nthposition online magazine

Rip off the ears: searching for Demosthenesí secret in Mexico

by John-Ivan Palmer

[ places - january 08 ]

Loud is synonymous with power, as in "Capitol Hillís loudest voice for bombing Iraq," or "I profess with the loudest voice the truth of God." Whoever controls the mic, controls the show. But what if you donít have a mic, can you still control the show? Do you still have power? It wasnít easy, the way I found the answer in Mexico.

Today it seems that voice cannot be amplified enough. At music concerts multiple 10,000-watt amplifiers stack up like gun turrets in front of crowds anxious to be mowed down. When rock bands began increasing the volume calibrations on their equipment from the standard 10 (highest) to 11, then 20, they ended up with the Marshall JCM900 amplifier with a knob reading of "infinity". All of which has resulted in numerous groups claiming to be the "loudest in the world", such as Manowar, flaunting their power in 1994 at an ear-destroying 130 decibels.

That almost reaches the loudest sound ever created, the now obsolete Bell-Chrysler air-raid siren, at 134 decibels. And donít forget the triple blasting Kockums 575 steam horns on the HMS Queen Mary at 126 decibels, which, at 50,000 watts of overall acoustical power, may actually produce more total sound. Itís been said that these mechanical sound-producing monstrosities would be the only remaining means of transmitting an audial signal in the event of nuclear war, when the blastís electromagnetic pulse would demolish all other means.

But this still does not reach the upper physical limit of loudness itself, which seems to be around 190 decibels. Beyond that, continuous sound as we know it, ceases to exist, and is replaced by what is perceived as a series of explosions - the nuclear kind, perhaps, representing the ultimate merge of power and volume. Then, whatever your message of cosmic importance, you could puff yourself up and say with finality, "I killed 'em, I slayed 'em, I knocked 'em dead!"

The maximum raw, radiated power from the human mouth, however, is less than one tenth of a watt. [1] For nearly the extent of human history, thatís all anyone has had to work with. From Caesar addressing the city of Rome, to Alexander commanding his army. From Attila briefing his forces on the Mongolian steppes, to Cortez telling 20 million Aztecs what to do. They all said what they had to say to the multitudes, who were there to hear it - on one tenth of a watt. Many people walk the earth today who remember when there were no microphones, but, strangely enough, they donít seem to report having trouble hearing without them.

So how did Abraham Lincoln speak to 20,000 people at Gettysburg using only the wind that came out of his body? How did the actors in Shakespeareís Globe Theater - at one tenth of a watt each - proclaim themselves to as many as 3,000 people? How did Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Oedipus, Agamemnon, come alive on stage at the Theater of Dionysus, and project their tragic subtleties to 15,000 sets of ears, some as far away as 80 meters (260 feet)? What was the secret that allowed Demosthenes to stand on a platform at the Athenian Assembly and proclaim himself in sentences long enough to cover one side of a sheet of paper, and be heard by upwards of 6,000 people - without a microphone? It makes my Mexican audiences seem miniscule by comparison.

In my line of work you probably donít want to be asking too many questions, because stage hypnotism is not the road to truth. It may be the road to visibility, even riches (as I was fervently wishing), but not truth. Unless truth is a joke. And the joke for me was to get a mere fifty or a hundred besotted viqueros to turn my way in Chihuahuan cantinas, as I gave hypnotic commands without a microphone. The show I was in neither had one, nor needed one. I was forced to use the same physical equipment as Demosthenes or Honest Abe. The same one tenth of a watt. I breathed deeply and projected from the thorax: "Voy a demonstrar a ustedes los poderos fantastico del hipnotismo..."

We started in Agua Prieta and worked the border town circuit west to Juarez, then south into Old Mexico, ending up in Durango, where I was replaced by a boxing kangaroo. The money was meager, even by Mexican standards, but this was, letís say, apprentice work. I had a voice screaming to be heard, which no one in America was hearing. The inspiration to try Mexico came in a moment of deep self-reflection after the veteran hypnotist known as "The Great Maurice" told me to get the hell out of Las Vegas. So I did. I got as far from Vegas as I could. Itís true, you canít be a prophet in your own land. Any Gideonís Bible will tell you thatís why Jesus got the hell out of Galilee. Considering the size of his crowds, he must have had a hell of a voice.

