Wednesday, May 20, 2009

While in Poland this past month, an excellent folk singer from Serbia told us of the situation she faces in her home country: “I keep the old traditions, sometimes I think all by myself. I go to meet old people in villages, record them singing and talking, and ask them if I’m singing correctly. If I ask the government or culture ministry for financial help, they say they have no money. But when someone who is using synthesizers and doing old music in a contemporary way asks for money, the government suddenly comes up with funds. I’m not one to believe in conspiracies, but it seems something is going on, in the name of globalization, where an unwritten law has nations not maintaining their old culture, to where in the end we’re all the same.”

Her words came to mind at two cultural events in Yerevan over the recent weekend. In one, choirs consisting of school-age children, from all over Armenia and Karabagh, participated in a one-concert festival commemorating the 140th anniversary of the birth of Komitas. By the time the three-hour concert had finished, only two or three groups had sung songs by Komitas, the others singing modern Armenian compositions or songs from Europe or the USA. As a musicologist sitting next to us said, “The children sang well. This isn’t the question. Why did groups from towns and villages, from Togh village in Karabagh to the Ararat Valley to Gyumri, sing these foreign compositions? I think it’s because choirs and groups who sing these obviously foreign songs and styles have no problem getting grants and foreign money, so those directing even these school choirs know that if they’re going to ever have success, it won’t be by singing Armenian songs.”

A second concert, featuring a folk dance troupe, was the result of a project to bring back the tradition of folk theater in Armenia. This project was funded by the Culture Ministry. Oddly, most of the narration and all of the music, basically zurna and dhol, was recorded, this in spite of the project receiving ample funding. Although folk dancing took up the major part of the two hour presentation, through this and acting they attempted to cover Armenian history all the way from pagan times to the advent of Christianity to the Genocide, concluding with undoubtedly the best part of the night, three dhol players and a zurna player from the village of Musa Ler, the dholchis of Musa Ler famous for their huge dhols, which they pound vigorously with wooden sticks (gopalov dhol). By this time, everyone had forgotten whatever they had thought about the lengthy program, not to mention mistakes like playing the Alashkerti Kochari and dancing another, unrelated dance.

Outside, conversations that at times turned to arguments lasted around two hours, with several experts (musicologists and culture ministry workers) and two pop/folk singers giving their opinions about the right way to maintain our folk culture. “The program had many shortcomings,” a folk/pop singer said. “But what can we do, it’s better than nothing, it’s better than what we see on television…” To this, the musicologists and ministry workers in the group insisted that it was wrong to not demand these songs and dances be presented in their true forms, as if they’re not, we’d end up like the European countries that have already lost their old culture.

“Armenians and non-Armenians alike visit Armenia, and when they leave, they say they’re disappointed they didn’t see any real folk culture or music here, just pop music and pop stars trying to sing folk,” a culture worker said, adding, “I’m getting tired of hearing ‘it’s better than nothing, it’s better than what our rabiz and pop people are doing.’ If we don’t demand higher standards, and continue with our ‘oh, well, it’s better than nothing’ attitude, we’re finished as a nation.”

The pop singers then said, “To get our youth to listen, we have to modernize these songs…” to which the musicologists said, “If the youth hears these modern, half-ruined versions of our folk songs, they’ll never appreciate the real thing. Europeans of all ages are listening to folk music and searching for their roots, and if they don’t find them, they search the roots of others. Why do these pop stars in Armenia think that we have to modernize or synthesize our music, besides the fact they don’t have the talent or interest to do it right?”

This conversation, which started near the central square, where the performance took place, ended towards midnight near the Opera.

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