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Diamanda Galás - Defixiones: Will and Testament / La Serpenta Canta

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Artist: Diamanda Galás

Album: Defixiones: Will and Testament / La Serpenta Canta

Label: Mute

Review date: Feb. 3, 2004

“Only the historian will have the gift of fanning the spark on hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.” - Walter Benjamin

Defixiones are stone figures or totems placed on the graves of those passed in Greece and Asia Minor. They serve the purpose to warn against the disturbance or desecration of the bones of the dead: a hex against those willing to shift the bodies of the dead as an act of historical erasure. Diamanda Galás’ work, Defixiones: Will and Testament serves a similar purpose: the work’s presence is a reminder, carved in stone, of the genocide of the Greeks of Asia Minor between 1915 and 1923, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians in a mass displacement led and endorsed by the Turkish government. The Armenian genocides have been conveniently overlooked by the current Turkish and US governments (largely due to the continued economic relationship between the two countries.) In 2001, Galás also observed in interview that “Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres calls the Armenian Genocide Resolution ‘meaningless’ and says to the Turkish Daily News... ‘We reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. It is a tragedy what the Armenians went through, but not genocide.” (from L.A. Weekly, Nov 23-29, 2001) This is a politically sanctioned form of forgetting that resonates with the current geo-political climate. This is also a politically sanctioned denial of complicity, a singular inability to apologise, that resonates with the Australian Liberal Government’s self-interested inability to apologise for the displacement and suffering of our Aboriginal populace.

Galás’ work serves as a perpetual reminder, art that works by countering the continued desire to forget atrocities or compress the memory of suffering into bite-sized, innocuous moments of vacuous ‘mourning’. Galás claws back the true meaning of mourning: in the past her work has referenced the Greek tradition of moiroloiga, the wailing women who cry and ululate at the graves of the deceased. The work is invocatory, the use of song as hex: it’s no surprise that, among the pieces set to music for Defixiones is Henri Michaux’s “Je Rame”, as Michaux was an artist (Belgian, though writing in French) whose writings were constructed as fully functioning hexes.

Defixiones may well be Galás’ most potent work yet: at the very least, it has the same incendiary power as her Plague Mass for the victims of the AIDS virus. The opening suite, “The Dance”, sources a wide variety of texts - the Armenian poet Siamanto, the Syrian poet and critic Adonis, and works by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Marar Yekmalian among others - that lays bare the intent of the programme: song as remembrance and as invocation. But it’s the second half of the programme that really takes off. Galás’ setting of Michaux’s “Je Rame” draws a wailing loop of rattled-chain vocals into the piece’s orbit, raising the dead poet’s spirit. Her casting of Gérard de Nerval’s “Artémis” (from the Chimeras) is truly haunted. Galás’ blues-derived piano playing splatters her vocals with punctuations and trills as she shifts into a wordless vocalisation that’s truly moving. She finishes with Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”, slapping the piano to sound of the depths of the song, her voice scouring the depths of Jefferson’s words.

La Serpenta Canta documents Galás’ song recitals, continuing the work she did on The Singer and Malediction and Prayer. Galás performed La Serpenta Canta in Adelaide, Australia in 2001: the performance was possibly the most visceral and beautiful thing I’ve ever witnessed, culminating in a setting of “Let My People Go” that drew the air from the venue. Whilst it doesn’t appear on this document, the tenor of that song is writ large through the fourteen songs captured on this double CD. Galás’ versioning of these songs - drawn from orbits as singular as Hank Williams, Ornette Coleman, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins - correctly sources both the darkness that inhabits each work and its absolute converse, the hope-against-odds that the listener draws out of the work. Two particular tracks mark themselves out for attention. Galás subjects The Supremes’ “My World is Empty Without You” to such a singular re-reading that all of the sweetness of Diana Ross’ original vocal is drained, leaving the muddy depths and emptiness of the broken hearted lover central to the text. And on “Dancing in the Dark”, Galás sings with such tenderness that it absolutely belies popular discourse about Galás as some ‘doom-and-disease’ merchant. What Galás does here - what she has always done - is to source moments of great compassion out of music that resonates far beyond the remit of the everyday and the crassly trivialised.

Defixiones: Will and Testament and La Serpenta Canta share a core resolve: a continued campaign against the trivialisation or denial of the experiences of minorities; the use of music as a political reminder and as a hex against the enemies of the suffering; and a true and heartfelt compassion for those minorities who have loved and lost and struggle every day for their plight to be acknowledged. (Trust me: as a gay man who knows those who have suffered massive losses due to the AIDS virus, Galás is close to our hearts.) Galás is one of our single most powerful artists, and these two double disc sets should find a place in any collection which considers music of true spirit and absolute, heart-wrenching power and beauty its centrifugal force. Because, quite honestly, there’s hardly anything that comes even remotely close.

“You can not erase our dead.” - Diamanda Galás

By Jon Dale

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