By way of clarification I should say this was not a gay transvestite show I was working in. The female impersonators put on what I would call an old style vaudevillian illusion performance, like a magic act or a quick change production. It was burlesque, comedy. I did not request to be in that specific show; it was booked for me through Jose Guiterrez, a small-time agent in Chicago, after a long series of telephone calls. I needed a change of venue and I didnít ask questions.

Although I had slight ability in Spanish, I told Gutierrez - in English - that if I was going to do a stage hypnotism act in Mexico, I absolutely had to have a translator to assist me with special needs. It could have been just an odd coincidence of words. But it sure did seem that as my request traveled 1,500 miles from my mouth to his ear (via phone), the word "translator" somehow became confused with "transvestite." Could Gutierrez have really thought I was demanding a "transvestite" for "special needs"? Probably not, but I still imagined rumors going around about "my needs." At any rate, I signed what became a worthless contract written in dense legalese - in Spanish, no less - and found myself in the Umberto Ramos Autentico Travesti Show, which opened at El Cache del Cid in Agua Prieta.

The MC on this ragtag production was the irrepressible "Maria" - actually Umberto Ramos himself in drag. She turned out to be my on-stage translator, or transvestite, or actually both. Maria was big as a bull, and dressed as a woman most of the time, on stage and off, but on layovers between shows sheíd get lazy and let her whisker stubble grow out under the make-up. As "Maria," she sported a huge bosom that seemed to resonate a voice that could kick out the back of any room. If what she had was one tenth of a watt, what I had was one tenth of that. So there I was, trying to put Mexican drag show fans into a trance with a voice that broke like a strained adolescent, and with an accent strong enough to be the central focus of the act itself.

When I said this wasnít a gay transvestite show, what I meant was, we didnít work for gay audiences. We worked clubs, road houses and Mexican-style segregated "womenís bars," but that didnít mean the travestis themselves werenít gay. "Anita" dressed as a man or a woman at her own convenience, and could turn the female act on and off at will, which she often did to confound people for her own amusement. "Suzi" dressed as a woman only for shows, and off stage tried (to the extent that it was possible for an effeminate man) to act masculine, even macho. "Consuela," like Maria, was comfortable dressed as a female most of the time, and I donít know why, but at first I suspected her of being either a transsexual or maybe a "real" woman disguised as a transvestite. After all, this was Mexico, where the real and the unreal are interchangeable. Otherwise how could Umberto keep his "chicas" in enchiladas and lipstick? And finally there was flirtatious "Chichi," who used cross-dressing as a disguise to pick up women almost every night and bring them back to the hotel for sex. Chichi, it turned out, aside from being a problem room mate, was the one who did the most in terms of both hindering - and helping - me develop the projection of my own voice.

So Maria, with a pair of lungs like steam horns on the Queen Mary, began stepping in to translate during my act, whether I needed it or not. It quickly became clear that whatever hypnotic power I was supposed to have became secondary to Mariaís pushy translation routine. Her voice simply took over the show. I became the butt of her jokes, both figuratively and literally. My Spanish was not refined enough to catch all the fine points, but I kept hearing the words pendejo (prick) and culo (ass) in almost all of her punch lines. I was a weak-voiced gringo (barely impersonating a hypnotist) letting a corpulent man (barely impersonating a woman) steal my show for laughs as I was performing it.

The distinction came down to voice and its projection. And yet, as unlikely as it seemed, I did manage to persuade, through hypnotic suggestion, the occasional campesino to act like "The Worldís Greatest Flamenco Dancer," or ride a long balloon around the bar, as if it were a horse. Fortunately, there was something about Mexican culture (be it traditions of animism, mushrooms, festival clowns, birthday magicians, gratuitous spectacles or ghosts) that made its synchretic citizens more susceptible to the mesmeric influence. But regardless of how successful my hypnotic demonstrations on any given night, or how much laughter I generated, I was still associated with black magic and evil spells. Thatís why Chichi, with a womanís wig, a big Adamís apple, and a deep voice, attracted women by his very ambiguity. Me, they avoided out of fear.

But not Maria. She assaulted me with her ballsy vamp, both on stage and off, pressing her hundred kilos of sweaty perfumed flesh right up against my body, mouthing with big crimson lips, "you like girls, hey bad boy? Real chicas, have real chicas tonight, everything you want, bad boy, you dream beeg this time, no?" That was about the extent of her English, so you can imagine how the translations went. Whatever Demosthenesí secret to swaying a crowd by voice alone, I had to find it fast.

