Sometime afterwards I recall “Hey! Orpheus,” a song by Michelle Mae’s group The Make-Up.
Vocalist Ian Svenonius’s Prince-like, Eros-stricken shrieks of pain — a signature of his performance ever since the days of his band Nation of Ulysses — are put to good use throughout amid a sound aligned with and inspired by organ-laden psychedelic pop groups of the late 1960s. Michelle slides her finger down the neck of her bass and sets the song in motion, with drummer Steve Gamboa and the rest of the band leaping forth to join her moments later.
The band adopts the guise of a collective subject — Earthlings, mortals, “We the Living” — singing through Ian to an Orpheus other than the Black Orpheus of midcentury France.
“Hey! White Orpheus,” he sings,
“Do you remember us?
We’re up in the sunlight.
You’re down in the furnace.
Hey! White Orpheus,
in the Earth’s crust,
open up all the doors,
come on and bury us.
Living there, down below,
gave your soul to Pluto,
all for your Eurydice.
I want to eat pomegranate seeds.
don’t be so jealous.
Up here it’s the age of elephant ears
laced with angel dust.
Hey! White Orpheus,
from dawn to dusk,
to anything other than
your sacrifice for love.
Living among stalagmite floors,
bellows pumping Devil’s calls.
To be like you, what must I do?
I wanna eat the pomegranate, too.”
Organist James Canty interrupts to deliver a punchy, powerful organ solo mid-song — perfect for a work that revels in speed and brevity. Contemplating the song now, though, I find myself wondering after the whiteness of its Orpheus. Why does the band recast the color of Orpheus from black to white?
Black Orpheus is a 1959 film made in Brazil by French filmmaker Marcel Camus. The film reimagines the myth of Orpheus set amid a favela in Rio de Janeiro, so it has its hero Orfeo descend into the underworld by attending a Macumba ritual to save his lover Eurydice on the night of Carnival.
The Make-Up, meanwhile, a band based in Washington, DC, preached a variant of liberation theology that they took to calling “Gospel Yeh-Yeh.” Might their recasting of the color of Orpheus teach us something about the tenets of the band’s theology?
My inquiry leads me to “Black or White Orpheus: Votive Transmutation Shrine,” a 34-minute jam by Portland-based artists Corum & Zurna.