Sunday, March 29, 2009

Interesting was the surprised look on pop singer Emmy’s face at the Tashir 2008 concert in Moscow when Anastas Mikoyan’s grandson presented her the best singer of the year award and said, “Only you sang like an Armenian. The others sang like Turks.” It happened that Emmy had sung a song written by Arno Babajanyan. Having said that, it is important to note that singing like a Turk is fine if one is a Turk, likewise, singing like a Persian or Azeri is fine if one is a Persian or Azeri, it’s just that a poor imitation of another nation’s music does nothing for the singer or their national music or pride for that matter. A pity more Armenians don’t sing like Armenians ... perhaps they should learn a lesson from the Kurdish teen who appeared on ALM television a week or so ago, singing a Kurdish folk song with such pride and authentic Kurdish style that puts most Armenian singers, pop and otherwise, to shame.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

A meeting in a tea room in the city center with a television executive turned into a three-hour exchange of ideas between the executive, Hasmik, film director Araik Shirinian, and composer Tigran Mansuryan.

“I remember going to one of the most remote villages of Talin, to hear songs of Sassoun from those who grew up with that music,” Mansuryan said. “An old man refused to sing, saying that in Soviet times singing the songs of Western Armenia, especially those that were patriotic in nature, were prohibited. He said they started singing the songs in Kurdish, and that was the only way he remembered them, and he was ashamed not to be able to sing them in Armenian.

“The Soviets destroyed our folk culture. They said it was something low, that it smelled of the village. They choreographed our songs and our dances. We’re lucky there are those, even though few, that perform folk culture as it was intended. But our urban existence has taken us from the roots of folk culture. I went into a village once and asked a man to sing a horovel. He looked at me strangely and said, ‘How can I do that, I’m not in the fields, behind a plow.’ This was great folk wisdom, something very few understand today.

“These are the times, and there is nothing we can do about it. But it’s sad. I was at a music festival in Amsterdam, in which Armenians and Azeris were participating. On a table in the lobby, CDs of Azeri folk music, vocal and instrumental, were for sale. They must have been stacked a foot high. Good music, vocal and instrumental. Do you know how many Armenian CDs were there? Almost none. It was embarrassing.

“I think the day will come, when I don’t know, when Armenians realize who they are, and start singing their songs, and dancing their dances. I just hope it doesn’t take a national tragedy for them to understand who they are, and what a classic culture they have.

“Don’t go to the ministries, or anybody else, and expect them to understand. We, as artists, need to continue our work, knowing one day it will be appreciated.”

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A folk musician watched in amazement as a major pop star listed off seemingly endless reasons why singing live isn’t always a good idea. “They’ll do anything they can to avoid singing live,” he said. “You’ll see. If the Culture Minister persists in her decision to ban lip synching, these pop stars will have her removed from office. Behind their smiles, they’re wicked, and will do anything to reach their goals.”

Hasmik and the musician continued their rehearsal for an upcoming concert of Armenian lullabies, the latest discoveries being traditional lullabies from Moush, Musa Ler, and Nor Nakhichevan, the latter lullaby originally from the Hamshen region of Turkey.

“With songs like this, I marvel at the pop stars and modern composers spending so much time producing mediocre songs,” the musician commented.

Later, he told a story about a festival in Tbilisi in which musicians from Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan participated. “The Azeri musicians wouldn’t relax, acting like they were in a state of war not only with Armenia, but with us. They were obviously trained and coached back home on how to act when meeting with Armenians, even on a cultural level. Once I pressed the button for the elevator to open in our hotel, and when the door opened and the Azeri musicians saw me, they hurried to close the door to keep me out. Once I asked an Azeri musician how he was doing, and how life was in Azerbaijan. He said he was fine, and that all was fine in his country, ‘depending on whom we meet,’ obviously referring to Armenians. I told him that in Armenia we welcome everybody, treat them well, and send them away with a smile, ‘not depending on what nationality they might be.’ The musician walked away with a sick look on his face, not expecting my answer.”

I was reminded of Shoghaken’s trip to the Smithsonian Folk Festival in Washington, D.C., in 2002, and my encounter with an Azeri musician. “You know,” he told me, “your kanon player is nothing compared to ours.” After he received no response, he continued, obviously trying to test my patience. “Your kanon player is very primitive. Our kanon player is an expert, and can put yours to shame.”

Still ignoring his attempt at starting an argument, the Azeri walked off, frustrated. This, while the folk musicians from Turkey were always friendly and congratulatory. Perhaps the Azeris could learn from their brothers in Turkey that there’s a time and a place for everything, including their warlike manner.

The Azeri was later banned from any future participation in Smithsonian events for his confrontational manner, for instance announcing before his group’s concerts that they were singing songs about their lost homeland, Karabagh....