So I started a crash program in voice training. I filled my lungs to the bursting point, then furiously ran in place while booming, as if to a group of hypnotic subjects, "Relajense!" ("Relax!"). I wrapped my lips around a thick soda straw and repeatedly mumbled vowel phrases like, Eat the owlís ailing eyes...

Consider the natural history of mistakes. If you look closely, very closely, at a stream of ants, you see them bumping into each other, stumbling, making wrong turns, but constantly correcting themselves and continuing nonetheless toward the goal of their frantic activity. How many species of humans before us walked the dead end path, and yet here we are? The earth itself wobbles as it rotates. If you could somehow measure all the little balance corrections of a wire walker, wouldnít you find that the whole performance is one elaborate series of corrected mistakes? Yes, you could argue that performing in a Mexican transvestite show was a career mistake. Yes, I would soon be replaced by a boxing kangaroo in Durango. But if there were no forces constantly tempting me to fail, how could I ever rise above them to succeed?

Cicero said that when speaking, you should conduct your body like a soldier in battle, or someone from "the wrestling pit." Ancient orators spoke of cultivating a forcefulness that comes from a manly stance, and inveighed against the effeminacy of singers and priests. Living the isolated life of a traveling entertainer, and surrounded as I was by all this female impersonation, I began to feel an occasional episode of swishiness myself, an unconscious imitation that I had to consciously resist in order to live up to Ciceroís instruction. The ancients tried to remove all nuance and make voice strictly masculine. Women orators were entirely out of the question, although a few (Hortensia, or the two unnamed female speakers mentioned by Valerius Maximus) subverted that thought in a hurry. And so did Maria, holding her fake mike as a war club and devastating the audience with her pendejo jokes.

What I learned almost immediately from all the travestis­ was that however bold or outlandish your public assertions, you first have to believe in them yourself. Or at least be convincing. With all due respect to Cicero, Iíd have to say that effeminacy doesnít seem to matter. If youíre a fat Mexican man going around small towns in a dress and lipstick, calling yourself "Maria," you damn well better be sure of yourself, or end up a losing chicken in the cock fight of social acceptance. The assumption of power is what gives you power, physical appearances notwithstanding. The problem with the young man Seneca represented in the Roman court, who went out dressed as a woman on a bet and got himself raped, was not that he gave up his virility, itís that he gave up his confidence. He went forth without self assurance (not to mention a weapon under his robes). I doubt that anyone raped the transvestite Nero when he slapped on the rouge. Not without his permission, anyway. In Mariaís case, if it came to getting one of the station wagons repaired on short notice, she went out in the hot desert dust with her wig and falsies and got it done. If someone taunted her or one of her chicas, she straightened them out in a hurry. She didnít need the Senecas of the world because she made sure her voice was heard in the first place. Volume was only part of it.

By the time we got to MazatlŠn, Maria was so irritated by Chichiís impertinence, as well as my voice training exercises, that she segregated us both in our own hotel room every night away from the others. It was like the practical separation of male and female privacy. While Chichi sang and danced by himself like a human cricket, I listened to audio tapes of my act recorded from the back seats of cantinas. After a week or two of training, it seemed my voice was beginning to carry.

Quintilian, Cicero, and other ancient speakers wrote that the poses and gestures of the body are part of the voiceís amplification. So to master what Cicero called "the language of the body," the best model I had at the time was Chichi charming his way among the ladies after his sets, fluttering his eyelashes and acting totally feminine, yet talking in low tones, soothing as a saxophone. He must have been quite the novelty, this man dressed as a woman who displayed a womanís mannerisms and sensibilities, while underneath the whole illusion was a creature of intense virility. Back in the hotel, with the seŮorita he chose for the night, he continued his hypnotic purr, followed of course, on the womanís part, by shrill cries of copulatory release - even as I was right there in the room. What could I learn from this?

Stanislavsky wrote that the eye of an actor, which looks at and sees a real or imaginary object, attracts the attention of the spectator. So for the fantasy of drama to become real for the audience, it must become hyper-real for the actor. The imaginary object in Chichiís case was the she-male chimera that hovered over him like a ghost, and to which he gestured in a variety of ways until the women he brought back to the hotel were so enraptured by it that they enthusiastically welcomed their own seduction. His gestures amplified a quiet voice, which had the double magic of making the illusion of himself real, and me invisible. Thatís what I had to do. I had to make myself real and Maria invisible.

