by carl wilson

Girls Gone Wild

Wild women giving and getting the blues: Diamanda Galas and Buffy Sainte-Marie.

In this week's Overtones from The Globe and Mail, a consideration of Diamanda Galas' epic genocide cycle Defixiones (in performance tonight at the Open Ears festival in Kitchener, Ont.) as an argument for poetry after Auschwitz (and before). Also, by extension, some thoughts about the quality of mourning in "wild" women's voices in general, and what it is about them that spooks people so. (A version of this thesis over on the Other 50 Tracks drew some vigorous disagreement this week, as yet to be posted - what do you think?) Read on. [...]

Her father's curse

The Globe and Mail Review
Saturday, April 30, 2005

As a child in San Diego in the 1960s, Diamanda Galas was given piano lessons and even invited to sit in with her father's lounge band at the Holiday Inn. What she couldn't do was sing: According to her dad's Greek Orthodox convictions, the only women who sang were whores.

Galas grew up to become one of the most dramatically unclassifiable singers on Earth, whose tone can skate from low snarl to banshee wail, from blues to aria, with a twist of crimson lip or an arc of black-painted brow. She has collaborated with free-jazz giants, major composers and even ex-Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. And yet, briefly in her 20s, she fell into prostitution, and contracted hepatitis, as if her father's curse gripped her still.

People remain anxious about women's voices, and not only religious zealots. Over-the-top male rockers like Bono can yelp and groan all they want over bucking guitars, but when a woman's timbre spills outside set boundaries (soothing earth mommy, breathy seductress, ballad belter), she's bound to face mockery and caricature. Consider Yoko Ono, Nina Simone, Bjork, or even native Canadian folk-rock icon Buffy Sainte-Marie, whose warble only got wobblier after she shed the 1960s image she has witheringly called "Pocahontas with a guitar."

Such a wavering vibrato is enough to make many people say a female singer "drives them crazy," as if they still feared witches or the ancient Greek sirens. Galas, now in her 50s, has been labelled a Satanist, a fury, a Goth and any other synonym for "scary" that journalists can concoct. Aside from a short 1980s post-punk vogue, she has found it hard to get stage time in her own country. Even her fans saddle her with devil-woman fantasies.

Mind you, Galas has courted these reactions. She knows there's no way around them, only a passage through. She calls her voice a weapon, and uses it to conquer realms where few others dare to tread. But beyond the "dark diva" persona and extreme technique, she warrants much more credit for having developed a way of interweaving diverse styles, texts and sound design into long-form pieces on grave topics like AIDS, rape, mental illness and torture, such as Plague Mass or Insekta.

(To support those works she also performs radically revised country, gospel and blues songs, and shows up as a special effect on the occasional horror soundtrack, such as this spring's Ring 2.)

Her most daunting subject yet, genocide, is the focus of Defixiones, which she performs in its latest version tonight in the Open Ears festival in Kitchener, Ont. (Visit for details.)

The title refers to lead carvings bearing curses that are placed on graves to ward off desecration. Galas's musical hex is at once a requiem and an imprecation against the erasure of the memory of more than a million Armenian, Greek, Assyrian and Cypriot victims of Turkish massacres during and after the First World War.

Canada's parliament has joined a short list of states that acknowledge the Armenian genocide, though only over the objections of Paul Martin's cabinet. The European Union, the United States and Israel refuse, partly to placate strategically important modern Turkey. But it's also to safeguard the unique status of the Nazi murder of Jews, as if the six million deaths would be diminished by recognition that they did not form a one-time rupture, but part of a recurring pattern of atrocity.

Every situation is irreducible, but designating the Holocaust incomparable to any other event only relieves the world of its moral duties. It makes the oath "never again" and the term "genocide" meaningless -- which is just what they've proved to be in most of the past half-century.

When the German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno famously declared that to write poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric, he could not know Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur were yet to come. Indeed, Hitler himself reputedly scoffed, "Who remembers the Armenians?" when he was preparing the Final Solution. It makes a stern silence (which Adorno's edict is often mistakenly thought to require) no option at all.

No one shatters silences and defies censure like Galas. Beginning from the lore she heard growing up with Greek-Turkish-Armenian-Syrian ancestry, Defixiones figuratively re-members (that is, reconstructs) the atrocities of Asia Minor. Eyewitness accounts by the poets Siamanto and Adonis are linked to better-known poet-outcasts - Paul Celan (using his indelible Holocaust poem, Todesfuge), Peru's part-aboriginal Cesar Vallejo, the murdered gay Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini - as well as fragments from Galas's own previous work on AIDS.

The music layers Armenian liturgy over Greek rembetika tavern music over the African-American slave dirge See That My Grave Is Kept Clean. These connections are forged in a half-dozen languages, accompanied by her own stark piano, all subtly electronically processed.

What results is a poetry of witness that has little to do with any lone rational mind interpreting the past. Instead, a chorus of the disappeared seems to ricochet through her body. It is just the kind of "shudder" Adorno praised in Celan's poetry, a physical effect, beyond representation, that somehow re-enacts the agonies of real bodies falling through the fissures of history.

In this sense its sophistication resonates down into the war-on-terror torture room. Yet one of its key influences is the ancient Greek tradition of threnody or moirologi, in which women would wail and ululate over the grave of a fallen relative, not only in lamentation but to whip mourners up for vengeance. It's a sound heard round the world - for example, in Palestine today. But in modern Greece it was banned as a pagan holdover. Which carries me back to the taboo against singing in Galas's first home.

Is it coincidence that the ululating voice of Buffy Sainte-Marie (who appears at Hugh's Room in Toronto on Tuesday), drawing upon native vocal traditions, also howls in the backdraft of a genocide? Her pious and universalist 1960s anthems (such as Universal Soldier) gave way to the likes of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee which, like Defixiones, is both a litany of death and an urgent petition.

It's as if this sound, this tide in the larynx, were the world's lingua franca of remembrance. This timbre recalls something we don't want to hear, something people will laugh loud in scorn to drown out (forcing anyone who wants to be serious to risk seeming ridiculous first). A sound such as a prostitute telling you she is still your brilliant daughter. Or an Antigone who has seen injustice and will not stop demanding to know what you are going to do.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, April 30 at 2:55 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)



thanks for writing the following:
"Every situation is irreducible, but designating the Holocaust incomparable to any other event only relieves the world of its moral duties. It makes the oath "never again" and the term "genocide" meaningless -- which is just what they've proved to be in most of the past half-century."

and if you haven't already, read samantha power's "The problem from hell: america in the age of genocide." that's the first place i heard about hitler's "who remembers the armenians" comment.

did anyone here make it to the show?

Posted by barclay on May 9, 2005 8:45 PM



i've noticed this hesitance towards "wild women" as well. my example is usually pj harvey. what is the one pj harvey song that radio and tv remembers? it's usually "down by the water," a song that features whispery, sensual pj instead of growling, howling pj.

for some reason, we like women who spill their guts, but don't like it when it sounds like they're spilling their guts. yet robert plant gets away with it.

Posted by brian on May 2, 2005 11:09 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson