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[whitespace] Thoth Sex and Violins: The bisexual and betrothed Thoth believes he's a 'spiritual hermaphrodite.'

A Loin in Winter

Not all street musicians are doomed to getting a day job. Just ask the near-naked guy with the fiddle.

By Sarah Phelan

I first encounter Thoth seven years ago while rollerblading through Golden Gate Park. Attracted by the sound of unearthly snatches of music, I peer down a tunnel and discover a dreadlocked musician in a crocheted gold lamé bodysuit, singing in tongues and whirling like a dervish, while drumming his feet and playing violin. Everything about him is exotic, from his bondage a gaga outfit to the emotion-laden but unrecognizable language he is emoting in operatic tones.

Suspecting he truly is a messenger of the gods, as his name suggests, I buy his CD.

We next meet in Santa Cruz, five days after Thoth, a 42-minute film about the life and work of this outrageous artist, wins an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. To my relief, Thoth is as accessible as ever, despite his overnight celebrity success. He gladly chats with me as he prepares to give a "prayerformance," outside the Del Mar Theatre, where the documentary about his life will play as part of the upcoming Santa Cruz Independent Film Festival. Clad in a black sweat suit to protect against the midmorning chill, Thoth smudges the sidewalk with sage, then unzips a large violin case that weighs at least 50 pounds.

"I am able to change the vibrations wherever I pass; because I'm unencumbered by electrical implements, I am the most electrical thing--I'm able to open up a portal for everyone. I'm trippy!" laughs Thoth.

A crowd gathers, blocking the sidewalk. But for once, no one complains except for a man who announces that the sage smoke is bothering customers at a nearby restaurant, Thoth responds, promptly extinguishing the smoldering sage leaves with one well-aimed twist of his high-heeled sandal.

"I've gone from street person to the so-called loftiest place in the material world, which was extraordinary and enlightening," he says of Oscar night. "People are the same everywhere, they have the same hopes and fears. Now I can communicate through all ranks."

Thoth peels off his sweat suit to reveal a maroon silk bathrobe and gold leggings adorned with bells and shells that tinkle and rustle lightly whenever he moves. Placing his violin on his shoulder, he picks up his bow and pauses, eyes closed. The crowd stands transfixed. Suddenly a deeply foreign voice emanates from Thoth's throat. Next thing, he's spinning in his tribal space-age outfit, drumming the ground with his feet, as he appears to channel a succession of ancients, whose operatic influences fade in and out, sometimes within a single phrase.

Thoth Meets Nel

"NNNnnn! NNNnnyyurrr! Nular-in!" shrieks Thoth, emoting the name of the hermaphrodite Nular-in, who features heavily in the opera he is currently singing to a dumbfounded dog.

"It's the guy from the Oscars!" yells a passerby as Thoth strips down to his signature gold loincloth. And then he's off again, tripping down Pacific Avenue, feet skirting the earth, as his voice lifts, swoops and fades into a psychotic scream.

"Congratulations, you're very far out," an elderly lady tells Thoth, when he stops for a water break.

"Thanks, I was lucky," replies Thoth.

"It has nothing to do with luck, honey, it's all about karma!" snorts the elderly lady, as the crowd closes in for Thoth's autograph.

He complies, surprising us all as he brandishes a pen in both hands, simultaneously signing his name with right and left hands.

"My handwriting is the secret Sarah kept from you," he says, referring to Sarah Kernochan, who directed the Oscar-winning Thoth.

Two hours later, Thoth is downing a beer and quesadilla at Hobee's Restaurant after a calorie-depleting prayerformance that, for once in his life, wasn't greeted with police harassment or public derision. Could it be that the well-toned 47-year-old is finally enjoying the protection that comes from being an overnight celebrity? If so, it's a foreign experience for Thoth, who almost got thrown out of the Academy Awards by security guards, because nobody knew who the "weirdo in the loincloth" was.

"Even Jodie Foster was afraid of me, though she was most excellent looking!" Thoth recalls. "She turned to Ethan Hawke and said, 'Is he with you?' But Helen Mirren flirted with me, and Halle Berry asked what happened with security. And when I told her, 'They tried to tie me down!' She said, 'Oh, I like that!' which I thought was so flirtatious!"

He laughs, revealing well-defined cheekbones highlighted by gold glitter. "But now that Thoth has won an award, they'll all be saying, 'Did you meet that strange guy? He was kissing my feet out on the red carpet. I thought he had a foot fetish!' Which I do!"

