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Madame Pamita
Interview by Rick Webb, Photos by Wayne Pierce. May 2009

A few weeks ago a CD arrived at Bluesinlondon Towers, beautifully packaged with arcane Faith Healer / Medicine Show style ephemera and containing a collection of old timey sounding songs recorded on, it was claimed, 19th century wax cyclinder technology. Every snap crackle and pop (and there were many) was lovely reproduced and, combined with an outsanding collection of excellent songs fantastically performed, the overall effect was a rather magnificent.

Closer inspection revealed that not only was this album genuinely recorded on wax cylinder, but Madame P. was about to embark on some shows here in London with our own Tom Rodwell which would demonstrate this recording process in live performance. You can read our piece on those shows here, but we thought it was also a good idea to find out a bit more about the curious world of the Madame so we summoned her up on the Talking Spirit Board and transcribed the answers below...

RW: Just to give us an idea, can you tell me where you are as you're writing this? (In the world/city/neighborhood/locale/where you're 'at'...)

MP: I'm in the "Lil' Casita de Pamita" which is Spanish for "my apartment," which happens to be located in Los Angeles. Packing my bindlestiff and my steamer trunk for my Trans-Atlantic trip.

RW: You describe what you play as "old wierd American music"... Can you expand on that a little... What sources do you draw from, generally and specifically, musically, and in the wider culture?

MP: I'm obsessed with what I like to call "rural blues, proto-jazz and jugband stomp" - all the great music from the earliest days of recording, when exploitative American businessmen out to make a fast buck were recording any possible thing that they thought could turn aprofit. I like old comic numbers from the 1800s, songs about drugs and booze, songs with sexual innuendo, anything that is odd. Cylinder and record companies had no idea as to what would be popular back then, so they recorded anything and everything. One of my favorites off the top of my head is "Molly Man" by Red Hot Old Mose.. it's a recording of a guy doing his street vendor song.. for the longest time, I was like, "What they hell is he selling??" and then I realized that "molly" was short for tamale!

RW: What for you is the appeal of this?

MP: Well, of course there's the mystery of so many great artists that I admire: Geeshie Wiley, Bayless Rose and all those great, GREAT musicians that we know next to nothing about. Those two, in particular, are my patron saints. And I love the whole itinerant musician thing. I love to travel and play, when I can, and I very much identify with the American medicine show musicians from the 1800s through the early 1900s. They were raw and lacked a little of the slickness of theater and vaudeville acts, but they were like every musical outfit I've ever been in or respected, they did it themselves. They brought free entertainment to the people in rural towns and, well, if you had to buy a bottle of snake oil, at least you got your money's worth with the show.

RW: It feels like there's a fair bit of interest in this kind of old-timey-folky-rootsy-old-wierd culture going on generally, and you're over here doing some shows with like minded individuals, so would you go as far as to say you indentify with anything that could be called a 'scene'?

MP: One thing that's nice about what I do is that it sort of fits into a lot of little niches. I play with carnival sideshows, I fit in with old time bands, I've done burlesque shows, I can play little Bertolt Brecht-like cabarets.. really, when I find anyone who is retro and a little out of step with the mainstream we welcome each other with open arms. We're a very loose pack of outsiders, but we're everywhere. I often experience a wonderful sense of mutual recognition with other acts. We do something completely different from each other but we find each other and it's like long lost lovers being reunited. We're excited and interested in what the other is doing and performing
together is pure joy!

RW: Can you tell me a bit about Euphonious Prognostication, and the Mystic (is that what I should call it?) apsects of your show?

MP: Like any good medicine show, my show is a mish-mash of entertainment: music, fortune-telling, comedy, audience participation, prizes given away and all kinds of surprises. I have always loved audience participation and the people who come to my shows are smart, offbeat,
witty and usually drunk, which is the recipe for good entertainment, I
think. I studied tarot for years and as I started to get into early recorded music, I realized that this music was mysterious, raw, real and that even the most apparently superficial song had spiritual significance. I recognized that certain songs had a resonance as tarot cards do. It seemed the most natural thing to assign songs to different tarot cards and from that offer up the cards/songs and have the audience members pick them, get a brief fortune on stage and then sit back and hear the song that goes along with that card. I love doing these shows because I never know what cards the audience members are going to pick or in what order, so I never know what songs we're going to play that night. It's terrific fun for me too!

