AZTAG: Interview with Diamanda Galas

“Aztag” Daily Newspaper
P.O. Box 80860, Bourj Hammoud,
Beirut, Lebanon
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Interview with Diamanda Galas

Interview by Khatchig Mouradian
[email protected]

8th of April, 2004

Belgian writer Henri Michaux, Romanian-Jewish poet Paul Celan, Italian
filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, French symbolist Gérard Nerval, Peruvian poet
Cesar Vallejo, Armenian poet Siamanto, Syrian poet Adonis, Assyrian poet Dr
Freidoun Bet-Oraham, and Diamanda Galas’ 4-octave weapon of a voice come
together in `Defixiones, Will And Testament’ (Defixiones refers to the words
engraved on the graves of the dead warning against desecrating the corpse) ,
a double album ( ) `investigating the Armenian, Assyrian and
Greek genocides carried out by Turkey between 1914 and 1923′, and raging
against the continued Turkish denial of these atrocities. `Defixiones’
received its world premiere performance on 11 September 1999 in Ghent,
Belgium and has since been performed in South America, USA, Europe, and

Galas was raised in San Diego, where she received training in classical
music and opera. She studied biochemistry at USC and then continued her post
graduate studies in Europe, before embarking on a journey in music and
activism that would earn her `titles’ ranging from the sublime `Diva of the
dispossessed’ to the ridiculous `the devil’s maiden’. Many miss the point of
her sometimes outrageous, often electrocuting voice, lyrics, and public
statements, but it seems she couldn’t care less. After all, `I am doing this
for myself’ she says, `so that I continue living an interesting life’.

The word “myself” probably should not be taken literally. Galas’ `self’ is
rather extended and includes the diseased, the oppressed, the exiled, and
the unburied. Her rage, far from being the expression of a soul gasping for
blood and bitterness, is a genuine refusal of the lies, fabrications, and
misconceptions that surround us.

I spoke with her by telephone on April 5, 2004.

Aztag- Your work in the 80s and 90s was chiefly about AIDS. How did you
decide to tackle the issue of Genocide?

Diamanda Galas- My father’s people are Pontic Greeks from Anatolia. Since I
was a little girl, he told me all these stories about the Turks kicking his
people out of Turkey and how they had to escape. He showed me the stories of
Elia Kazan. He told me how they escaped and went to other regions (for
example Smyrna) and then I heard what happened in Smyrna. I have been
hearing these stories for 35 years. So I knew that I was going to work on
this, and then I heard more about the Armenian genocide, which was so
similar to the stories he had told me and the time periods were at times

I later started to study these (genocides), as well as the Assyrian
genocide, intensively. I realized that the 3 of them were very connected,
even though they were very different as well. I also felt that it is very
important to discuss all 3 and started a process of intensive research. This
meant going into the texts of poets and writers who had witnessed and
documented the crime, like Siamanto. I also studied the works of Nikos
Kazantzakis, Yannis Ritsos and many others, who have talked so much about
the domination of the Turks.

Then I decided to choose certain poets that I would work with musically. At
this stage, I had to study with speakers. For example I studied with Shakeh
Kadejian, an actor in New York. She’s an Armenian from Lebanon who performs
Siamanto every year. I studied with her the delivery of Siamanto. As you
know, in the album, she is speaking it and I am singing it on. For Adonis’
poem, I studied with Egyptian speakers. It all took five years.

Aztag- I saw the bibliography on your website (
), it’s a good place to start with if someone is interested in researching
these events.

D.G.- You know it is really one tenth of everything; there are so many
papers, and I am not very organized, so I have boxes and boxes of research
papers and printouts. My house is a nightmare…

Aztag- It is evident that you aren’t an artist trying to find causes just to
give an extra dimension to her art…you are really into this, aren’t you?

D.G.- My father is 87 years old now; when I was little he played Kazan’s
film `America, America’ and told me these stories so long that it resonates
in my brain. There is another equally important factor here. In the States,
if you are Greek, and especially Middle Eastern/Anatolian Greek, you really
are invisible in this country. Nobody knows anything about your culture.

Aztag- A few years ago, Thea Halo’s `Not Even My Name’ created some interest
towards Pontic greeks.

D.G.- That’s a good book from the genocide perspective but even this book
does not discuss the incredible culture that existed there and was wiped
out, because the Turks were jealous of al of us. They were jealous of the
Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek cultures. Our cultures were so superior to
theirs. They had nothing. They stole their Koran from the Arabs, the art and
everything else from the Greeks and the Armenians. Everything they had was
stolen from somebody, somewhere. And then all they wanted was the money,
they didn’t want the people. But when they got the money and the property
they didn’t know what to do with it, and those lands became a desert.

