Sunday, August 30, 2009

Returning from Goris, the Hayastantsi farmer added a few thoughts to his recent conversation with the Karabaghtsi: “These Karabaghtsis have no memory. It wasn’t long ago Azeris were killing Karabaghtsis in Baku, Kirovabad, and Sumgait. And they say they were getting along well with the Azeris, that if Hayastantsis hadn’t demanded independence and protection for Karabagh, all would still be well? And, are they forgetting the massacres in Shushi in the early 20th century, again committed by their ‘friends’ the Azeris? Between massacres, they’re brothers with the Azeris, thinking all is well. I was in a village in Karabagh a few months ago and what were they watching on television but Baku…and when I asked them why they were watching Baku television, they just said, why not? I told them why not…that if they ever wanted to be free of the Azeris, to become Armenians, they needed to start living like Armenians…they barely know who Sayat Nova or Komitas are…”

Back home in Yerevan, a friend told what he had learned about the recent suicide of the 19-year-old university student. “Everything seemed to be fine,” he told. “He had just gotten back from vacationing with his parents and family, and had bought books for the coming school year. Then he kills himself. It happens that it wasn’t exactly local sect activity that killed him, but a different kind of sect…that found on the Internet. What he was doing was going to a site where they tell people about the worthlessness of life, post recordings that people download and listen to on their cell phones, and even tell their future victims the day they’re supposed to do away with themselves. Tragic. We have enough trouble in Armenia with the regular sects, now better organized than ever, infiltrating villages like wildfire, preying on people struggling to get by. And now this…”

Friday, August 28, 2009

An actual conversation between a Hayastantsi farmer and a Karabaghtsi, today in Goris:

“Tell me what’s going to happen to our Karabagh,” the Karabaghtsi said. “Are we going to lose it?” The Hayastantsi replied, “That’s up to Armenia’s president and defense minister, both Karabaghtsis. We have no say in the matter.”

“Too bad all this happened,” the Karabaghtsi said. “We were doing fine before the war. We got along with the Azeris real well, then you Hayastantsis started making demands, to free Karabagh. From what? From whom? All was well.”

“If that’s the way you feel,” the Hayastantsi said, “be sure of this. Our boys aren’t about to volunteer, by the thousands like last time, to save your necks if the war starts again.”

“You have no choice,” the Karabaghtsi said. “We’ve taken care of that. Now the Armenian army will take care of us. We don’t need your volunteers.”

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A 19-year-old university student from a good family committed suicide. At the hogihangist, there were so many people that if one wanted to, he could say he had been there, and no one would have known if he was telling the truth or not.

On the side, people wondered why someone so smart and with such a good future in store would do such a thing. Then it became known that the young man was a member of a sect, one known for their extreme beliefs.

Not all sects are this extreme, of course. Some “merely” advocate breaking contact with family members who don’t convert. And some sect members are only looking for a piece of bread or a ticket to America.

Perhaps the most dangerous are those who, like a pop star on a recent talk show, when asked if he was a sect member, avoiding the question, said, “Oh, I respect the Armenian Apostolic Church and all they’ve done over the years, but, we all worship the same god, we’re all God’s children...”

Monday, August 24, 2009

Yerevan’s streets aren’t known to be the safest in the world. This morning, while in a taxi traveling the street near the Genocide Memorial, traffic came to a standstill, the reason being an overturned Nissan jeep, the cab completely smashed. I hate to think of how it happened or what condition the driver and/or passengers might be in, should they have lived through the accident. Our driver, commenting on Yerevan drivers in general, said, “I drive 24 hours a day. Every night I see 4-5 accidents like this, and almost all of them are driving jeeps like this one. They’re often the new rich, driving drunk or under the influence of narcotics. If our police enforced speed limits strictly, these accidents wouldn’t happen.

“And now they’re fining drivers 5,000 dram if they’re not wearing seat belts. A great law, it’s true, but people don’t know the reason they wrote the law in the first place. One of our wealthy businessmen imported a huge number of seat belts, and to make sure they were sold, the law was written. Only in Armenia...”

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Unfortunate are the unkind words exchanged at times between Diaspora Armenians and Hayastantsis. A musician recently returned from Syria told about what an Armenian there had said to him: “The Syrian Armenian told me he wanted to start a business in Armenia, but that all Hayastantsis were thieves. I told him that he shouldn’t generalize, that all my family and friends were hardworking and honest, and that, on the other hand, I had met plenty of Diaspora Armenians who weren’t exactly honest. Our conversation ended there, which was fine with me.”