RW: Can you give me a brief run-down of the various weird and wonderful instruments you play?

MP: For my local L.A. shows, I'm able to bring out the whole panoply of
instruments: Imperial Banjeaurine, Banjolele, Marxophone, Polka-Lay-Lee, Tiple.. all kinds of goodies. For the UK shows, I'll be bringing my "traveling kit": a 115 year-old banjo, an autoharp, a washboard, a kazoo and two old early 20th century ukuleles.

RW: Where do you travel with your shows - what sort of places do you play?

MP: Wherever they will have me! I have played street corners, cabarets,
basement dives, house parties, nefarious places of ill-repute, grand old gilded theaters.. you name it!

RW: So what about this Wax Cylinder recording then... How did it come about?

MP: I listen and collect digital recordings of wax cylinders, so naturally I wanted to sound like my favorite artists! I read an article in a rag called "Tape Op" about a musician, Chris Butler, who recorded an amazing CD called, "The Museum of Me." On it, he recorded each track in a different arcane medium, one of them being wax cylinder. I contacted Chris, and he kindly directed me to Peter Dilg in New York, who is the preeminent wax cylinder historian in the U.S., and I booked recording time with him. In the meantime, by complete and utter serendipity, I met English bluesman Tom Rodwell. He had already recorded on wax cylinder and it blew me away! There was another kindred soul out there! We played together some and then I went and recorded and now I'm coming over to the UK to play with the Englishwax cylinder folks!

RW: And how has your CD of lovingly reproduced wax cyclinder recordings been received?

MP:To my utter amazement, it has been very polarizing! I have had not a
single lukewarm reaction to the CD. Some people are shocked and scandalized - surprisingly, not by the content, but by the medium. They are horrified to lose their pristine digital sound! They find it offensive that I did not remove the surface noise! How dare she!!! Then, there are the others on the opposite end of the spectrum, who adore it! They love that there are other ways of making sound out there. They get that there is a reason, what I feel is a deeply spiritual and artistic reason, for leaving the cylinder sounds intact and that songs about sex, drugs and the power of positive thinking are
more than what they appear to be.

RW: Is this part of a 'movement'? (The nearest similar equivalent I know of is Brown Bird Rudy Relic - I don't suppose you know him?)

MP: I would like to say that there is a very loose amalgam right now.Thank heavens there's NOT a movement! I've been around long enough to know there is no faster way to ruin something than codify it. Then there starts to be "in" people and "out" people and a "wrong" way to do something and a "right" way to do it. That's what happened in the 1920s when they decided that there was "country" music and "race" music. Before that, it was just "city" music and "rural" music.

I hadn't heard of Brownbird Rudy Relic, but I just looked him up and gave him a listen and he's wonderful!

RW: And finally, any message for your British fans prior to your arriving on these shores?

MP: I love the UK. Britain is magical land. Being a mutt of some British descent, it feels like coming home, and musically, it is! I have always loved the long history of back and forth musical trading. Plus, I want to drink some English water. I'm convinced it's why you guys always play blues better than we do!

Madame Pamita will be performing and recording live onto wax cylinder as part of The Back to Wax Revue with Tom Rodwell, The Borough Cat and The Vulcan Cylinder Record Company (Read our feature article here >>) on the following dates :

Wed May 20 - The George Tavern, 373 Commercial Road, Stepney, London E1 0LA / 8PM £6

Sun May 24 - The Luminaire, 311 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 7JR £10 / £8 adv through www.wegottickets.com

Madame Pamita & Tom Rodwell live in the UK May 2009:

Thurs May 14th - The Gladstone Arms, 64 Lant St, Borough, London SE1 1QN

Fri May 15 - The Alma, 95 Church Road, Crystal Palace, London SE19 2TA (with Joe Wilkes)

Fri May 22 - Brooks Blues Bar at The Telegraph, Telegraph Road (corner of Wildcroft Road), Putney Heath, London SW15 3TU / 8PM £12

Sat May 16 - Matsu, 558 Mile End Road, London E3 4PL

Sun May 17 - Dr King’s Jailhouse, East Dulwich Tavern, 1 Lordship Lane, Dulwich, London, SE22 8EW / £5

External Links:
Check out the arcane world of Madame Pamita, and listen to her music here:
http://madamepamita.com

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