It’s a question of invisibility. For me, as a second generation, I walk
around this huge country that does not recognize my culture except when
seeing people who sell souflaki, and, at best, they know we had a great
writer, Socrates…

Aztag- Or they have seen `My Big Fat Greek Wedding’…

D.G.- Yeah. That movie is actually very funny but it’s the only thing that
anyone knows -although I was not raised like that in my family- Here, there
is a concept of what is white culture, which means culture from the south or
culture from LA, and then there is what people consider black culture, and
there is Hispanic culture, and that’s it. Everybody else is invisible. Until
September 11th, Arabic culture was also invisible but now it is visible in a
negative perspective.

I was supposed to be part of the Olympic thing, they didn’t want me to do
Defixiones, `Oh, no we don’t want you to do Defixiones because the Turks
will get angry’, I was so angry and I thought `Jesus Christ, where am I
going to perform this…’

Aztag- It’s ironic, because you had difficulty arranging a performance in
Armenia as well…

D.G.- It’s so ironic. The places that I want to perform before anywhere
I bet you we’re going to perform it in Istanbul before anywhere else. I
never even call it `Istanbul’; I say `Constantinople’…we’ll do a tour in
America for the first time in the fall, I have one performance in Italy,
this is in Serara in June…I don’t make my living doing Defixiones. I make my
living from doing more the blues stuff because I could never support myself
doing Defixiones, no one would pay for it.

The reason I am doing it is because I am totally angry at this country for
making the Greeks invisible. I cannot stand to be out with a group of people
who are talking about this culture and that culture and my culture is
invisible…they have these generalizations, for example they consider all
Christianity the same…this is totally insane. Then there is this stupid film
`The Passion’… It’s so boring, I think it’s a cross between the Tour de
France and a bad menu for spaghetti Bolognese, that’s it. You have no
director and there are all these Italians who are hired to do beautiful
effects, just like you have in the film, the Jews hiring Romans to beat
Christ. What’s really bizarre in this film is that everyone knows that by
caning you should be able to break someone’s spine if you hit him twice. So
you’re not going to hit someone a hundred times and he would still be able
to walk with a cross. The Greeks that I know, if they’re going to think
about a Christ, they’re going to think about him as Kazantzakis’ Christ…As
far as I am concerned, if you care about Christ, he was a man. `The Passion’
is like a Steven Spielberg film, why should I be interested in someone from
Malibu riding his motorbike writing a piece about Christ? `Shut up, you
don’t know what you’re talking about’…

The Coptic, Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian cultures are invisible in this
country. Nobody knows about these cultures, just like nobody knows about the
Pasolini Film on Christ (“The Gospel According to St. Matthew’). It’s a very
hard country to live in this sense…I don’t work here, I work in Europe, I
work in south America, I work in Mexico, because they respect my culture.

The side of the `New York Times’ here is the side of the US, Israel, and
Turkey, that’s it. The only concerns they have at all is Israel and
Palestinians. Nothing else exists. And the only reason they’re interested in
Palestine is because of the Israelis and because of the Jews in this
country. Nobody else matters and you find yourself in this very curious
position. I get these horrible fights in my living room which has become so
dangerous for me…This is because I don’t like seeing my culture castrated,
and it is being castrated by a bunch of ignorant politicians…

Aztag- You have said “My voice was given to me as an instrument of
inspiration for my friends, and a tool of torture and destruction to my
enemies.” Who are your enemies?

D.G.- The enemies are people who chose to remain ignorant because they are
cowards and they like to run in packs. They like to be like dogs and they
don’t like to speak for themselves. In this country I see a lot of people
like that, I discuss what I’m talking about and they say `what do you mean
`genocide’, that’s not an important genocide’ the only important genocide is
the one that took place in Western Europe’ the only people that were chosen
were those people. I have fights with people who don’t think for themselves
or who don’t think, who really have an agenda and they don’t want to change
it. I can think of a million ethnic groups but it really comes down to
individuals. It’s a weird story…

I have friends in different areas of the world and they are working in the
same situations over and over again. The same type of situations where you
have missing people, like El Salvador in Argentina…when I went to Mexico to
perform `Defixiones’ they said `no one’s going to be interested in
`Defixiones’ and Armenians’ and I said `you are wrong’.

Aztag- People do relate. I know people related when you performed in
Australia as well…

D.G.- The people who were cynical have been the people who are only thinking
about their own genocide…

Aztag- Some individuals want their people to be recognized as the first even
in misery.

D.G.- They want to be first in misery, only celebrate their holidays…My own
father is horrified when I say these things. He’s first generation and when
they came to this country they were taught to be quiet just like the Greeks
in Turkey were told to wear the fez and be quiet, be invisible…I don’t have
to be that because I’m American and in America nobody is going to threaten
my life because to of the things I’m saying here, nobody!

