh! What do you want?’ He said, ‘I want you to give my little girl a message.’ I said, ‘Well, what do you want to say?’ He said, ‘Hell if I know – you’re the songwriter’ (laughs).”
Gina wrote the song in 30 minutes. “He just gave me this feeling of such contentment and love for his daughter,” she said. Gina texted the lyrics to her friend.
“I told her ‘I think this message is from your father to you. I just wrote this song tonight but it’s not mine – it’s from him and it’s for you,’ ” Gina recalled. “She texted me the next morning and said, ‘Thank you — my dad crossed over at about 10 o’clock last night.’ ”
“Boy, you talk about ‘Whoa!’ That was a connection I can’t argue away and I can’t be logical about it. I’m just so grateful I was open to it.”
Ask Mama Gina “What makes a Pagan song a Pagan song?” and she will note: “Everybody’s got a different opinion on that one. There are overtly Pagan songs I have written about the Gods, about the Goddesses, the four quarters. There are magical songs I have written about my work with LBRP – the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram.”
“I write songs about nature, the rivers in Florida, about the Seminole Indian tribe’s creation myth. I write sings about my broken heart (laughs) that are not overtly Pagan, but I am Pagan,” she said.
“I’ve played tiny restaurants with people wandering in off the streets who don’t know anything about Paganism, and I didn’t have to apologize for or explain my music. I can just play it. And even the stuff we think is overtly Pagan, they might see it as mythology instead, but they’re still going to cry or they’re still going to laugh. I write about whatever is in my heart.”