Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Giving Voice festival in Wroclaw, Poland, turned out to be a revelation of different styles of musical theater and folk, sacred, and contemporary music from Armenia, Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia, Palestine, Iran, Kurdistan, the USA, Africa, and various European countries. Armenia was represented by Hasmik and blulist Norayr Kartashyan, in a concert of Armenian lullabies, and Mher Navoyan, a musicologist from the Komitas State Conservatory, who lectured about Armenian monodic music and the life and work of Komitas. Hasmik also presented master classes in Armenian folk music and dance.

The St. Anthony Cathedral, an acoustically perfect structure from the late Middle Ages, was the setting for the lullaby concert. Small statues of saints looked down from the altar and around the church as Hasmik sang lullabies from her Armenian Lullabies CD and several lullabies she discovered in various archival materials, including songs from Moush, Musa Ler, and Nakhichevan. Although singing basically a capella, her songs were intertwined with the echoes of Kartashyan’s blul, shvi, and duduk, as the lullabies of Armenia’s historic provinces, included those recorded by Komitas and Toumajan, resonated in the late night concert.

After the concert, several festival participants, especially the Ukrainians, said they liked, in particular, the epic nature of the lullabies. They mentioned “Nani Bala,” “Oror Jojk Em Kapel,” “Akna Oror,” “Arnos,” and “Shatakhi Heyroor,” all of which turned out to be from Van and Shatakh (Vaspurakan) and Akn, in Kharberd. I found out later that Akn has a connection with Vaspurakan, as the Ardzrunis of Van settled in Akn sometime during the Middle Ages.

After the concert, and after a quite successful presentation of Ukrainian folk songs acted out in theatrical form, I was reminded of the unfortunate fear Armenian directors and film makers have in presenting Armenian folk music, lullabies in particular, as a theatrical presentation. I remember one of Armenia’s best known directors, when Hasmik proposed such a presentation, saying, “I’m not sure if this will work, if people will listen to lullabies for an hour or more,” etc., etc....

Also interesting were the political overtones that periodically arose, mainly centered around the Georgians and their ensemble. A musician from a Middle Eastern country told me, “To tell the truth, their polyphonic music is getting on my nerves. And all the praise they’re getting, it doesn’t stop. Perhaps they were brought here on grants, due to Georgia’s current favored status in the West. I guess Westerners don’t know that the Georgians, for instance, as their own historians write, used to hang their dead from trees and eat them, up until the 17th or 18th centuries.”

A highlight of the week was the final party, held in the forest near Wroclaw. There, participants and guests were treated to a musical presentation of the story of Mary Magdalene by Theater Zar, which had co-organized the Giving Voice festival. During dinner, festival participants from Georgia, Palestine, Wales, and Theater Zar members took turns singing, after which Hasmik led the many guests in singing “Janoy,” as they danced “Gyovend,” and the song “Hambartsman Yerkushabti,” with festival guests learning and singing the songs and dances with surprising ease.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On the way home in a taxi, I noticed the meter was jumping 200 dram each kilometer, as opposed to the 100 that it should have been. Reaching home, I gave the amount according to the taxi service’s 100 dram per kilometer rate and said thank you, after which the driver shouted something I fortunately didn’t understand. Yet, as has been told in the news, many independent taxi drivers are suffering due to new taxes levied by the government. “I wouldn’t complain,” a driver told me, “but if I’m sick, on vacation, or whatever else, I still have to pay the tax. It isn’t fair. This government is against the little guy. They should all be thrown out of office.”

Such is the mood of many here, some currently taking to the streets each evening on Northern Avenue, not content to wait until the May 1 opposition rally. A friend who works on Tumanyan Street said she was walking to her workplace when she saw about 20 men holding banners and shouting ‘azat, ankakh Hayastan,’ the marchers obviously protesting against the current rulers. “All of a sudden at least 100 policemen surrounded these men,” she said. “I was afraid to go closer to see what was happening. I still don’t know what became of the protesters.”

A basically peaceful, quiet Yerevantsi added, “At least 100,000 will be at the May 1 rally. Levon is smart. He is waiting until the weather warms up, and people are good and disgusted with everything, from the unfair taxes, rise in prices, and the police state that is now in place. I predict a revolution. The government can hold the people by the sword only so long.”