Another common belief among Diaspora Armenians is that Hayastantsis are out to cheat Diaspora Armenians when they come to Armenia. Although there are locals who definitely fit into this description, it seems that at least some of this comes as a reaction to the way Diaspora Armenians, and others, come to Armenia with the attitude that Armenians here, being the economy isn’t exactly strong, should work for free or close to it, and be grateful at that. I am reminded first of all of a fellow from Norway, from a wealthy family, who asked to use a few of Hasmik’s lullabies for a film he was working on, but when the subject of an honorarium came up, he suddenly ran out of money, saying his budget was too low, etc. (even though he had traveled here, put the film together, and the like).

And there was the Armenian who recently asked if I could translate several pages of Classical Armenian into English, but when I told this new acquaintance that I wouldn’t mind being paid, he too suddenly ran out of money, complaining about his low budget (I wondered how he got here in the first place if he had no money). Oddly, I think it fair to say that neither of the two characters I mentioned would have thought of asking for free songs or services were they in the West...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Fresno Armenian continued his thoughts, at times bordering a tirade. “Speaking of injustice...when I saw the woman with Parkinson’s during a reportage on ‘Armenia’ television I went into shock. Here’s a woman, sitting there, her hands and arms shaking, and she’s saying ‘I’m a person too, I’ve lived a normal life, I’d just as soon do away with myself, living like this. I can’t afford medicine, as the government gives so little I only have medicine for a few days a month.’ There’s money in this country for everything but those who really need it. This is disgusting, to be going on in our own country.

“But I do like how there are many, especially young, who are protesting this kind of injustice in Armenia. They don’t often make the news, but they’re out there. The government is trying to scare these youth, by setting examples, like the girl who protested what’s going on in Teghut, but I don’t think they can be scared off. These are our real patriots, these youth.”

Speaking about cultural life here and in Fresno, he said, “Things have changed in Fresno over the years. Young Armenians, who have no connection to the old generation, their culture, or their music, don’t know Armenian culture or music. This is natural, I suppose, being the fourth or so generation born in the US. But here in Armenia, I expected more. When I saw a Hayastantsi, on a well known National Television program, singing to a 6/8 beat, I thought I was in Saudi Arabia. When he used, rather, stole, Avetik Isahakyan’s words, ‘mi mrahon aghjik tesa...’ I couldn’t believe my ears. Everyone knows that line is Isahakyan’s, and has never been used anywhere else...And the Armenian girls dancing in the background...dancing like Arabic or Turkish belly dancers. What can I say? I know it’s probably shoved down your throats here. But do your best...protest this, and injustice in general...Armenia is our last hope.”

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Fresno Armenian had a few unkind, or, more like it, uneasy words about the political atmosphere in Armenia: “I already knew,” he said, “that businesses not under a mafia umbrella have a hard time operating here. But I didn’t know the fear people live in, especially those with a conscience, who believe in certain causes that might interfere with big business (oligarchs) and what they are doing. I just heard about a girl who was simply protesting what’s going on in Teghut, where they’re cutting trees and doing damage to the environment with their mining and all, and they’re charging her with all kinds of strange things, and might put her in prison for a few years. Everyone knows the charges are trumped, invented, but nobody can do anything about it. I hope the protests help, but I doubt it.

“They’re putting fear in people, like it was 1937. You mind your manners, they say silently, and you’re fine, but stay out of our business...But what I don’t appreciate is the way the political leaders here stay silent. Then again, that’s understandable, as most of them have connections with the oligarchs, otherwise they wouldn’t be in the position they are. What’s worse is the Diaspora Armenians, and here I mean the political people, who go on and on about Karabagh and Azerbaijan, but not a word from any of them...not the ANCA or the Ramgavars...about nature, the environment, Teghut, or people like the girl who might go to prison. In other words, nothing about the injustices people here face every day. And I know this is the main reason people move from Armenia.

“These Diaspora people have no reason to fear anything, like the locals here do, but they don’t say anything. Maybe they have connections here they don’t want to tell us about?”

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Stars and a cold wind reigned over Lake Sevan and the Noyland Resort, where owner Narine Aghasaryan had invited family and friends, including Maestro Aram Gharabekyan and guests from Moscow, to enjoy the music of jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan and members of jazz band Time Report. Earlier, before sunset, several of us had gone to Hayravank, taking grapes to be blessed on this special Armenian holiday.

The party lasted well into the evening, as the musicians played, improvised, and invited guests to join in the singing. With Hamasyan’s piano, Hasmik sang several lullabies and “Im Khorodik Yar,” accompanied by contra bass,drums, saxophone, and piano. Although not part of the musicians’ jazz repertoire, the song was natural, as one of the jazz musicians said later, “these songs are part of us all, rehearsing isn’t necessary.” Later, standing outside and fighting the wind, the same musician said, “Folklore is above everything, including jazz. The best songs in our program are our improvisations of folk music...”