Monday, March 23, 2009

An Armenian from Germany, hearing about the YSU professors taking bribes, said she didn’t really blame them, as with the low salary they earn, the culture of bribery is a natural result....

As news arrived that the Turks are starting an Armenian-language radio station in a couple of months, our friend first laughed, then turned serious, saying Armenians should be indignant that after years of blockades, both trade and energy, that offering something like the radio station is an insult. “Armenians living in Turkey thought it impossible the Turks would do what they did, deport and murder their own citizens. And this, after 1896, and 1909 in Adana. Now, after the blockades and the recent anti-Armenian film the Turks are showing in their schools, Armenians should turn down these small offers the Turks are making, until they recognize the Genocide. If they don’t consider 1915 as Genocide, what would it take?”

This opinion by a Diaspora Armenian reflects what is thought here by many, yet the average Hayastantsi doesn’t have the luxury of spending a lot of time and effort on the subject. As a Kanaker-based exchange shop owner said on the subject, “First of all, I have to worry about putting bread on the table. Yesterday the Central Bank sent inspectors to our exchange, and they stayed all day, waiting for, perhaps hoping for, some kind of problem, which fortunately they didn’t find. I only hope they don’t decide to shut us all down. Then what?”

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Besides the upcoming election for mayor of Yerevan, one of the most talked about happenings here is several Yerevan State University students putting poster-size pictures of professors they say take bribes alongside the sidewalk leading to the Opera building on Mashtots Boulevard. Professors and others protested, and a journalist was beaten following up on the story at the nearby Brusov Institute of Foreign Languages.

Interesting was the discussion at our home between a Yerevan State University professor and a lecturer at the French University: “What your students did was preposterous,” the French University lecturer said. “They had no right, without some sort of written proof, to put those pictures up in a public place like that.” The YSU professor, not amused, said they had every right, that the accused professors were the best known for taking bribes (known here as kasharaker). “I don’t take bribes,” she said. “I’m in the minority. Even if there was a better way of approaching the situation, at least the students did something.”

The French University lecturer then said, “Our students are intelligent. They don’t give bribes,” to which the YSU professor answered, “If they transferred to our university, they’d give bribes, just like the rest do.”

The professor then told about a statement by the editor of Aravot newspaper, in which the editor said that instead of complaining about bribery, the students should study harder, so that they wouldn’t have to give bribes to get good grades. “As if,” she said, “the students are all lazy and use bribes as a way out. The editor failed to say that there are many professors who expect and even demand bribes, and don’t give passing grades unless they’re paid for. The editor knows that, as does everybody else. So much for him being an independent journalist.”

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A neighbor stopped in after coming down from the roof of the building to check his television antenna. “I haven’t told you,” he said, with a serious look on his face, “that I’ve decided to leave the country. I have a job offer in the US, and if everything goes well, I’m taking my family from Armenia. And not because I don’t have a job here. I do, and it’s a good one, but I’d like to learn more, move up in the system, but I’m not in the correct “layer” here, so others, less worthy, will take the better positions.”

Our friend then accepted our offer of pumpkin soup and shushan, one of the several kinds of greens eaten here especially in the springtime. After talking about neighborhood happenings, he continued about his plans to leave Armenia:

“I’m worried more, though, about my children. “This is no place for them to grow up. For one thing, we can’t turn on the television, as all the networks are choking us with mafia-style serials and pop star music, although I can’t call what they do music. You’d think there were no other singers in Armenia besides these so-called stars. Yet worse than this is the way the crazy life here is making people act like wild animals, like jackals. For one thing, the way the tax collectors attack small business owners, making unrealistic demands, makes them turn wild, having to adjust just to stay in business. And the individual isn’t protected here. People with connections do what they want, and the regular person suffers, and either leaves the country or turns wild himself, just to survive. We’re becoming a nation of barbarians, acting like criminals and using “goghakan” language, promoted in the mafia-style serials.

“Whether or not Armenians are their worst enemy or not, it’s clear that we have no friends in the world. It looks like Azerbaijan is going to change their constitution so Aliev can stay in power. Can you picture the noise coming from Europe if Armenia tried the same thing? And do you know that in Israel if someone changes their religion he goes to prison? Europe and the US demand that Armenia practice freedom of religion, and as a result there are over 20 sects in operation here. If we decided to imprison those who left the Armenian Church for this or that sect, again, what do you think Europe would do?

“Will things get better? Maybe, but will it be in time for the young generation, my children’s age, to live a normal life?”

