a column by Paul Chaderjian
for the Asbarez newspaper
Once there was and there was not …
… one moment in our collective history when we came together despite our differences to celebrate our diversified popular culture. On Sunday, December 13, our hyphenated people came from the north and south of the Equator and the left and right of the Meridian to the entertainment capital of the world, to honor the Armenian stars, the modern makers of Armenian Culture, the ones who shone bright center-stage at the Nokia Theatre.
These descendants of Noah and the Arc had mastered music when the indigenous Native Americans, the Gabrielenos and Chumash, were painting art on cave walls. While Hollywood was yet unimagined and uninvented, Armenian minstrels were roaming through Silk Road kingdoms to share their intricate tetra-chords and unique polyphonic styles with people as far away as those living in the land of the Phoenicians and the French.
The Armenians were early adapters, embracing Christianity and writing the first sacred and poly-modal chants in the world. Their brilliance and humanity would also subject them to great sufferings, including catastrophic losses during the Genocide. Yet, they would rise once again out of the ashes of injustice, and they would sing their songs as they had for thousands of years. They would embrace modernity and use it as a tool for cultural survival.
This small tribe would not only survive but also thrive and come together in the global capital of the world, the City of Los Angeles. The tribe would congregate on a special night in the 21st Century to share with each member a year’s worth of pop culture. They would sing the sacred, the ancient, and their modern canon of songs. They would hear the compositions and lyrics of their rappers, rockers, nostalgists and jazzists. They would also honor the ingenuity of Armenians genres yet unheard, like the goth and rock interpretations of songs transcribed by Komitas a century ago.
As Komitas Vartaped had challenged his genius to chronicle an ancient people’s cache of more than 3,000 folk songs, his musical progeny would challenge economic and geographic limitations to gather in style, to celebrate, to sing, and to also bring to life the spirits and souls of the great troubadours. Perhaps it was Sayat Nova who defined the role of Armenian singers in the centuries to come when he wandered the land collecting, learning, performing, reinterpreting, and sharing our cultural capital with Armenians and non-Armenians.
This was a night when the modern and postmodern Armenian men and women of song that toured the world creating and making Armenian music in the 20th century were honored. In the shadows were the spirits and memories of musical greats like Aram Khatchadourian, Arno Babdjanyan, and Allen Hovannes. Those honoring the modern pop stars were a new generation of Armenian musicians and fans of Armenian music. And in the 21st century, the collective gathered at the Nokia showed the Armenian public-at-large its commitment to continue creating songs, lyrics, music, and thus culture.
Not only that, but as their ancestors had done, our musicians showed their confidence in holding on to their rich past, performing authentic Armenian music, but also showing off how well they embrace other cultures and how they mastered the classics while mastering the street music of a globalized world.
The lush red carpet was unrolled, the black and white limousines stretched back-to-back around an entire block, and there was even a helicopter reporter up above recording the images of the spectacle. Flash bulbs popped, applause and whistles were continuous, TV camera crews grabbed soundbites, and paparazzi played their parts. On that night, we were all paparazzi and our culture makers were our kings, queens, princes, and princesses. Our kingdoms were alive, and they were back in the full regalia of the fashion makers in glossy fashion magazines.
Inside the Nokia were the beautiful people, the most glamorous people in the world – on that night. Donning their gowns and suits, the celebrants of Armenian pop culture smiled, exchanged air kisses, danced in the isles, snapped photos, and expressed their gratitude to each other and to God, the creator, who had given them their musical ears, their golden voices, and the charisma to hold strangers’ attention, even if it was for a mere three-and-a-half minutes at a time.
Gathered in one place for one night on Sunday were the offsprings of those who had survived the deserts of Syria and had gone on to survive the foreign lands where they had sought shelter. Applauding and smiling together were a people who had held on to their culture at any cost and were once again free to sing their songs with pride. They had persevered, taking a culture that was kept alive by word of mouth until the invention of recording devices, and they had brought this culture to the Internet age, which ensures Armenian culture will never die.
Together were musicians and artists who had survived the Reds and had been unstoppable in the Soviet Era, taking the ethereal Armenia’s music to her enigmatic Diaspora, when the post-Genocide Diaspora was trying to find its cultural voice on the foreign shores of Arabia, America, and Europa. Rubik Matevosyan and Konstantin Orbelian were among those honored at the Nokia for their roles in our cultural journey. They and Raysa Mugerdichian were, after all, the second Republic of Armenia’s first ambassadors of song.
Performing on the 29-foot television screens inside the Nokia were those who found enough soul to sing their songs in the bitter cold days of post-independence Armenia.
When the third Republic of Armenia was born and there was no gas and no food, no heating, and no hope, a new generation of our performers found a warm heart and hearth in Arthur Grigoryan’s Pop and Jazz College. And from there, they sang our songs, grew as artists, and found their voices, taking modern Armenian pop and modern Armenian hope to the four corners of the world.