When you have freedom of speech it’s your obligation to use it because of
all the people who don’t have it, and that’s what I told the Greeks when I
went to Greece I said “I have it, so I can use it and you can say this is
the Greek American who’s saying this and you can excuse yourself”.

Aztag- You have made some additions to `Defixiones’, let’s talk about that.

D.G.- When the Turks invaded Cyprus in 1974, `Hurriyet’ published this poem
called `Hatred’, which talks about how they want to kill the Greeks and cut
them up into a thousand pieces. I added this poem and I do it in Turkish.

Aztag- Was the timing intentional? After all, there are renewed efforts
underway to solve the Cyprus issue.

D.G.- No, I started adding 6 months ago. You know my stuff never has timing;
I’m always doing something when it’s the least interesting to everybody.
With plague mass I started it in 1983-84 and everybody said `oh, I don’t
want to hear his shit about AIDS’, then I per formed it in 1990 people were
so interested. With me, it takes 5 or 6 years to create these.

Aztag- Let’s talk about the cancellation of your performance in Armenia 2
years in a row. What happened?

D.G.- The reason that I became angry about it was because they invited me
twice at the last minute -the first was 6 months and the second was 4 months
before- saying `we really want you to perform’. So we planned to do it,
everything was set up and they cancelled it the last minute and they said
they had to cancel because there was a national holiday, it became a
national holiday so they had to cancel. I said ok, fine.

The second year was after September 11th and I was supposed to do it at the
end of September 25th or something. I booked Aeroflot and all my flights
that were taking me from England to Holland to Armenia, and it cost me a lot
of money and they weren’t paying me at all. They were only going to pay me
for the flight, that’s it. And then at the last minute they cancelled. They
said that the theater (The Opera House) was being rebuilt and it would not
be ready for my performance the dressing room wasn’t going to be ready, I
said `oh, come on, forget the dressing room lets just do it the way it is, I
have done performances with a trailer next to the theater. And then they
wrote this lie that Diamanda needed such incredible technology like Madonna,
and this was just a pile of shit, all I do is sit at the piano and I have 2
other microphones in other parts of the stage and that’s it. It’s a very
simple show, not a rock show, so they lied 2 years in a row…so I said `you
think you can f— me like this’ , and I wrote a press release and sent it
out everywhere…I don’t want to overdo it, I don’t want to focus on that
forever, but I felt so bad because after September 11th I felt that I wanted
very much to do this performance because of what happened in NY and because
of what America had done, it was like somebody tying your hands…

Aztag- You have performed `Defixiones’ in the US, Europe, and Australia. How
much interest did it create among Greek and Armenian communities on these

D.G.- The Armenians have been interested in my work much more than the
Greeks. I performed the work in LA, of course there are many more Armenians
in LA, but still, I’ve noticed a gigantic support from the Armenians and
some support from the Greeks. I think Greeks are not as mobilized (as the
Armenians)…the Greek are trying to do this Turkish-Greek friendship crap,
with friendship committees etc. When I was in Greece, some people told me
`oh, no Diamanda, were now trying to make Greek-Turkish friendship’ and I
said `well, good for you but that doesn’t mean I can’t perform `Defixiones’
because people don’t know the history, they have to know before they can get
past it’. And they said `Can’t you just sing folk music?’ I’m like `f—

Aztag- `Defixiones’ contains works in more than 10 different languages.What
is the message here? Would it not have been easier for Americans to grasp it
if it were in English?

D.G.- What would they get out of it. Would they get an emotional message?
No, they would get my a little political view `isn’t it terrible what the
Turks did to the Armenians?’ well any idiot can say that. But I am Diamanda
and I work in a certain way, when I’m using different languages each
language has an emotional component, and active component, right out of the
blood that tells you a lot more than just a simple piece of information. And
I think that when you invest time in a language you know more about the
culture and how the culture thinks. At the end of the day I have to say I do
this for me, so that I can keep living an interesting life. I am not
somebody who is thinking `oh well, if I do it in 10 languages then 10
different people will understand it’. No, no, no, that’s not me. That’s a
politician’s job, I’m not a politician and I’m not a rock singer, I’m just
doing this for me. So it’s a little different. I do it as a composer.
Composers have traditionally worked with masses in many languages, they used
parts of the Old Testament then they take poets that have expressed their
point of view and they integrate the poets and they always do the poets in
the original language. That’s the music of his soul. You don’t take Adonis
and suddenly do it in English. A lot of Americans would do that but I just
say, you know, why don’t you just write it yourself?

If they want to read it in English they can do research, they can get
scholarly work like the books of Hovannisian, Dadrian, and some Turkish
scholars. They shouldn’t come to me if they want to do basic research
because after all I’m a composer.