Sister of mercy - Diamanda Galas, 1991 - Dona Ann

Diamanda Galás: devil woman

The mesmerising singer explains how HIV/Aids, Catholicism and injustice inspired a lifelong crusade to sing the truth

Diamanda Galás has been rattling the cage of morality, sexual politics, HIV/Aids ignorance, and – if you’ve heard her mesmerising back catalogue – your bones and those tingly parts of your skin still tapped into primordial fear, for nearly 30 years. It’s too easy, as one magazine reviewer did recently, to describe her as a “goth Shirley Bassey”, and to see her records – from 1982’s debut "Litanies of Satan" to latest live album "Guilty Guilty Guilty" – as merely impenetrable screeching from a harridan of the avant-garde; the caterwauling of a demonic diva. These are ignorant labels. For a start, Galás is possessed of one of the finest laughs ever to split a Sunday afternoon. “'Diva' now just means any cunt with an attitude that decides to do something,” she laughs. “I mean, when they called Roseanne Barr a diva! Or the hip hop artists in this country who couldn’t sing to save their lives – I don’t want this expression!”

She chuckles as I tell her that I’ve spent the best part of the weekend immersing myself in her back catalogue. “You must have stamina. To my mind, some of the work that I do isn’t difficult, but that’s what I’m told.” Intense, searing and with a three-and-a-half octave range, Galás’s voice is some perfidious armoury that lets forth a barrage that switches from the kind of dry rasping that makes black metal vocalists appear choristers, to unfettered melody that’s genuinely operatic in stature and range. As one Japanese martial-arts expert once told her, her voice employs “kill energy” – and that’s not to mention her ability as a virtuoso pianist, lyricist, and activist.

Yet Diamanda Galás almost never sang. Brought up in San Diego, her jazz pianist father provided her with her first musical education, but actively discouraged her from using her voice. “My father said, ‘Singers are idiots, they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing’,” chuckles Galás. Instead, he gave his daughter a varied musical education – “he didn’t want me to become the kind of musician who can’t play ‘Happy Birthday’ without sheet music.” 

So, Galáás accompanied bebop, free jazz and classical musicians including Ornette Coleman, and studied biochemistry, but the urge to sing eventually became as all-consuming as her voice. “People say, ‘Oh she was an opera singer who decided to do this wild music’ – well, that’s a load of shit,” she says emphatically. “I was a piano player who decided to sing because I didn’t want to be backing up horn players.”

Galás’s pioneering vocals were first committed to vinyl on 1982’s The Litanies of Satan, based on Baudelaire’s poem of the same name, and featuring “Wild Women With Steak-Knives” – written from the point of view of a homicidal schizophrenic.

But it was as she came face-to-face with the HIV/Aids crisis in the early 80s that Galás began to make her most important work, the albums that make up the Masque of the Red Death trilogy – The Divine Punishment, Saint of the Pit and You Must Be Certain of the Devil.

Lyrically, Galás moved from Baudelaire to the Bible, using the laws of Leviticus to ram home her point – as wider culture sought to sweep HIV/Aids under the carpet, Galás confronted the subject head on. Her brother, the writer Philip Dimitri Galás, fell ill and eventually died from the virus before the trilogy was completed.

In a culture of silence, Galás used her voice to fight the plague mentality of a moralistic, homophobic culture with its own Levitican language of plague and impurity. Her use of Biblical text subverted those who believed HIV/Aids was a disease sent by God to punish Sodomites.

As Galás says of the track “Sono L’Antichristo”: “It’s the statement of a person who has Aids who has been condemned by society for committing a mortal crime, a crime against God, therefore you are Satan. And the person says, ‘If I have nothing else in this world, then I can spit in the face of God.'” Galás combined her fervent musical attack on HIV/Aids prejudice with frontline activism, becoming involved with the ACT UP group that, as well as holding demonstrations at Cardinal O’Connor’s St Patrick’s Cathedral (in 1989, Galás was arrested at one such protest), organised performances and art events.

Diamanda Galás

Co-activist and artist Aldo Hernandez believes that in her involvement with ACT UP and affiliated arts collective Art Positive, Galás “redefined political art”, adding, “her unfeigned dedication in HIV/Aids activism parallels her artistic ferocity.”

As well as her arrest, Galás caused controversy with “Plague Mass” – a live staging of the Masque of the Red Death material. Attacked for the debut performance in the Episcopalian Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York, the moral opprobrium reached its climax after a performance in Florence was blasted in the press, and attracted the wrath of local politicians who called for her to be banned from Italy.

