Fight Songs 

Two new albums by the imperious Diamanda Galas unmask genocide and cultural forgetfulness

Two new albums by the imperious Diamanda Galas unmask genocide and cultural forgetfulness

Diamanda Galas

La Serpenta Canta (Mute)

Defixiones: Will & Testament (Mute)

Diamanda Galas is searching her apartment for a crowbar. "What do you think I'm going to do with it?" she asks. "I'm going to split any damn thing I can find!"

Galas has had a difficult morning. She's just begun her fall tour of the U.S. in support of two new albums, La Serpenta Canta, and Defixiones: Will & Testament. She has a week off before resuming performances, but down the road, there's apparently some resistance from venues where she's booked to sing Defixiones.

"I've observed in this life that no matter who you have working for you, when it comes down to doing battle, you have to handle the dirty work yourself," she says. "So now the [tour] presenters are saying, 'But we didn't realize this was such a theatrical performance.' Well, too bad. You signed a fucking contract, so now we're going to war. This is the sort of bullshit I really have no patience for."

Galas has fought battles throughout her 25-year career, but relative to the wars she's waged against crimes of ignorance, loss, loneliness and fear, this is petty stuff, especially for such an anarchistic composer. Galas' combative librettos have made enough of a ripple in popular consciousness that she proudly can assert, "I'm an absolute eyesore to everyone."

Defixiones sounds a raging alarm at the theft of Grecian cultural identity and spiritual beliefs through genocide ordered by the Turkish government in the name of "ethnic cleansing" between 1915 and 1923. "Since I was 10 years old, I've been listening to my father tell stories about the Greeks from Asia Minor being enslaved, deported, tortured and slaughtered by the Turks," she says. "And that's been the catalyst for this project all along; each time I visit with him, more and more stories come out. Then I discovered a book called The Black Dog of Fate, by Peter Balakian, which spoke to me about this same combination of trauma and cultural invisibility that Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians share in this country...because nobody knows who these people are in the U.S."

Listening to Defixiones isn't easy. It's chock full of Galas' halting vocal athletics, but driven to new dramatic heights through poetry selected from a dozen different languages, six of which she learned for the project. The results are devastating, beginning with a 35-minute opus entitled "The Dance" that inhabits the torture of human sacrifice and the burning of Armenian women while they were still alive.

Galas' piano playing is downplayed so that her vocal performances and poetics can reign undiluted; however, a numinous and menacing hum of synthesizer pulses through the entire opening segment. The terror mounts to almost unbearable levels throughout Defixiones, often leaving the listener overheated and parched while Galas' narrative reaches a clobbering, fevered pitch with "Sevda Zinciri" and "Holokaftoma." The latter portrays the burning of an Armenian church, the congregation helplessly stuck inside, and the systematic drowning of the Anatolian Greek population. The first of the two discs concludes with "Orders From the Dead," a Galas original, held together by the dismal refrain, "The world is going up in flames," as she recounts the events she previously depicted, this time predominantly in English.

Galas insists that her passion for correcting the history books comes from being a Greek born and raised in the United States (San Diego to be specific, though her career grew out of appearances in Europe). "A lot of people don't even realize where the Greeks came from," she says. "No culture likes to feel invisible. When Americans refer to Greece, they have some vague concept of this ancient civilization and now everyone's just dead. It's absurd! A lot of Greeks don't feel the need to defend the culture because they were raised there and feel secure in their ethnicity. But I do feel that need because I was born here and don't have that sense of security as a result."

The issues Galas tackles in her new recordings also could be related to what's happening with the war in Iraq, though this wasn't necessarily her intent. Galas believes that the genocidal crimes she unmasks in Defixiones have been swept under the rug, and left to remain there, because Greece is politically and economically insignificant to the U.S.

"Basically, the U.S. is a culture of invasion," she says. "For the longest time, Greece stood up to the states, mainly because [Former Greek Prime Minister] Andreas Papandreou was raised in this country and knew what the real situation was regarding America's relationship to Greece. As a result, he didn't trust the U.S. government in the slightest. But it's true. What's happening in Iraq so closely mirrors some of the cultural identity and bullying issues surrounding Defixiones.

"The United States gives little gifts to countries when it needs something from them in order to put down bases, to get oil, to secure tactical positions," she goes on. "And then this pattern has been established—and it's not only the U.S. that does this, but also the British, French and, to some degree, the Italians—whereby an investment is made in a country for a specified period of time, which is synonymous with invasion, and then when whatever result they came for is accomplished, they leave. But in their wake erupts a massive and horrifying destabilization of power between all the ethnic groups within said culture, leaving them at war with one another more so than before. This is how the smallest minority civilizations in our world are destroyed."

The simultaneous release of La Serpenta Canta presents another side of the same philosophy, even though the album consists mainly of material written by American composers and culled from live performances over the last five years. "Performing Defixiones is thoroughly exhausting; it reinforces my rage, and I definitely don't move toward any level of acceptance with it," Galas says. "But with La Serpenta, I derive a wealth of energy, in part because there's so much memorization of text for the other performance, which makes it much harder for me, whereas La Serpenta is more musical. It comes easily.

"And a lot of that material also revolves around these same issues: 'Burning Hell,' 'Aint No Grave Can Hold My Body Down,' 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry,' " she continues. "Take, for example, 'Be Sure My Grave is Kept Clean.' This is a piece that says, 'Don't try to besmirch my memory. I may have to die, but I will not rest until my name is engraved on a rock that cannot be unearthed.'

"That theme also runs through my 'Plague Mass.' It's all about leaving a legacy, and that pretty much summarizes my feelings about what I'm here to do on this planet. It all relates to the suffering I've watched people go through in my life, including my brother, and with the AIDS epidemic on a larger scale. My work focuses on people who are ultimately made to feel completely alone, and though I've been accused of celebrating death, really, I'm just trying to celebrate life."

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