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

It had been one year since an in-law died, and according to Armenian tradition family members gathered at the in-law’s family home to honor the deceased. All of the proper toasts of remembrance were said, with dinner including the traditional khashlama, potatoes, and various salads. After an hour or two had passed, most of the guests left, while several of us stayed to visit and enjoy pastries and coffee. As several of the guests were from Tbilisi, talk turned to the political situation in Javakhk and Georgia in general. One of the Tbilisi-born Armenians said he thought that Javakhk and Marneuli would soon be breaking off from Georgia (a wide-spread opinion in Yerevan these days), Javakhk to Armenia and Marneuli to Azerbaijan. “With Abkhazia and Ossetia already gone, that will pretty much leave Georgia with Ajaria and Tbilisi. And who knows what the Ajarians will do. The Georgians deserve this. One day they’re Christian, the next day Moslem. I’m sure you know that Georgia was Moslem for nearly 200 years. One day they’re on Russia’s side, the next day the US, the next day Turkey. Already, the oil pipeline isn’t in operation, so slowly Georgia will lose whatever importance it has to the West. This will help Armenia, of course, and is probably why Turkey is talking about opening the border with Armenia, as they still need to keep a route open to Central Asia. And you know what? We should stick with Serge as president, even though he’s definitely no saint. He’s more of a patriot than Levon, no doubt. Without Levon’s interference, Serge would have a much easier time with the Karabagh negotiations. All Levon wants to do is come to power, make deals with the West to give up Karabagh and give in on the Genocide issue, and then leave power. Do we really need that? Do we really want people like Hrant Bagratyan and Pashinyan running the country?”

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A phone call from a Culture Ministry worker gave a behind-the-scenes look at the real attitude of Yerevan’s pop singers concerning the new rule against lip synching. “One of our staff went to a ministry-sponsored concert to make sure the singers would perform live,” the worker said. “When it became clear our staff member was serious, several of the singers, all well known, refused to sing. I guess these are the ones who spend hours in the studio recording a single song, with the sound engineer doing the rest of the work with his computer. But the humorous part was when one of the biggest stars said she had a note from the doctor saying she couldn’t sing. Our worker told her that if he let her lip synch this time that everybody would come to the next concert with a doctor’s excuse, and lip synching would again be the rule. She then said he couldn’t force her to sing, as singing was her living, and she didn’t want to ruin her vocal chords. Our worker then told her to either sing or go home, so she sang. Another big name said the dressing room was too cold, and her parking place outside wasn’t good, so she didn’t sing. Funny, during press conferences these stars talk about how good the new rule is, and then they change their tune when someone actually challenges them.”

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A friend who works as a journalist for the “Armenakob” television station called this morning, and after talking business began telling her opinion about the new ruling from the Culture Minister banning lip synching at concerts in Yerevan’s state-owned halls. “The funniest thing,” she said, “is the way the best known stars, who lip synch 90% of the time they are on stage, are rushing to say how good the new ruling is, how important it is that singers perform live, and the like. One of them, already quite highly paid, stated she would have to start charging more for her concerts, as now she’d be paying musicians whom she didn’t have to pay before, etc. She then went on to say, in a self-assured manner, that ‘people like to be deceived anyway,’ when talking about the concerts where lip synching rules.

“Amusing,” the journalist continued, “that these same singers lip synch at wedding receptions, with the going price ranging from $1,000-$3,000 per song, and they feel no remorse there. And they have the nerve to put themselves on some sort of pedestal, saying that those that pirate their CDs are criminals, when all they do is push a button, open their mouths, and collect their money. Not to mention the fact that they don’t pay taxes. Let them start to pay taxes for the money they make singing at concerts, and watch them cry.

“Another pop star held a press conference, and said that singing live is better, as she was always afraid that while lip synching the power would go out, or there would be some technical problem, and it would become apparent she wasn’t singing live. Another singer, who genuinely approves of the new ruling, complained about singers literally recording letter by letter, saying there was no way these singers could perform live, and they would slowly drop out of sight.

“But there is a negative side,” she said, laughing. “Did you see the concert for Women’s Day on March 8, with the Aram Merangulian Ensemble of Folk Instruments? Rouben Matevosyan, who directs the ensemble, for some reason invited only pop stars to sing, and they all sang live. It was a disaster. All of Yerevan was talking about it. Only Rouben and Arman Hovhannisyan sang well. Did you see how the singers suffered singing live? It would have been better for everybody if they hadn’t sung live. What a sad state of affairs.”

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Baruyr Hayrikyan, known for his anti-Russia leanings, announced on television that government statistics have around 1,000 Armenians a year being murdered in Russia. A day after his declaration, news arrived that two Armenians were gunned down outside their house in St. Petersburg, cut down by machine-gun fire. “Every day 3-4 body bags show up at Zvartnots,” a neighbor said. “This is rarely admitted here. My mother said she was visiting a cousin in Moscow who lives in a high-rise apartment building, when one day she heard noise outside in the hallway. Afraid to go outside, she later learned that a Moscow-born Armenian had been beaten and kicked to death by a group of Russian thugs right outside his apartment, in full view of the man’s young son. And this,” our neighbor continued, “after her nephew was found in a river somewhere near St. Petersburg a year or so ago. And believe me, he wasn’t going swimming.”