Late at night, we went back to Yerevan, first taking the detour leading through the village of Ljashen and using the old, decrepit road of the past, as the highway between the town of Sevan and Martuni/Gyavar is partly closed due to the rising waters of Sevan, reaching and covering the highway at certain places. Currently, trees and bushes are being cleaned from the area, with work planned to continue till 2010.

Our Week of Jazz, as I called our recent week of jazz activity, came to a close with a concert at the Open Music Fest featuring the same Time Report. Jazz music, and perhaps the fact that Time Report has quite a following in Yerevan, filled the amphitheater again, as it did for last week’s Tigran Hamasyan and Friends concert. Saxaphonist Armen Husnunts, the group’s leader, played folk improvisations and his own compositions, playing expertly and with ease, as did dudukist Vardan Grigoryan. Grigoryan’s new composition was a highlight, playing a 5/8 beat in in the mugham key of “shur,” his playing speed at times shocking the audience. Their encore number, the folk song “Kakavik,” had the crowd cheering and on their feet.

In the meantime, activity is picking up for the upcoming Shoghaken concert, with rehearsals and other various arrangements leading up to the Sept. 4 concert, the city now witness to Shoghaken banners, posters, and television advertising.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The week of jazz continued with the “Tigran Hamasyan and Friends” concert at the Open Music Fest in Yerevan. Unlike the excellent concert of about two weeks ago, featuring opera singer Arax Davityan and Maestro Constantine Orbelyan, when there were a good number of vacant seats, the jazz concert was completely sold out, with people sitting on steps and standing along the amphitheater walls. Hamasyan was a crowd-pleaser, both with his jazz piano arrangements and playing with guests on trumpet, saxophone, contra bass, and drums. Also, an Arab oudist/singer from Tunisia performed, drawing huge applause with his mugham-style singing.

The concert’s finale featured Hasmik and Aleksan Harutyunyan singing “Done Yar/Jakhraki Vot” to Hamasyan’s arrangement, accompanied by Hamasyan’s band members and dudukist Vardan Grigoryan. The Harutyunyans sang in true folk style, mixing well with Hamasyan’s free-flowing piano playing. The joining of pure folk with jazz, new to the audience, and to Yerevan for that matter, promises a good future, judging from audience reaction and comments after the concert about how natural it all seemed.

A phone call the next day from folklorist Arusiak Sahakyan revealed that two pop singers, on occasion passing themselves off as folk singers, are part of the evening at the Fest dedicated to folk music. That evening, the two singers plan on singing a duet originally performed by Ruben Altunyan’s folk/ashoughagan group of the 1980s, a song originally discovered/recorded by Sahakyan. As it turns out, the singers announce only that the song is a “Ruben Altunyan” song, failing to mention Sahakyan’s name, as Sahakyan had said less-than-kind words in the past about the singers’ supposed folk style. A pity, such small-mindedness, as Sahakyan, who has done so much for folklore in Armenia, is a victim of a culture here in which people are punished for daring to speak up about/against falseness in presenting folk music in Armenia.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Although it can be safely said that I have never been a serious jazz fan, a step in that direction was taken due to the week’s musical activities in Yerevan. Several days ago, Gyrumi-born jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan, now living in New York but in Yerevan for several concerts, called and said he had written arrangements for Hasmik’s “Butanya Oror” and “Done Yar/Jakhraki Vot,” from Shoghaken’s Music from Armenia CD. The next day, sitting at our piano, he played his arrangements as Hasmik and Aleksan sang these old folk songs to jazz piano accompaniment. Interesting was how the songs were sung in their original version and style, with Hamasyan accompanying with his quite good improvisations. Later, at the Malkhas Jazz Club on Pushkin Street, rehearsals continued, now also with duduk, drums, and other instruments, all for the open-air concert at the Kino Moskva amphitheater, planned for Thursday.

I had heard that jazz guitarist Stanly Jordan had been invited by the American Embassy for a concert at the Opera Hall, but hadn’t planned to attend until an invitation from the embassy arrived, both for the concert and a reception at Ambassador Yovanovitch’s home. There, we met and were then treated to Jordan and his band’s music, backed at times by Yerevan jazz musicians, notably jazz pianist Vahagn Hayrapetyan. Jordan’s virtuosity was obvious, but his playing style, playing the guitar as he would the piano, was new to most there, who looked forward to the next day’s concert.