But they couldn’t win – Galás had ‘we are all HIV-positive’ tattooed across her knuckles, and her activism continues to this day. Perhaps the last thing anyone would have expected would be for her to write and record an album with a former member of a band that epitomises hoary and heterosexual rock’n’roll.

But Diamanda Galás had long been a fan of John Paul Jones. “I was loving the rhythm section of Zeppelin before I even knew who Zeppelin was. That is the fucking rhythm section, man, that motherfucker,” she enthuses. “Someone said, ‘John Paul Jones might be interested in producing a record of yours’ and I said, ‘Let’s do it’. People may have thought, ‘Oh well, Diamanda was trying to make a rock album, blah blah,’ well shit, I was interested in those low frequencies. Did I want a bass sound that would be a jazz-fusion bass sound? Fuck, no. I wanted someone who’d lay down the goddamn intestines of the band, and there it was.”

Their collaborative album The Sporting Life saw Galás’s more abstract approach replaced by Jones’s potent bass. While lesser artists might become complacent with time, Galás still battles today as hard as she ever did. Musically, she continues to record her own versions of standards and traditional songs, such as on new live record, Guilty Guilty Guilty, in which she performs astounding renditions of tracks including the 1959 country hit “Long Black Veil”.

“Diva now just means any cunt with an attitude that decides to do something” – Diamanda Galás

As a tireless activist, not only does she continue to explore the subject of HIV/Aids (“There’s so many different paradigms, so no one can say I’ve exhausted the subject”), but Galás has, in many ways, also returned to the theme of her first ever live performance in 1979, where composer Vinko Globokar asked her to perform the role of a Turkish woman killed by torture in the opera Un Jour Comme un Autre.

Her 2003 album Defixiones, Will and Testament is a visceral exploration of the massacre of Greeks (Galás’s own heritage is Anatolian and Spartan Greek), Armenians and Assyrians at the hands of the Turks in the 1920s.

Desmond Fernandez, an academic and writer on genocide, praises her artistic adoption of the subject. “Diamanda’s work seeks to take us to these uncomfortable places, to make us aware of what happened – and is happening – in many places and contexts,” he says. “Her ability and earnestness, dedication and desire – which comes out in the very nature and structure of her amazing vocal performance and piano playing – honour, remember and confront.”

Satan's diva: Diamanda Galás, 1991 Ebet Roberts

In January of 2008, at the invitation of Fernandez, Galás contributed text for the commemoration of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, whose work calling for recognition of the Armenian Genocides ended with his murder at the hands of a Turkish nationalist.

In her speech, Galás wrote, “Robbery is not just the robbery of money or human flesh – it involves the soul murder of cultures, which will soon die if they have no more songs to sing.” Throughout her career, Diamanda Galás has articulated the voices of the dispossessed. Her voice – that self–professed “tool of torture and destruction to my enemies” – would be nought without her unfathomable energy and belief in the righting of injustice.

She might now be the most unlikely artist to find herself on venture capitalist Guy Hands’s EMI roster, but don’t expect this inexhaustible lady and sublime voice to be silenced any time soon. “I like to fight, and I love to get in the middle of that shit and insult everybody who lies,” she explains with typically vehement candour. “None of us are going to be around for very long, but when I do something I trust my soul.”

Antony Hegarty on the music of Diamanda Galás

“I was obsessed with this record of hers called Panoptikon when I was a teenager in the early 80s. It was given to me by a hardcore friend from southern California. It scared me to death but it was so evocative, I just listened to it over and over again.

"I was kind of a prisoner in my own way at that time so the content made sense to me. The first time I saw her live was in a dingy bar in the meatpacking district in the early 90s. She was doing a techno collaboration with Aldo Hernandez – I remember feeling like she had ripped my guts out and driven knives through my body with her voice. I was left quaking. I had never experienced the voice so physically – it was undeniable and utterly arresting. It’s like a tidal wave moving through you. She harnesses tremendous power and delivers it through her voice.

"Her influence on me was like that of Kali (the Hindu goddess of destruction) on a pedestrian. She is one artist that you gaze at in awe... I don’t know anyone who has committed her life and energy more entirely to her work than Diamanda. I don’t know anyone who has scaled the face of the moon with her voice like Diamanda, who has sat alone in blackness and sought like her.

"She has always exhibited tremendous courage – in this way, she is a pioneer and represents the frontier of musical expression. She has given more of herself than we can fathom. She strives for excellence with each breath, her singing is unrivalled, she is Olympic in her skill and quite simply, she stands alone.

"She is the Maria Callas of our day, and she is without equal. She has stayed true to her intentions throughout her career, brutally faithful to her values. You cannot do more as an artist. She sets the bar.”