Before this summer, I’d only listened to a few albums by Diamanda Galás. I knew she rarely toured the United States, and that her April show in New Orleans was a special occasion. The tour was promoting her two newest releases, All the Way, a collection of covers, and At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem, a live album. Her New Orleans performance was at the Joy Theatre. From all the things I’d read about Galás, I expected her to be theatrical, dripping with blood and guts like on the cover of her album Plague Mass. Instead, the show was quite reserved. Galás dressed in a dark gown that was almost funerary in appearance. It was like something someone would be buried in. She was seated at a black grand piano in the center of the stage. The minimal atmospheric lighting was accentuated by clouds of smoke.
Many of the numbers she played were sung in languages I didn’t understand. They weaved in and out of tongues. The music wasn’t restricted to any one form. It shape-shifted through cultures, melodies, and rhythms, making her work hard for a layperson such as myself to classify. At it’s best, the music was abstract and animalistic. The vocals ranged from the guttural to the angelic. Added lyrics often changed the meanings of the original lyrics, and the pounding tempos of the piano altered the demeanor. It is partly this transformative power that makes Galás so interesting. She deconstructs these songs and digests them into her own vision. What she does can be likened to appropriative art, but instead of glue and scissors she might as well be using flesh and knives.
It was the second number, a thunderous rendition of Bobby Bradford's “She” (also known as “Woman”), that impressed me most. Galás hammered on the piano like a singular force of nature. The music of the piano was accompanied by a sequence of almost never-ending wails and moans. It’s hard to believe Galás created all of that sound with just her voice and a piano. Beams of light reigned down on her like abstract laser lightning. There was this brutal, emotional weight to the tune. It was a feeling that picked up again at the end of the first set with her rendition of “O Death,” an American folk song. After three encores, that emotional gravity peaked once more with Galás’ version of “Let My People Go” (a song based on the American Negro spiritual ”Go Down Moses”). Galas’ renditions of these songs, with all their screaming and growling, are mutated and personal. They feel confessional, not traditional, and have an expressive violence that speaks to the nerves.
Galás has stated that her new live album At Saint Thomas the Apostle Harlem is a collection of “death songs” meant to reaffirm life. They are songs about the struggle to live in a world that is constantly trying to destroy you. Her music comes to me at a time of seemingly endless death. Over the past year I’ve had a number of my friends, all of them younger than me, pass away. They’ve succumbed to drugs, suicide, accidents, and even natural causes. For many, healthy mourning can often collapse into a kind of toxic lamenting. Listening to Galás, I am reminded that mourning, no matter how full of rage, doesn’t have to be self-destructive. The best funerary rites are cathartic and recognize what a privilege it is to be alive. I believe what Galás has given us in her music is on par with that kind of experience.