Arts & Entertainment
5 min

Diamanda Galás brings her songs of exile to Montreal

Singer holds nothing back as she chats about 'infidels' and persecution of gay men overseas

Diamanda Galás tells me over the phone that the last time she performed in Montreal was at Foufounes Électriques, where she played to a bunch of “crazy cats,” and she “fucking loved it!” Now, nearly 20 years later, she returns for not one, but two events: on Oct 1, she will be giving a talk entitled “Updating the Plague and the Mass: Prayers for the Infidel” as part of the Concordia University Community Lecture Series on HIV/AIDS. Then, on Oct 3, she will be playing at Théâtre Outremont as part of the Pop Montreal Festival. I had the chance to speak with Galás while she was taking a break between rehearsals at her studio in New York City.

Throughout her career, Galás has used her music as a means of communicating for those denied the luxury of speaking: people who are incarcerated or institutionalized, people living with HIV/AIDS, loved ones murdered by governmental indifference and sanctioned homophobia, sisters and brothers annihilated by religious bigotry. In 1986, Galás released her first musical response to the AIDS epidemic, which evolved into a trilogy entitled The Masque of the Red Death. In 1991, she released Plague Mass, a live culmination of the Masque that took place at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City. Terrorizer, a heavy metal magazine, called the Plague Mass the most violent album of the ’90s. The Mass is a war cry from the trenches of the AIDS epidemic, a call to action, and a seething indictment of the homophobic politicians whose abhorrent apathy in the wake of the plague was nothing short of homicide.

In 2003, Galás released Defixiones, Will and Testament, a two-disc opus dedicated to the dead of the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocides that took place in Asia Minor, Pontos and Thrace between 1914 and 1923. The term defixiones refers to the warnings and hexes engraved on the tombstones of the dead, which avowed harm to anyone who desecrated the burial grounds. The second half of the recording, Songs of Exile, sees Galás composing music for the texts of exiled or murdered writers.

A good number of Galás’ works are live recordings, as opposed to studio albums. If you’ve witnessed her perform, you know why a recording studio cannot do her full justice. Galás is most in her element on stage, and her presence is otherworldly. As a listener, one often thinks that Galás has reached the limit of her vocal range. Yet, she always manages to surpass these expectations, and reach further into the stratosphere for a more piercing sound. Make no mistake; her voice is a veritable harpoon.

We spoke about the direction of her new compositions, what sort of performance she’ll be giving in Montreal, and the ongoing persecution of gay men overseas.

Diamanda Galás
: Hi, how are you?

Mark Ambrose Harris: Good, yourself?

DG: Well, I’m just going to go in my studio. I just had a fight with somebody outside.

MAH: Uh oh…

DG: It’s ok, we’re fine now. It was nice to be able to say, “all right you motherfucker, just step off! I’m doing an interview right now!”

I’m happy to do this interview, and I wanted just to say off the top, that the concert, although it’s Songs of Exile, it’s also really Prayers for the Infidel. When you work on something for a long time, it becomes very clear that it’s moving into another area. I started out years ago with Plague Mass, and then I moved into Defixiones, which dealt with the genocides of the Armenians, the Greeks and the Assyrians at the hands of the Turks, who considered them infidels, and therefore worthy of being butchered, treated like crap, thrown into the fucking street, and just treated like shit. My friend Petra Davis from the Quietus, she’s put out an article, and you can see from the, the beginnings of this poem that was written upon the invasion of Cyprus. It became clearer and clearer when she told me about the anal glue and the Iraqis, and I wrote a paper on it that’s on my website, I don’t know if you saw it….

MAH: Yes I did.

DG: Oh good, I’m so glad you saw it! Because it came out months ago, and it was really hard for me to get people to take that seriously…

At that point it became very clear to me that the idea of an infidel is more or less this: if it’s somebody else’s bitch, you can do whatever you want to it. The guys stalking these poor poor 12-year-old homosexual boys in Iraq and then killing them! It’s interesting because this is happening in the Middle East right, and here we are back to the Middle East where Defixiones took place.

A lot of gay men don’t have any fucking concept, and I was talking to a guy from Lebanon, and he says, “I was so angry on gay pride day in London. I was so fucking furious because everybody’s walking around and they’re talking about gay rights, everything’s improved so much. Well these Lebanese guys, and these Egyptian guys and these Moroccan guys and everybody else, are living in complete terror of being outed.” They’re not walking through the fucking street on gay pride, except if they have a mask over their head.

MAH: Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places, but aside from your essay, and the Antony and the Johnsons website, the American media seems to not be approaching this subject at all.

DG: I put this paper up months and months ago in May, and, I’ll tell you something, nobody even commented on it. And I had it sent to a lot of gay press, and they didn’t put anything out, and now it is how many months later, and finally people are writing about it in the newspapers…

But, nonetheless, I think women and homosexuals, we’re the ones that are gonna change up the shit, because the thing is, as far as straight men are concerned, they’re so scared to be called a faggot! The worst thing in the fucking world is to be called a faggot. They are so fucking afraid that if they have an opinion that is different than somebody else’s they’ll be called a faggot, so they don’t say anything. All these guys at the border [in Iraq] are getting the anal glue and the fucking laxatives. How many straight men are standing up and talking about them? I don’t see it. I don’t see it. It just makes me crazy because I see so much of it. I’m seeing this situation where what are considered dispensable populations, disposable populations… people with AIDS, the elderly, homosexuals… it’s the same thing if people are infidels in the community. So my songs deal with that in the concert.

MAH: You’re going to be speaking at the Concordia University Lecture Series on HIV/AIDS as well, which is quite exciting. And so, you’re tying in this idea of the infidel with the AIDS pandemic.

DG: Yes I am. Because the next part of the AIDS work is definitely going to be inclusive and pretty much dedicated to what’s going on in the Middle East, and North Africa, and Ethiopia. You know, Ethiopians go to the same church that we go to, the Greek Orthodox. I don’t go to church, I don’t even believe in God. Too bad for me. I wish I did, but, you know, as it turns out, if there were a god I wouldn’t be having my brother deceased in 1986. But the thing is, they go to the same churches as Greeks do, and dammed if they are discovered to be homosexuals, forget it. The same in Uganda, and the same in Egypt, and where they bury homosexuals into the walls, and Turkey, where they take cruise ships, and if they find out, the cruise ship is finished….

So this is going to be dealing with this whole situation, that I would say most of the gay community doesn’t talk about, from my observation. And actually, most of the genocide communities that deal with Assyrians, the Armenians, the Greeks, don’t talk about it either. And they don’t want to talk about that shit, because it gets in the way of them being taken seriously because there’s so many fucking homophobes in those holier than thou genocide groups that revolve around whatever bullshit religion there is that is monotheistic.

Diamanda Galás speaks at the Concordia University Community Lecture Series on HIV/AIDS on Oct 1. Concordia University, 1455 de Maisonneuve Ouest, Room H110, 6pm. This event is free and open to the public.

Diamanda Galás plays Pop Montreal on Oct 3, with special guests Jerusalem In My Heart. Théâtre Outremont, 1248 Ave Bernard Ouest, 9pm. Tickets are $35.