A note about what is going on in the world of culture in Yerevan: The upcoming “Folk Dance” competition, promoted by Shant television, has already caused a rift between Karen Gevorgyan, of the Berd Ensemble, and Vanush Khanamiryan, of the State Dance Ensemble, not to mention a member of the jury who is supposed to judge the preliminary stage of the competition, who says she was told by the organizers that even though it was called a folk dance event, authentic folk dancing wasn’t to be accepted, only choreographed dancing. Also, word in the culture community has it that one of the major names in music here was almost taken to court for taking, synthesizing, and calling his own the work of a well known composer/arranger, and saying “Just throw them a thousand or two, and all will be well.” Which was done. Another possible fiasco is the Culture Ministry granting a group performing traditional music money to ‘advance folk music in Armenia,’ after which they used the money to record a CD, told the sound engineer his studio could release the CD, and in the end, with the recording they received from the studio, plans to release the CD on their own, and have a concert in Yerevan in which nothing will be performed live, the CD, synthesizer and all, resounding in the halls of Yerevan.

As Hasmik will soon be participating in the Giving Voice festival in Poland, representing Armenia with a concert of Armenian lullabies and folk song and dance workshops, the Yerevan Journal blog will take a short break, until May 2, with both news from Poland and the opposition rally scheduled for May 1.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A folk musician showed us a picture he had taken on a wall in the city of Ani. It was written by two pilgrims from the village of Garni who had gone to Ani in 1903. Their names were Shmavon Altounyants and Karapet Polatyants. The note read, in part, “We came to Ani with great happiness, and are leaving with heavy hearts. Cursed be the homes of those who destroyed Ani.”

The musician went on to tell about a folk festival in the city of Kars, in which Turks, Kurds, Armenians, and other Caucasian peoples participated. “Many who came to the festival asked, almost pleaded, to hear the sound of the Armenian duduk. As our dudukist played, tears flowed. Later they told us they were living as Kurds and Turks, but knew they had Armenian ancestors.

“It was interesting, though, that when the festival organizers asked if anyone from the audience wanted to perform their country’s songs and dances, people who didn’t even know each other formed instant groups, singing and dancing their people’s folk songs and melodies. It was all so natural. And, I saw that no one played a dhol like we or other Caucasians play, by hand, as they all used gopalov dhols (striking the dhol with wooden sticks). Maybe that’s what our ancestors used in Western Armenia, who knows. The thing was, no one was ashamed or embarrassed; they all readily sang and danced. Here, in Armenia, most are embarrassed to sing our folk songs, or dance our old dances. We choreograph, westernize, synthesize, or sing like Turks, Kurds, or Arabs.”

Looking through a book about Armenian folk instruments, the musician said that Armenian miniature paintings prove that the duduk didn’t exist in ancient times, that it didn’t even appear on the scene until perhaps 300 years ago. “The blul, or sring, goes back at least 2,000 years. The duduk is an Armenian instrument, but the blul is far older, and a truer Armenian instrument,” he said.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A concert of classical music at the Aram Khachatryan Concert Hall proved to be one of the best in recent times, as well known pianist Svetlana Navasartyan played a commanding performance of Rachmaninoff, which was followed by two Stravinsky pieces, performed by the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra. Guest conductor Christopher Warren-Green, of Great Britain, showed what an excellent conductor can do in bringing out the best in musicians, as the Stravinsky numbers became an exercise in watching the musicians react to the work of this great conductor.

During intermission, I met with a Vanadzor-based film director, one never shy when telling his opinions on political matters. “Personally, I don’t care what Obama might have said or not said,” the director stated. “The fact remains, we are in no position to demand or expect anything from Turkey, the US, or anybody else. What I’m afraid of is what we’ve lost as a nation. For our entire history, we’ve been solid when it comes to family and religion, and this has kept us as a nation, a people.

“Look what we have today. The breakdown of the family, and sects filling the country. In the past, powers that didn’t, and still don’t want Armenia to exist, or prosper, made sure we were subject to war and massacre. This came to a head in 1915. But it didn’t finish us off, so they’re sending in the worst culture and the sects, which are doing a good job at breaking down the family unit.

