Cascade Folk Trio Debuts on the World Music Scene


by Paul Chaderjian

(New York City) – The January 6, 2004, broadcast of Public Radio International’s “the World” program dedicated its Global Hits segment to the Cascade Folk Trio. The broadcast marked another significant in-road for the seldom globally-acknowledged sounds of Armenian music and also a giant coup for Cascade Folk Trio -- an Armenian group enjoying mainstream media attention for its newly released, “Old Street.”

“It’s full of new and old sounds,” reported PRI’s Marco Werner. “The pop and jazz rhythms of today are mixed with ancient instruments. There's the duduk, the Armenian oboe, which has been around for more than 2,000 years. And the zurna, a single reed instrument. But perhaps the oldest sound on this CD is the Armenian language itself, which is thought to go back 5,000 years.”

“Oh, my God. I have to say we were very, very excited,” says Cascade Folk Trio vocalist Armen Papikyan . “It was a joy, true happiness. It’s an incredible experience for any musician or artist to have their work shared with such a big audience. It was quite an emotional experience.”

While duduk master Djivan Gasparian is the first mainstream media attention, vocalist Nune Yesayan’s successes in the Armenian Diaspora have been acknowledged by CNN’s World Report and the New York Times, introducing non-Armenian audiences to the Armenian singer and her cultural heritage.

Now, the Cascade Folk Trio – whose members were Nune’s classmates from Artur Gregorian’s State Song Theater -- hope to add to those successes by aspiring to have their Armenian songs be regularly featured on “World Music” broadcasts and playlists.

“Last weekend, there was another huge world music event called Global Fest, here in New York,” says Cascade Folk Trio producer Raffi Bandazian. “There were three stages, 16 to 20 groups, but none from Armenia. So, my goal is to get Armenian music on that stage, the world music stage. If it’s not us, then someone else -- Gevorg Dabagian, or Djivan or someone else.”

WORLD MUSIC

The “world music” phenomena in the US began in the 1960s in academic circles. It was known then as “ethnomusicology.” College radio stations picked up on the public’s interest in global, traditional, exotic, tribal and ethnic music and began to play the sounds from the heart of Africa, Central America and Asia.

As more mainstream artists like Peter Gabriel, Sting and Deep Forest began to infuse global sounds in their music, Billboard Magazine began to track the sales of “world music” CDs. That’s how a new niche music market was born in the early 1990s.

This month’s “the World” radio broadcast was a big coup for Bandazian, because the musician and fulltime computer trainer at Goldman Sachs in NYC, has made it one of his goals to see the inclusion of Armenian music in the “world music” genre.

“I would like see Armenian music enjoyed by the rest of the world,” says Bandazian. “Obviously, I don’t want us to ignore or neglect our community. I’m not saying it takes an outside culture to validate what we’re doing, but this idea goes back to Gomidas. He went around the villages and took our musical gems and wanted to share our rich culture with Europeans.”

Bandazian dreams of the day when Armenian instruments like the dav and zurna are heard from the stages of “world music” festival like Womex, the biggest marketplace for ethnic artists trying to sell their art in a globalized marketplace.

“I hope people will hear Armenian music and say ‘wow, look at this culture, look how rich this material is,” says Bandazian. The 30-something, who grew up playing the oud, believes what has kept Armenian music out of the global venue has been the production quality. Record industry insiders and critics often tell him that Armenian records sound dated and “cheesy.”

“I know what they’re talking about,” says Bandazian. “They’re talking about the fact that most Armenian musicians use an electronic keyboard to create the sound of a guitar. As opposed to using a real drum set, you use a drum machine that you program. Right now that’s our market. That’s how we’re doing stuff.”

Bandazian says financial and logistic hurdles must be overcome so that Armenian records sound professional to the Western ear. “My vision is to help get Armenian music at that level of production equal to what other ethnic musicians, like the Greeks, are creating and then into the world music marketplace.”

CASCADE FOLK TRIO

Enter three talented vocalists and musicians -- Arman Aghajanyan , Ohanna Mtghyan and Armen Papikyan. The Armenian-born musicians met in New York two years ago and vowed to share their talents and to create a unique blend of acoustic art.

“We named ourselves after the Cascade, our favorite district in Yerevan,” says vocalist Arman Aghajanian. “Cascade is one of our favorite areas. The falling water from the Cascade fountain produces a certain breath and sound that creates its own melody.”

Those melodies from life, the Trio’s rich musical heritage, their love of music and performance led all three to Yerevan’s College of Jazz and Estrada. After graduating, each pursued their own separate careers in music.

Mtghyan sang professionally in Armenia, toured in Europe, the United States and Australia. Her decade-long career as a performer allowed her to focus on traditional Armenian music and folk songs. In addition to contributing a forceful and powerful voice to the album, the wordsmith also pens the group’s original lyrics.

“What inspires us are our folks songs, our culture and heritage,” says Papikyan. “Every time I hear one of our folk songs, it’s an inspiration. What we are doing with that inspiration is trying to incorporate the new sounds we hear. We are using the lyrical, pretty and moving foundation of Armenian music to explore fresh and new interpretations.”