Without doubt, the Stanley Jordan concert was a huge success, as his numbers, both as soloist and with his two band members, at contra bass and drums, had the crowd sitting on the edges of their seats, clapping along with Jordan and totally involved in the music. Amazing was when Jordan sat at the piano and played the piano with his left hand and guitar with his right hand, all with total ease. His version of Led Zepplin’s “Stairway to Heaven” showed the jazz pianist/guitarist’s versatlity and ability to step into other genres of music. But the highlight for many was when, at concert’s end, he invited Vahagn Hayrapetyan to the stage. After a rousing reception for Hayrapetyan, the local favorite played a version of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” that nearly had the crowd out of control. Although ending late, the crowd was ready to stay as long as the music continued.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Folk musicians and others are talking about comedian/singer/etc. Ashot Ghazaryan’s recent show on National Television in which Armenia’s best known rabiz singers were featured, in this case singers who try to sing what’s known here simply as “Baku” or “Istanbul.” As one folk musician put it, “After seeing this program, I see one positive aspect in the opening of the border with Turkey. If good Turkish singers sang here, these miserable Armenian rabiz singers would hide their faces, and we’d never have to see or hear them again.”

Towards the end of the show (fortunately I turned it on too late to see the start of the program), Homenetmen youth from South America, in the country for olympic games, were invited to the stage to say a few words and meet Ghazaryan. Although I thought it would have been nice if these Homenetmen youth had refused to attend the show in the first place, being it featured Baku-Istanbul style singers (fine in Baku or Istanbul, but not in Yerevan), I was happy to hear the songs the Homenetmen youth chose to sang: “Yerevani Sirun Aghjik,” and the patriotic song “Getashen.” As a friend watching with us said, “Maladets,” Russian for “aprek,” or, simply, “Good for them.”

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Vanadzor-born Armenian now living in Siberia had an interesting take on the future of Armenia: “I’ve been in Yerevan for just a week, and I’m already counting the days till I leave. It’s not that I’m not enjoying seeing people, the good food, the good times. But I’m seeing things I didn’t see here in the past, and I don’t see these things as positive. For instance, in the way people dress, carry themselves, it’s like I’m in Istanbul, or, even more so, Baku. Not so much the older set, but the youth. There are plenty of smart, well educated youth, but most are like Turks, in the way they dress and act, and the music they listen to.

“On one hand, I can’t blame them. I’ve been in Los Angeles, and sometimes it’s hard to tell Armenian youth from Mexican. People are only so strong, and most get swept up by the culture of where they’re living.

“Here, we’re surrounded by Moslems...Iranians and Azeri Turks to the south, Azeris to the east, Turks to the west, and Georgians, who are Christian one day, Moslem the next, to our north. So here’s my point. Even though we talk about losing or keeping Karabagh, Genocide recognition, corruption in Armenia, etc., I think the most important issue we’re facing is that we’re losing our national characteristics, culture, and way of life. We can blame it on a bad government, on sects, and all that, but even though these things make a difference, let’s be realistic. We’re a small nation, surrounded and being swallowed up by Moslem Turks and others. And there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Friday, August 7, 2009

The world of culture here continues to be both entertaining and, at times, shocking in what people allow themselves. On the comical side, now that singers are no longer allowed to lip synch at concerts, several have dropped from the scene, except in the world of video clips, and fewer of the “stars” are giving solo concerts. Not to be denied, however, the stars have gotten together for a gala concert in Yerevan, the list of singers so long it becomes somewhat a comedy in itself. Each singer will be presenting one or two songs before passing the microphone to the next singer. In this way, no singer is forced to actually sing more than a song or two, about the extent of their ability.

On the disgusting, almost shocking side, is a discovery we made while at the tearoom/bookstore Art Bridge. There, we discovered a book including stories by several noted Armenian-American writers, each story translated into Armenian by Writers Union member Aram Arsenyan. Happy with our discovery, we took the book home, where we began to discover just what this book was.

The book included the short story “A Lesson to Remember” by my brother, William Michaelian. The first sign of something awry was the one word translation of the title, to simply “Das,” meaning “lesson.” As we began to read the story, so well translated in the past by Yerevan translator Samvel Mkrtchyan, we saw what was a terrible translation, made worse by the simple fact that no one, the translator or otherwise, had contacted any of us, for permission to translate and/or publish the story.

The translator, in answering an initial email asking him to explain himself and what he had done, simply said, “I promise not to do this in the future without permission,” obviously hoping we’d be satisfied and let the matter go. The translator’s email, in quite poor English, made sense in that it corresponded with his poor translation.