Thoth casually notes that he's the most energetically powerful person in the world, something Kernochan explores in her second Academy Award-winning documentary, the first being Marjoe, a feature about evangelist Marjoe Gortner.

Giddy Up

Reached by phone in a Los Angeles hotel room, Kernochan says Marjoe and Thoth are similar films, in that they both have a spiritual venue, involve powerful performers, and have an interesting backstory.

"But Thoth was far more enjoyable, because Marjoe came from deceit, whereas Thoth came from truth."

Like me, Kernochan came across Thoth in a tunnel, only in her case it was in New York's Central Park.

"I heard this music, which pulled me towards this sound, on a day when I was extremely stressed," recalls Kernochan, "'music that made me feel peaceful, so I grabbed one of his pamphlets and finally visited his website, at which point I realized his story would make a great movie."

A quick trip to www.skthoth.com reveals a suitably trippy website where visitors are invited to "Heal through my divine passion," read up on Thoth's solopera, "The Herma," explore maps of the Festad and learn more about Thoth's life.

Kernochan, who spent six months making Thoth, notes that the subject of her short "gets very giddy and lightheaded when he's performing, which is very common among very advanced spiritual beings, who are known for giggling because of what they know and have seen, but Thoth is really very balanced and grounded. And he has this amazing breath control. He's the only one, I'm convinced, in the world who can do what he does, which is like delivering an aria while jogging, which makes what he's doing very fragile. For now he feels protected by his work. I hope he's right."

As he dips a taco chip into some of Hobee's guacamole, Thoth, who is beginning to unwind from his giddying prayerformance, notes that his work involves invoking a neutral force that moves things.

"I create this spark that makes people move their angel wings," he explains, a statement that sounds kinda crazy--unless you've seen the looks on people's faces while they watch, openmouthed, as Thoth does his thing. And occasionally, someone, very often a child, will bust through the fear of looking different and join in, kicking up their feet, singing and generally flapping their wings.

One Wing Flapping

Thoth hasn't always been a loincloth-wearing deity, but his life has always been extreme. Born Stephen Kaufman to a Jamaican mother and Russian-Rumanian father, S.K. grew up in New York, at a time when people yelled obscenities at children of mixed marriages.

His mother, a gifted timpanist, was the first African-American to play for the New York Philharmonic. "She drummed her values into me in the womb," says Thoth, who became extremely introverted after his parents divorced and he lost contact with his father.

The family moved to S.F., when his mother got a job with the San Francisco Symphony--a job she subsequently lost. After she sued for racial discrimination--and lost, a twentysomething Stefan abandoned his music studies and tried to commit suicide, at which point a voice said, "It's not your time yet. You have work to do."

Thereafter Stephen settled on the name Thoth, "because it's part of Egyptian mythology, which historically was the center for mixed races." He also grew dreads and began wearing skirts, stockings and whatever he damn well wanted, as he came to terms with his racial and sexual identity.

"I'm not a hermaphrodite physically, but spiritually I am," says Thoth, who calls himself "a woman's man" because he was raised exclusively by women after his father left and because of the other men in his life.

Openly bisexual, Thoth has a fiancée, who is blonde and lives in San Francisco, but hopes some day to share an apartment with her amour. Though many area locals have seen Thoth playing in tunnels in Golden Gate Park and BART, with the occasional appearance in Santa Cruz, he left San Francisco two years ago, when his rent tripled. He currently lives with his mother and likes to play in a tunnel in Central Park, opposite a fountain topped by a stone angel, with wings held aloft.

So, does Thoth really see himself as a messenger of the gods?

"I am an angel; we all are," replies Thoth, adding that he writes with both hands, "because you cannot fly with one wing. And I consider myself invincible when I'm twirling, because who's gonna stop me?" He lets out a thothic laugh, then becomes quietly serious.

"The most important thing you can do is to be yourself, in a world where most people are trying to be like someone else. The most important message I have is we all emanate from the same source."

Thoth, the documentary, will be playing at the Del Mar Theatre on Friday May 10, as part of the Santa Cruz Independent Film Festival. Tickets go on sale April 15 at Streetlight Records and the Civic Auditorium. For details of the film festival, call SCIFF at 459.7676, or email www.santacruzfilmfestival.com. Thoth himself will return to Santa Cruz if he can find a suitable venue, preferably a tunnel.

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From the April 3-10, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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