Monday, March 9, 2009

A store owner in the city center told us that the tax people wanted to shut down a certain store (apparently someone with connections wanted to take over the store) and had tried everything, but couldn’t find any reason to shut him down, as he was doing everything legally, giving receipts to all customers, etc. All else failing, they had his power shut off, after which he couldn’t print the receipts, without electricity, so they shut him down for not giving receipts for purchases customers had made.

In stores in Armenia, each receipt for an item purchased has a number that is a potential prize winner, cash prizes of 5,000 dram on up, so many people are asking for, even demanding, a receipt, yet store clerks aren’t giving receipts unless the customer requests one. That way, if the store doesn’t issue a receipt, they don’t have to pay taxes on items sold. Of course, if a customer isn’t familiar to them, they give a receipt, worried that the customer might be a representative from a tax agency sent there to check up on them.

Related, word on the streets has it that when certain favored businessmen give goods to a store for sale, that by law they have to report how much the price is (how much the store owner pays the businessman for the item, before he then marks it up for selling), but that they turn in a sum of, say, 100 dram, even though the store owner gave the businessman 500 dram. In this way, the “favored businessmen” have to pay little taxes, while the store owner has to pick up the tab. The basic tax collector knows this, but, knows better than reporting the practice.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The latest joke going around Yerevan tells the reactions of Putin, Obama, and Serge Sargsyan when learning that the world will come to an end in a year.

“The bad news is the world is coming to an end in a year,” Putin tells the Russians. “But the good news is, we have a full year to drink vodka.”

On hearing the news, Obama tells the Americans “The bad news is, the world is coming to an end in a year. The good news is, we still have a year where we can work together, and try to make peace in the world.”

In Armenia, Sargsyan announces that the news is all good: “This means I will be president until the end of time,” he joyfully declares.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A friend with close ties to Echmiadzin told that Archbishop Nerses Bozabalian, nearly beaten to death by robbers, is now showing improvement, and will likely recover from the beating. “Most don’t know that Bishop Bozabalian was elected Catholicos, but the voting was falsified,” he said. “They say he was a unifier, and had plans to unite the various factions, political and otherwise, of the church. For some reason, this didn’t go over well, and he was denied becoming Catholicos.”

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Today, without exaggeration, everybody in Yerevan was talking about the sudden dollar/dram exchange rate change. “Interestingly,” the accountant said, “they waited until the March 1 rally had passed. Then, today, until just before the Central Bank’s mid-day break, they changed the rate from 308 to nearly 400 dram per dollar. People with connections were told what was going to happen, and they went to the exchange shops where owners were forced to sell dollars for 308 dram. Then they changed the exchange rate, and went back and bought dram, making a killing. But the bad thing is that stores began marking prices up, sometimes by 20%, on basic, everyday items, butter, oil, flour, that sort of thing, which makes life almost impossible for the average person. Natural gas and gasoline are next, then other items will follow. You should have seen the look on people’s faces today. Everybody was in shock.”

Monday, March 2, 2009

“The struggle is good,” the intellectual said. “And it’s important. I only wish the leaders of the opposition were different people. I’m waiting for someone I can believe in. But I hope the turnout at the rally is big, so the president and his men understand, and see with their own eyes, that people are dissatisfied, and want change.”

As I walked up Mashtots, and saw that people were standing all the way down to Nairi Cinema, I knew the turnout was a large one. Making my way up to where the street turns and becomes Koryun (Srjanayin), I saw a group of about 100 university age students marching along the street, holding flags high and shouting “Ankakh Hayastan,” before winding their way through the crowd and up the stone steps towards the Matenadaran. As opposed to the rallies of several months ago, making one’s way to the top steps was difficult. The crowd seemed to be at least 50,000, as people were spread all over the surrounding hillsides and along the steps leading towards the top where Levon Ter Petrosyan and his people gathered.

Before introducing Ter Petrosyan, the speaker read the names of those who died on March 1 of last year, and then asked for a minute of silence. He then introduced Ter Petrosyan as “the president of Armenia.” The crowd, many holding banners and flags, began shouting “Levon, nakhagah…” The former president began by telling of Human Rights Watch’s recent declaration about the illegality and lack of justice of the government involving the trials and imprisonment of many involved in last year’s protests. I remembered one of my own reasons for coming to the rally, besides to remember those who died last year, that being the words of a higher up in the ruling party: “Why have a rally…all they should do is have a memorial evening of sorts…there’s no reason to hold a rally, all is well in Armenia.”

Having another engagement (a memorial for architect Armen Hakhnazaryan, a noted patriot who did much for the study and research of Armenian historical monuments, and who died recently), I had to leave the rally early, barely making my way down Mashtots, as men and women, old and young, continued to make their way up the hill towards the Matenadaran.