Diamanda Galas Interview: Talking Her Songs Of Exile
, September 9th, 2009 07:34
As long as the vulgar Greek exists in this world
By Allah, my hatred won't leave me
As long as I see him there like a dog
By Allah, this hatred won't leave me...
Even if I crush thirty thousand of their heads with a stone
Even if I wrench out the teeth of ten thousand
And throw a hundred thousand of their corpses into the river
By Allah, this hatred won't leave me.
Excerpt from 'Hatred', a poem published in the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, immediately preceding the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.
Watching Diamanda Galas perform on her recent Songs Of Exile tour is a reminder that her consummate musicianship is not derived simply from technique, but from passionate belief, albeit expressed through perfect muscle memory. Transported, wayward light scattering her long shadow across the audience, she calls on the ghosts of ideas in their own languages. The purity of her intention is what holds together the various strands of this song cycle – her trademark amanes, the ancient lament that she has described as "the last cry of the soldier on the battlefield"; the guttural, beautiful blues of 'See That My Grave Is Swept Clean'; and her spectral interpretations of the poetry of Paul Celan, Cesar Vallejo, Adonis: disparate writers bound by their experiences of enforced separation from their homes and cultural traditions. Disapora – the scattered: the term implies devastation, the advent of an irresistible force.
Galas too is an exile of sorts. As a Greek American with a complex cultural background, she is heiress to the traditions of Asia Minor: to the diverse cultures of ancient Byzantium, and to their dissipation under the Ottoman Empire. Her understanding of ethnic cleansing links the bloody conflicts of the ancient empires, the multiple genocides of the modern Turkish state, and the spiritual exile of all those imprisoned, tortured, or dispossessed by virtue of their identity. As passionate and referential as her work implies, Galas in conversation is also possessed of a wonderful gallows humour, and a rare ability to demonstrate artistic, conceptual, and political parallels across centuries, continents, or ideological differences.
Your subjects are esoteric by the standards of mainstream music, and overtly political by the standards of modern classical or the avant-garde. How do you think you're perceived by music critics?
Oh, there's 'the AIDS woman', there were a lot of magazines that called me that. And they may consider me an elitist, because I have technique, but of course, I consider pop singers who go up onstage drunk, with no technique, and have very wealthy record companies, to be completely elitist. What else? Depressing. Oh, please, if a man sings a depressing song, they love it.
Johnny Cash! He's 95 and nearly dead, wheel him out, another video, pair him off with Nine Inch Nails. Oh, the pathos…five stars!
Right. Exactly. I can't stand the sentimentality that all this implies. I think these guys have trouble getting it up. Music is their Viagra and they go to the pub, load up the jukebox, and then they talk about fucking. And really, everything that I've ever done is antithetical [to that]. I don't imagine that anything I do would be of any interest to them.
The idea of yourself as an outlaw or an exile is central to some of the voices in your work, isn't it?
There's a song I perform called 'Uparxo' - which just means 'I exist'. It's the simplest form of defiance. Some people are born outlaws, or they become outlaws because the laws literally change to force them out. That's what Songs Of Exile is all about. It's mainly focused on Asia Minor, on the experiences of exiles from what is now called Turkey - which I do not call Turkey. The only reason that Turkey's called Turkey is because if you called it anything else they would call it an insult to Turkishness and you'd be killed. It should be called Anatolia, which is comprised of many ethnic groups and was comprised of more until they committed the genocides, the ethnic cleansing.
So, the song cycle that you've recently been performing relates specifically to the genocides against the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek populations within what's now called Turkey, which the Turkish government adamantly denies. And to perform these songs now is to continue to resist Turkish genocide denial and also to proclaim the cultural life of Anatolia?
Sometimes literally. I perform one text called 'Exo Yunanli', which translates as 'Get out, Greek'... 'exo' means 'get out' in Greek, and then 'unan'... it isn't a Greek word, but it means 'Greek', it's an insulting word, it's what we're called by the Turks. There are two voices in the text: first I'm singing 'Exo Yunanli', and my tone is inhuman. Then I sing a beautiful text which comes from Trebzon: I found a recording of men, women and children singing this song, lamenting the deportations. [When I perform it] I sing those verses and then in between I'm doing these interjections in Turkish, as though on a bullhorn: here are your orders. Get out.
How important is it to you for your audience to understand that moment of realisation – the moment when you become aware that the state is against you, that they're coming for you?
Well, it's very normal to people from Anatolia or other places where genocides happen, and completely incomprehensible to those outside of it. How can I put this... there's a poem called 'Hatred', which is unbelievable. It's probably the perfect illustration of what I'm talking about. It was published in a Turkish national newspaper, just before the invasion of Cyprus. It's very famous. All it talks about is the desire, in the name of Allah, to decapitate as many thousands of Greeks as [possible]. [laughs] It's a very badly written poem, but it's proof that that was the aim. Open up the daily paper, there it is.
OK – I want to read that. I'll google it now.
OK, I'll drink my tea while you look. Did you find it?
Oh my god. I'm reading it now.
Great, well there you go.
It just goes on and on! Decapitate this many, pull their teeth out, throw them in the river...this guy is a busy little bee.
Oh god. I love it. You're such a fucking drag queen.
I'm going to take that as a compliment.
You should! We female drag queens are a rare and ancient breed.
This poem is so terrible! There's something undealable-with about it. It has the attention to detail of a serial killer, but the epic scale of a general. It's so evil it's almost self-parody.
