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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, July 09, 2004
    Chill to redeem
     
    Put on a disc of hers and you will find you cannot leave the room. The songs demand your attention. Hear her moving through her three and a half octave range, and feel your neck hairs stiffen. Turn the sound up on her diabolic highs and risk the neighbours calling out the police assuming you're murdering your mother.

    She takes a song and rips to the heart of it; interrogates its deepest, darkest emotions, stretches it like a wildcat does the guts of its prey and drags you into its screaming agonies before holding it up to the light as a new thing, dripping with life, reinvented, redeemed.

    I have found the bravery from somewhere, to listen again to the extreme voice terror, Diamanda Galas; her recent album La Serpenta Canta, in which she sings the blues like even Robert Johnson at his deepest, most devilish intensity could not match. It is a purging experience.

    The writer Biba Kopf quotes her as saying in 1988, "My voice was given to me as an instrument of inspiration for my friends, and a tool of torture and destruction to my enemies. An instrument of truth."

    And he continues eloquently describing what he calls Galas's "ongoing campaign against forgetting," a canon of songs which, when they are the blues force the listener into the depths of their dark heart and when they are folk songs are drawn from awful forgotten histories, like the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocides carried out by Turkey between 1914 and 1923, where Galas "articulates the anger and sorrow of the dispossesed through the words of exiled poets and writers."

    Only very occasionally do you think she may be just being shocking for effect - I wish she hadn't felt the need to give her book of collected writings that title - only very occasionally, for mostly, once through the initial trauma, being drawn into Galas's world is an awakening and potentially cleansing encounter.

    I doubt few have heard her and not been somehow changed by the experience. I once saw her at The Lowry and seldom have been so held, never so chilled, by a performer.

    I promise that if you hear La Serpenta Canta your perception of Hank Williams' I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, given the Galas treatment, will change, radically, irreversibly, forever.