Itís difficult to find privacy in Mexico, least of all if youíre traveling with a low budget female impersonator show. Yet I did the best I could to exercise my voice under the circumstances. I stretched my lips around the circumference of a small plastic cup, ludicrously exposing my teeth, and recited, how now dirty cow... To avoid breaking the seal around the cup, I directed the words through my nose. Chichi found this unbearably funny, and doubled over laughing so hard he nearly lost his wig. But didnít Plutarch advise traveling orators to practice continuously, even in hotels (like the sophist Hippodromas), and ignore those who mock them? For me there was no turning back. Like any hotel-disrupting sophist, I was determined to make myself heard.

Unfortunately I did not have the same luxuries of time and seclusion as Demosthenes. He had the leisure to shave one side of his head (according to Plutarch), insuring withdrawal from the public, and spend months in a hut, exercising his scrawny body and pipsqueak voice. He could strengthen his lungs by running up hills while speaking to imaginary people sitting farther away than he could throw a stone. And speaking of which, he could stuff them in his mouth and recite long speeches to improve his diction. With me, however, shaving half my head was out of the question, and once, when I tried the rock thing, I accidentally swallowed one. When Chichi found out about it he went through all sorts of alimentary pantomime while laughing uncontrollably. But one thing I did learn from Demosthenes, and that was determination. I wasnít going to let some guy in a womanís wig impede my laryngeal training.

In fact, I used him to enhance it. Nero would practice speaking with sheets of lead on his chest. So I saw nothing wrong with talking Chichi into sitting on my chest as I lay on the floor and projected as forcefully as possible, "Fijen toda su atenciůn hacia mi!" ("Focus your attention directly on me!") Sound power is directly proportional to sound pressure, which in this case and must have been strong enough to penetrate the walls to Consuelaís ears, because she barged into our room to see what was going on. Now it was her turn to laugh uncontrollably.

So I searched, like the conquistador, Cabeza de Vaca, for the treasure of secluded places, and discovered a sewage ditch outside of Zacatecas, where I could exercise my voice without interruption. It was marked by a cross and plastic flowers, where someone before me had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. But even there, people walked by on the road, or herded goats through the nearby scrub. Kids came out of nowhere and peeked through the bushes to watch the crazy gringo declaim to an imaginary person, over and over again, the hypnotic command, "Su nariz es hecha de goma!" ("Your nose is made of rubber!") Stretching a nose half way across the room and letting it snap back (knocking the subject out of his chair) seemed to me the ultimate in sophistic persuasion. In my mind, at least, Iíd soon be heard from Sonora to Quintana Roo.

Exactly how ancient speakers reached tens of thousands of ears at the Roman Forum, or the Theater of Dionysis, is a wonder of the world lost to the ages. But it may not have been quite the feat it appears. At the time, with nothing to compare it to, raw voice was the only form of instantaneous mass communication. So they made do. Speakers may have exploited good acoustics, but itís since been shown that those acoustics were imperfect and unpredictable. Heralds relayed speeches back to the cheaper seats (a form of amplification), and professional applauders amplified meanings on cue. Written texts were distributed to fill in what might have been missed. There was an elaborate glossary of broad gestures that everyone understood. The path from mouth to ear was full of corrections.

And those corrections continue today, taking the form of ever simpler messages, broadcast with ever greater power. By the time my contract was up, I may not have been heard from Sonora to Quintana Roo, as Iíd hoped. I was not a prophet in a foreign land. I was perhaps a laughing stock. But I was, at least, heard from the back of the cantina.



1 According to Prof Ingo R Titze, Dir, Center for Voice & Speech, Denver, and inventor of Pavarobotti, the singing robot, "The voice is very inefficient, so the radiated power from the mouth is a small fraction of the raw power, usually 1-10 milli-watt. Nobody has ever reported as much as 0.1 watt, but it may be possible." Personal correspondence. Also see Chap. 3 of his Principles of Voice Production (2000). The worldís loudest man, Alan Myatt of Gloucester, UK, has a voice that registers 112.8 decibels. [Back]