After college, Papikyan and Aghajanian both joined Armenia's State Theater of Song. While Papikyan excelled in arranging music, Aghajanian focused on music composition. Aghajanian also brings to the Trio his skills as a filmmaker, directing the group’s innovative music videos.

“I usually tell people that they sound like the group ‘Take 6’ [a Christian a cappella sextet], but with a Middle Eastern flare,” says Bandazian. “They are one of the most original groups I have heard in a long time. They write their own material. They arrange their own material vocally. They’re all phenomenal singers, all phenomenal composers. They have a great stage presence, and a whole package that I haven’t seen in any group up to now.”

Three of the songs on “Old Street” are folk classics. They include Tzakhort Orrer (Bad Days), which is credited to Armenian troubadour Djivani (1846-1909), and Knkoosh Dgha, Naz Aghchig (Gentle Boy, Graceful Girl) with lyrics credited to poet Avedis Isahakian. “Garden Flowers” is a song attributed to Sayat Nova, the king of Armenian folk music.

“Gentle Boy is about a love lost, and Bad Days is a hundred-year-old song arranged in the Gospel genre,” says Papikyan. “So, in that respect, we are really bridging the older material to the modern day. More importantly, I think, is that the quality of the sound we have is a sound presentable to the Western ear.”

“Old Street” contains 13 songs that range in style from folk to pop, from rhythm and blues to jazz. More than 25 musicians in Armenia helped record the album with Aghajanian supervising the sessions in Yerevan. These recordings were then brought back to Southern California, where the group added their vocals.

The global production venture ended up in New York City, where Bandazian mixed the album, expanding the sound of the record by inviting top notch American musicians to play along the recorded material.

Contributing to the mixing process in New York were Brian Melick, who arranged the percussion and added additional drums, guitarist Mathias Black, who plays with Lisa Loeb and Matchbox 20, and Abe Fogel, a famed studio drummer.

The release of the album last month has already garnered the group the three-minute PRI feature on National Public Radio stations across the US, a review in the Orlando Weekly in Florida, two performances during the global broadcast of the Armenia Fund Telethon, interviews on Horizon TV, and mentions in the music industry trade, All Music Guide, and the world music on-line publication called Rock, Paper, Scissors.

THE ARMENIA FUND

It’s Thanksgiving Day, and an ESPN studio in Glendale has been transformed for a day with a 10-foot mural of Mount Ararat. Instead of highlights from the NBA and NFL, the focus of the broadcast on this Thursday is Armenia and rebuilding the infrastructure of the fledgling republic.

With three hours to go in the 12-hour Armenia Fund Telethon, fatigue has set in for all those involved in the global broadcast. The hosts have been on a talk-a-thon for nine hours, and thousands around the world are dialing in to make their annual pledge.

Guests come and go by the dozens. Checks are presented. School groups recite their patriotic pledge from memory. Singers of all ages and all musical genres appear -- some don’t even sing for the audience, choosing to only mouth the words of a song playing on a CD somewhere in the control room. This is standard fare for TV, now an Armenian standard on Thanksgiving Day. Armenians eat turkey and try to undo the colossal and catastrophic damage Turkey perpetrated decades ago.

An Armenia Fund host announces the next act: The Cascade Folk Trio. Three young and sexy musicians, dressed in black, wait for their cue, then they begin to vocalize, stepping to the right then to the left in unison.

“I am an immigrant, a traveler far away from home,” sing the Trio in Armenian, “tired from my long journey away from home. I thirst, hunger for you, the homeland. My heart is full and crying, far from the homeland, away from my home, in a foreign land. Armenia’s mountain and homeland, our song’s breathe and shiver, beckoning us back to her, the Armenian homeland.”

The group and their song strike a nerve. There is a hush in the studio. The ambient noise plaguing the ESPN set for nine hours decreases dramatically. People are listening. Production assistants don’t move. Phone bank volunteers pause for a moment. Even the ringing of the phones die down.

People across the nation, in Armenia, in Europe, in Fresno and New York take notice, directing their attention from pumpkin pie and bakhlava to the vocalists on the screen.

Ohanna’s bright Armenian eyes reflect the cool and calm in the heart of Armenian women – the calm of confident and persevering survivors. The contradiction on Arman’s masculine face is the emotional voice and theatrical delivery coming from the mouth of a tough man with a shaved head. Next to them, Armen stands tall in his athletic Armenian body with shoulder-length hair and most-historic eyebrows. This all makes for good TV.

The Trio sways naturally and sensually to the beat, their image floating through antennas, satellites, Internet connections, cable and DSL lines. Their debut in front of a global audience is a success, and the show’s producer asks them to stick around and perform again before the end of the telethon.

“Cascade for me is my connection to the homeland,” says Papikyan. “Cascade is working with my best friends and inspiring one another to create art. Cascade is sharing our musical heritage with a fresh approach, new arrangements, but never veering away from the soul of Armenian music and Armenia.”

Born near the Cascade, the Yerevan landmark comprised of staircases and garden that symbolically lead Armenians uphill toward the future and toward the light, the Cascade Folk Trio seems to be doing just that.


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