In the preface, noted in Armenian is the word “petpatver,” meaning sponsored/funded by the government, possibly the Culture Ministry. Needless to say, follow up on this matter is in order.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Yerevan-born Armenian and good friend of Shoghaken arrived at our home just as rehearsal was coming to an end. In the midst of music and other activity, a long table was set, complete with fish, chicken, salad, and hajar pilaf (translated as rye, but similar to bulghur) to welcome our friend to our home and to Armenia.

“I haven’t been to Armenia for about 10 years,” he said. “Seeing the country, and all of you again is great. And your hospitality is something I don’t see in the US. In spite of all the problems in Armenia, hospitality is something you can’t breed out. The US is a good country in some ways, but there’s no communication with neighbors, sometimes even’s like I’m living on a desert island there.”

Our friend, pointing outside our five-story apartment, said, “If I saw somebody being murdered down there, I don’t know if I’d call the police,” he said. “One bad thing left over from Soviet times is that if someone calls the police and reports anything, from a murder to the most simple thing, he’s called a gorts tvogh (meaning someone who gives work to the police, which in Soviet times meant turning someone in, often for personal gain of some sort). And now that the Soviets are gone from Armenia, oligarchs have taken over. It’s like a feudal state, from what I see. In time, things might change, but in the East, it could take longer.”

I was amazed by how little this Hayastan-born Armenian has changed in his 10-plus years in the US, compared to many who change into something I find hard to define. He definitely didn’t have, as a friend puts it, “the Glendale look,” meaning a certain manner of dress and hair color, known in the Armenian community of Glendale. I wondered if he had stayed here, in this atmosphere where one is often forced to lower his morals/standards to stay afloat, if he’d have remained the Armenian he now is.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The fallout from the wedding continued throughout the weekend, as word reached us that a heated exchange took place when the parents and immediate family of the bride and groom met at the bride’s parents’ home. “It happened that the tamadah (toastmaster) of the wedding was there,” our friend said. “I told him it was disgusting how he praised the singer and his Baku-style music, and he said he didn’t like the music either, but it wasn’t appropriate to say so in front of everybody. Then I told the tamadah that as a good Dashnak, and one who had fought in Karabagh, he should have asked the musicians to stop playing Baku music, and what did he say but ‘what can I do?’ (Armenian sickness of not speaking up, repeated). Then I thought to myself, what should I expect, Dashnaks like Simon Vratzian and Nzhdeh were in the past, and will stay in the past...”

Later, I met with a wise sort who was at the wedding. He blamed the groom’s family, with their Karabagh roots, for choosing the Baku-style music for the wedding. “When the Karabagh movement started, back in Soviet times, I warned people about Karabaghtsis. I told everybody that the whole Karabagh movement was ordered from outside, that money was given to organize the rallies, which played on our patriotism and became a real movement. Outsiders worked with Levon to get the movement going, with the purpose of destroying Armenia. What did we get? Levon helped destroy the country by selling off the factories. Then Karabaghtsis took the country over. And now that time has passed, we see what they’ve done.

“The Karabaghtsis were happy with their lives, and were against the movement until fighting started and they had to fight back. Too bad we can’t turn back the clock. They were satisfied with what they had, and we were too. Now what?”

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Hayastantsi girl was getting married to someone with roots in Karabagh. The music, chosen by the groom, was pure Baku. A Hayastantsi I was sitting close to didn’t appreciate the music. “Let me tell you a story,” he said. “During the war, a group of Karabagh Armenians were brought to a village in Armenia. They were hungry, wounded, lucky to be alive. The villagers took them in. After all, they thought, these were Armenians, being attacked and killed by Turks. One evening, we heard them playing Turkish music. We told them hundreds, thousands of Hayastantsis had gone and fought and died in Karabagh, fought against the Turks, to save part of our homeland...and then asked how they could come here and start playing Turkish music. And what was their answer?

“They said, ‘You Hayastantsis started all this. We were fine with the Turks, in Karabagh and Baku. We got along with them well. We were living fine. Then you disturbed everything, started this war...’ after which a fight started, barely broken up before blood was spilled. These are the Karabaghtsis. They won’t change. They got along with the Turks all those years, intermarried, broke bread, everything, and aren’t about to change.”

Another Hayastantsi started arguing with someone in the groom’s family about the music. It wasn’t a pretty scene. To the Hayastantsi’s complaints, the groom’s family member said, “Why should we play your music all night...why can’t we play our music?”

Interesting in all this was that the groom and his family are hardcore Dashnaks. When one was asked how a Dashnak could be such a fan of Turkish/Baku music, he simply answered, “Why not?”

The Hayastantsi shook his head in disbelief...