“They want to open the border with Turkey? As long as we’re in this condition financially, it’s a bad idea. Already the face of the country, especially Yerevan, is changing, as Iranians are here, quietly buying land, possibly in the name of their Armenian friends, and are having children with Armenian girls, many so poor they’ll do anything for money. If the border opens, Turks will continue the process. You think they don’t have that plan? I doubt they’ll open the border, but if they do, don’t think it will be for brotherly love. It will be to take over, and not a bullet will be fired.”

Outside the opera hall, military police were gathered, causing people to wonder if we were officially in a police state. Later at night, a phone call revealed the possible reason for the presence of the police, that being Levon Zurabyan, of Levon Ter Petrosyan’s party, had been arrested along with several others of the daily demonstrators on Northern Avenue. All were released, yet a larger protest was planned for today.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

I remember meeting with a group of Armenians in Fresno in 2000, in the middle of George Bush’s campaign for the presidency, and Bush’s words that he “would take care of the Armenians.” How he took care of the Armenians, everybody knows, as they now know how President Obama took himself off the hook concerning his promise of recognizing the Armenian Genocide by saying, in so many words, “now isn’t a good time.”

A Hayastantsi who fought in Karabagh puts it this way: “I can’t believe there are Armenians in the Diaspora who are still so na├»ve that they think Obama, or any other president, will recognize the Armenian Genocide. Those in the know are well aware that the US has an unchanging foreign policy, with certain interests, and won’t do or say anything to upset their policies or goals. Not only that, the Diaspora, Dashnaks and otherwise, probably don’t want the Genocide recognized, as without this issue, the Diaspora would have faded into oblivion by now, and their money gathering machine would have died too.

“As to Diaspora Armenians, they’re good at ‘loving Armenia from a distance.’ If Armenians with a foreign passport came here, en masse, and started businesses, the local thieves running things wouldn’t dare continue business as usual. And the wealthy Diaspora Armenians — I don’t mean Kirk Kerkorian and Charles Aznavour, who have done much for Armenia — if they spent even a small fraction of their money here opening factories, putting the people to work, our country would blossom. It would be another Japan.

“Until Armenia becomes financially strong, we shouldn’t even talk about recognizing the Genocide, taking back Moush or Van, or anything else. These things don’t come by loud speeches, but from economic strength.

“Did you notice how on CNN’s map the name ‘Armenia’ was conveniently left off, even though they had mentioned Obama’s press conference, and Georgia’s name was there? And Armenians think Obama is going to recognize the Genocide?”

Sunday, April 5, 2009

In the words of a visiting Diaspora Armenian, the Tashir 2009 awards concert in Moscow was “a collection of degenerates, singing and dancing in various Moslem, middle-eastern styles, many of whose performances were nothing short of embarrassing. But there were two high points. One was a tall Armenian female singer, from where I don’t know, who sang Sayat Nova’s ‘Tamam Ashkharh’ with real style, far better than the pitiful attempts by Armenia-based pop stars. The other was the speech by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who went on and on about today’s Turks being no different than those in the past, that the Russians should have driven the Turks all the way back to Central Asia when they had the chance, and that he hoped Armenia would plant their flag on Mt. Ararat.

“Zhirinovsky’s talk made me think about the issue of opening the border with Turkey,” continued the Diaspora Armenian. “I understand the economics of it all. But I’m worried about how some of our girls will welcome the Turks with open arms. With that, I have to say that 80-90% of our girls are still pure, although I see some change in the wrong direction. With what television is promoting, I worry about what might happen with the next generation. Already girls are ashamed to admit they’ve never been with a man, even though they haven’t.

“I used to think things were too strict in Soviet times, but maybe strictness is needed. I know that in Soviet times if a girl had an affair before marriage, the family would likely throw her out of the house. And if a married man got a divorce, he’d probably lose his job or position, especially if he was a member of a political party. Now, if a man gets a divorce, and is criticized, he says, ‘why not, just look around…’”

Friday, April 3, 2009

A cameraman and his Dashnak friend discussed the Karabagh negotiations and related issues:

“We know Serge is ready to give up the liberated territories and who knows what else, just to get the Armenian-Turkish border opened and whatever else,” the cameraman said. “How can Dashnaktsutyun be part of the ruling coalition, if it’s making this kind of decision? What can I tell someone who asks this question?”