From the dark days of Armenia came Nune Yesayan, Shushan Petrosyan, Alla Levonian, Aramo & Emma, Arthur Ispirian and many others who continue to sing and write the themes on the soundtrack of our Armenian movie. These were the first post-Soviet stars that Armenia gifted us and who the world noticed. Their music was the first to sing from the newly invented CD and DVD players and from the first Internet radio stations. Their music was what we watched on Armenian television hours, when the first Armenian television shows came to our homes via the airwaves, then cable, then satellite.
We congregated to hear these post-independence singers at the Kodak in Hollywood, at the Lincoln Center in New York City, at the Saroyan in Fresno and the Herbst in San Francisco. We watched Shushan ask us to donate to the Homeland when the Homeland needed roads and schools. We watched Alla bid farewell to the heroes who had liberated Artsakh. We read about Nune in the New York Times, we listened to Jivan Gasparyan’s duduk on the silver screen, and watched Armen Movsisyan during world tours with the legendary mainstream musicians of our time.
A decade after Grigoryan’s proteges had opened the doors to the biggest venues around the world, Armenia, an independent Republic, entered the global music scene with its entry to the Eurovision song contest in 2006.
From 33 countries and millions of popular votes from around Europe, it was Armenia’s representative, Andre, that the world discovered and awarded the 8th spot in the competition. Andre thus paved the way for Hayko, Sirusho, and Inga and Anush, and Armenia’s composers, lyricists, and producers had yet another place to share their 4000-year-old culture.
In the Diaspora when people did not know Armenians, it was our one and only Charles Aznavour who put a face on a marginalized race. It was Mike Connors who put the first Armenian face on American network television. And the two were there at the Nokia last Sunday, next to the new generation of diasporans writing and singing in their mother tongue and other tongues.
Sunday, in front of 7,100 people was one son of the Diaspora, Serj Tankian, who had traveled the world, singing his songs and sharing his literature with hundreds of thousands of fans. Tankian and System of a Down had sold nearly 25 million records and become the instigators to young Armenian activists. Sharing the spotlight at the Nokia was Tankian, the son, who was not only writing his first symphony for an orchestra, but he was giving the gift of music back to the man who had given the gift of life – his father Khatchadour.
Among the celebrated were the singers of the revolutionary songs that kept the Diaspora alive when there was no hint of Armenians ever witnessing an independent homeland. Karnig Sarkissian’s soulful performances made the revolution and revolutionaries part of our drive-through lives in the Americas and the long walks on the corniches along the Mediterranean. Karnig and their predecessors like Adiss Harmandian and Levon Katerjian had kept the music alive in the vast Diaspora. Via reel-to-reel tapes, vinyl records, cassettes, and 8-track carts, they delivered Armenian culture when the first can-do generation of Armenians was opening its eyes in foreign lands.
On the West Coast of the Americas, in the new multicultural arena of Armenian reality were more young, charismatic Armenian men and women from Los Angeles with their bands – Element and Visa. There, at the Nokia, huddled together were Eileen Khatchadourian and Miran Gurunian from Beirut, Los Armenios from Buenos Aires, and Reincarnation from back home. These confident, young musicians were unafraid to explore other genres while being true to their identity.
Modern Armenian performers like Armenchik and Harout Balyan amazed the audience, easily using foreign languages to share their own culture. They stood and stand self-assured about their Armenian identity and are unafraid of melting in the pot. They play and sing with fun and vigor, sharing the flavor, the tricks and melodies, rhythms and rhymes of things Armenian while engaging the musical world-at-large.
Among the artists was Sylva Hakopian, who beat other talented young people around the world to earn the global British Broadcasting Corporation’s highest honor for new talent. Backstage was the dudukist from Yerevan, Kamo Seyranian, who was discussing music with the American folk singer Melineh Kurdian from Wichita; one channels ancient Armenia and plays the ancient reed to every one’s heart’s content, while the other asks profound questions through her English-language lyrics about post-modern man and sings her popular folks songs with a guitar and on MTV.
Who are we but not proud that such a night was possible, and that we gathered to honor on this special night those who are willing to express their God-given talents, to write the lyrics, to open their mouths and sing the notes, to perform elaborate choreography on their keyboards, and to pull on listeners’ heart’s strings by picking at their guitars. These children of Hayk allow us to reflect, to celebrate, to mourn and meditate, and to be Armenians with new Armenian music.
An evening at the Nokia, for our vibrant culture, was a moment when we collectively took a long breath together. We took a moment to look back and see where we had been and what ours traditions are. We took a moment to honor those who had made beautiful music. We tipped our hats to those making engaging and popular music now. We also set the bar at a higher place for next year and the years to come and challenged the generation of artists destined to sing Armenian songs in the future.
And 7,102 apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for each Armenian and non-Armenian who attended the music awards, and one for you the reader.