Yes, absolutely. But it's real, those murders happened. I use the work of many writers and singers and musicians who were martyred – Siamanto, for example, the Armenian writer, who was assassinated, or the Assyrian poet, Dr. Freidoun Bet-Oraham, one of the most significant writers in his tradition, who was executed. So many writers and poets and musicians were executed or committed suicide. I go to these places and spend months researching the texts of the murdered and then I come back to New York and I think, 'Ah, you whining motherfuckers, man, have you ever been to a place where there's no food?'
But the people who have been through that kind of extremity are stoic like you wouldn't believe! I had the same feeling when I was working with asylum seekers from Iraqi Kurdistan, Afghanistan, the Congo. They had been through experiences I had no way to conceptualise. I felt I had had an extended psychic adolescence, as a white girl who grew up in a post-colonial social democracy, and then dealing with this was my rude awakening. I had no time for my friends' minidramas any more. They'd phone me up crying, 'I broke up with my boyfriend,' and I'd just hang up on them.
Seriously, they made a joke about it – 'If you haven't been vaginally tortured with a hairdryer, she doesn't wanna know you anymore.'
[laughs] But don't you find it astonishing that anyone could be [so self-absorbed]? The only thing I can think of is that they have never, ever experienced any physical pain in their lives. Real pain. Over here [in the US] the most intelligent people are driving the cabs. I'm serious - they've got like, major degrees in astrophysics and chemistry, and they're driving cabs for these disgusting little bitches on their cellphones, talking about when they're gonna see their boyfriend next or something, it's truly unbelievable, and it's so sad.
Presumably then, seeing those kinds of unequal, almost colonial relationships in US culture is another reason diasporadic voices are so important to you?
Yes. The voices of the diaspora are extremely important. The diaspora of Anatolia is huge, and often the diaspora are preserving cultural or artistic forms and texts that are outlawed or destroyed in the country of origin, actually. People like me in the diaspora of Greece are creating works that it might not have occurred to us to create if we were living on the mainland. Many of the great innovators are writers or artists from the diaspora. I mean, El Greco lived in Spain!
That's what I noticed about the poets you choose to use in your work as well, people like Paul Celan, or Cesar Vallejo, or even Pasolini: that apart from being astonishing writers, they were all exiles in different ways. It implies that you think of exile as a spiritual as well as a physical condition.
Yes, in different ways. Celan was exiled to Austria, Vallejo lived in self-imposed exile in Paris, for example. Celan's parents were deported, imprisoned and executed by the Nazis, and Celan was put in a labour camp and eventually committed suicide. Vallejo, when he was living in Peru, witnessed the virtual slavery of his people on the sugar plantations. Pasolini lived as an outlaw in his culture, as a homosexual. And 'Be Sure That My Grave Is Kept Clean', which is also part of this cycle, that specifically is a reference to the AIDS epidemic. Because there's no-one who lives more as an exile than someone with AIDS in any country he or she lives in. When I was recording Defixiones [her 2003 album based around the modern Turkish genocides], it was inescapable and quite parallel, the links between genocide and the killing of gay people - all the articles I would read about how gay people were buried alive into walls in Egypt and Turkey. And they continue to do this.
I was reading just yesterday some news from Iraq, about the torture and execution of gay men who have their rectums glued shut with specialist surgical glue and then they're fed drinks to induce diarrhea.
I'll send you the link.
Oh I wish you would! Oh my God!
They're given drinks to induce diarrhoea and then they drown in their own diarrhoea.
Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! You see - I consider myself completely anti-monotheistic. Monotheism to me is a closed brain, it's a person who has read one book and is a servant. You know why most world leaders are atheists? They don't believe in God because they believe they are God. They are their own book. And this is what happens. Are these executions happening in prison?
No, this is at roadblocks. It's almost as though the larger conflict is just repatterning itself in all the social tensions that are within that culture.
Corr-ect! Corr-ect! That's exactly what's happening in Iraq now, larger conflicts promote smaller conflicts. It's like an ecosystem. Take the Kurds in Iraq, who themselves were subject to ethnic cleansing: they are now eradicating the Assyrians. And the Assyrians, because they're the smallest minority group, are fleeing, with nowhere to go. This is the oldest culture of Iraq, and it's a culture that's now going to be lost, because it's being systematically destroyed, and that's being overlooked in the story of the Iraq conflict.
And the real story is nothing like what's portrayed from either side in any case.
Right. Who's telling the story of Western interference in the oil-bearing nations anymore? You've got the US media portraying it as an issue with Islam, which it is not. And then you've got Osama Bin Laden filming his recruitment video in the Regency hotel with imported sand, acting like he's in the desert. Aside from how totally pathetic that is - he's nothing to do with the issue! He's from Saudi, his family has links to the US government! You know his sister's trying to get a rock 'n' roll gig with a fuckin' facelift and a nose job in New York? But nobody wants to hire a Bin Laden to do Alice Cooper songs anymore. Maybe she'll entertain the troops. [laughs]
Diamanda Galas plays the dates below during October. For a series of exclusive downloads on her own Intravenal Sound Operations label, visit Diamanda Galas' website
Pop Montreal Music Festival
Concordia University, Montreal, Canada
Talk as part of HIV/AIDS Lecture Series
Pop Montreal Music Festival
Théâtre Outremont, Montreal, Canada
Diamanda Galás in Concert: Voice and Piano
Tickets are $35
New Hazlett Theatre, Pittsburgh
Tickets are $20 for adults, $10 for students
Carousel: The Songs Of Jacques Brel featuring Diamanda Galas, Marc Almond and more
Barbican Centre, London
Warwick Arts Centre
Carousel: The Songs of Jacques Brel
Pallas Theater, Athens (Greece)