“Nothing,” the Dashnak party member said. “I have no excuses. But don’t be so sure Serge is giving up the territories. The only way he does that is if Karabagh receives independence. And since the Azeris won’t agree to that, we won’t, Serge won’t, give up the territories.”

“In the end, I always vote for Dashnaktsutyun,” the cameraman said. “I like their platform. Unfortunately, it seems to be all talk, as nothing is ever realized, but I vote for them anyway, hoping for a miracle, I guess. Did you hear what (Armenian monument expert) Samvel Karapetyan said? That Dashnaktsutyun should be taking the Azeris to court for destroying the Nakhichevan khachkars, saying that the Cypriots have taken Turkey to court for destroying monuments in Cyprus, and have had some success. I don’t know whose job it is, Dashnaktsutyun’s or the government’s, but something should be done, otherwise we’ll always be the victim. Another thing. I don’t think the Dashnaks really want Obama to say the genocide word. If they recognize the Genocide, the Dashnaks, especially in the Diaspora, will lose their purpose, their reason for existing.”

I then asked the cameraman if he planned on voting for Levon Ter Petrosyan for mayor of Yerevan.

“Do you think I’m crazy?” he said. “You weren’t here during the dark years, obviously, if you ask that question. And you might not know about the article Levon wrote just before he resigned as president. The same conversation was going on, about giving up territories, opening the borders, etc., and Levon wrote that Shushi should be given back to Azerbaijan. Not just have Azeris live there, but give the city back. That would have been fatal for Karabagh. Our people have a short memory. Serge is nothing to brag about, but Levon came here for a purpose, to destroy Armenia, and he was well on the way when he left power. I think he’s running for mayor just to keep things stirred up, to keep the country unstable, which serves certain foreign interests well. I’m glad he’s running for mayor, though. When he loses, he’s finished.”

Before parting ways, the Dashnak, never short of humor, told the latest joke about Karabaghtsis: “After Obama won the presidential election in America, an Armenian sociologist asked a group of blacks there if life had improved after the election. ‘Yes,’ they said. ‘Life is great, as good as the Karabaghtsis in Armenia.’”

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A brief squabble interrupted the presentation of a new UNESCO-connected website about the duduk, when a historian asked why the well known Baku-born dudukist Minasov wasn’t mentioned in the section about duduk makers. It happens that Minasov developed a duduk extension of sorts that expands the range of the duduk. After that, the event continued, with Gevorg Dabaghyan and composer Vache Sharafyan conducting the program.

Afterwards, during the reception, I met with a historian I had done some work for in the past, the subject almost immediately turning to the problem, now bordering war, between US-based Armenologists and historians from Armenia:

“We were frustrated in Soviet times,” he said. “We knew we had to stay in line to keep our jobs. My father was a historian, and wouldn’t have attained his position had he told the truth about Armenian history. This always bothered him. Then, Armenia became independent. We were all happy, thinking we could correct what the Soviets had forced down our throats, that Armenian history doesn’t go back that far.

“I think the students who went to Richard Hovhannisian at UCLA and refused to continue to study using the version of Armenian history Hovhannisian was using were in the right. Why continue with this out-dated, foreign-born history of Armenians appearing on the scene when Darius first wrote the name of Armenia. We have proved that the names of Urartu and the others had Armenian roots. And that our alphabet is far older than what we’ve been taught. Artur Armin, Paris Herouni, and other academicians are right. Enough is enough.”

Outside, near the exit, Hasmik and I met with opera singer Barsegh Tumanyan and his son, Davit. We asked Tumanyan if it was true that he was going to leave Armenia and work in Vienna. Unfortunately, Tumanyan is, in fact, leaving Armenia, to work at the Vienna Conservatory and continue with his concert and recording activity there and across Europe. In Armenia, he sits idle, his concert activity almost exclusively in Europe and elsewhere.

In normal countries, singers like Tumanyan are considered national treasures, and are both taken care of and promoted as the face of a country, while in Armenia who is promoted (and funded) but the comedy and pop stars and serials that National Television and Armenia television flood the waves with every day.