Autumn in Yerevan
While planning my three-month trip to Armenia last year, several images came to mind — Massis, Echmiadzin, and the mountains of Karabagh. I wanted to teach in Karabagh, and visit friends and relatives in Armenia. Also, I wanted to meet singer Hasmik Harutyunyan, whose voice had fascinated me since first hearing her recordings three years ago.
On a recording of the Shoghaken group from Armenia, I was delighted to discover Hasmik and dudukist Gevorg Dabaghian, the director of Shoghaken. After hearing her recordings, I knew I had to find Hasmik. I couldn’t believe such a pure, beautiful voice existed. I had tried to find her, without success, the past two years during stays in Yerevan.
After a tiring 24-hour journey from Oregon, I arrived in Yerevan at three o’clock in the morning. Unable to sleep, I ate breakfast and walked outside the Hotel Armenia, into Republic Square. With several packages to deliver from Armenians in Oregon, I wondered who to call first. I decided to call Anahit and Ruzanna, friends of Vahe Odabashian, a university student now studying in Oregon.
Later in the day, we met on the front steps of the hotel, and began walking up Abovian Avenue. As we became acquainted, we talked about the people and culture of Armenia. I told them about my attempts, during recent trips to Armenia, to meet Hasmik Harutyunyan.
“Let’s go,” Anahit said. “I know several places we can look for Hasmik.” We stopped at many theaters, small and large, and then the Opera House, but our search was without success. At the Ministry of Culture, a hospitable woman gave us the telephone number of Gevorg Dabaghian. “They work together,” she said. “He’ll know how to find her.”
We returned to the State Theater of Song, where Anahit and Ruzanna worked, and called Gevorg. “Come to my house at two o’clock,” he said. “I’ll meet you in front of Sebastia Hotel.”
We arrived in front of the hotel and met Gevorg, who invited us to his flat. It was a pleasure meeting Gevorg and his family. I told him how much I enjoyed the sweet sound of his duduk and of Shoghaken, especially the songs sung by Hasmik. Gevorg then treated us to a video of his nephew, Gourgen Dabaghian, who at age 10 is singing the ashoughagan songs of Sayat Nova and others. “Gourgen is featured in a concert next month in Stepanakert,” Gevorg said. “You can be our guest. I hope you can make it.”
I asked Gevorg about meeting Hasmik. “Here is her telephone number,” he said. “She’ll be happy to meet you.”
We returned to the State Theater of Song and called Hasmik. “I’ll be there tomorrow at five o’clock,” she said. “We can become acquainted then.” I looked forward to meeting Hasmik. I wondered, what will this person be like, who so beautifully sings the old songs of Western Armenia?
I arrived the next day at four o’clock, unable to wait any longer. A short time later, Hasmik arrived.
Hasmik walked into the room, smiling but without saying a word. She sat next to me, close to a small table. She had warm, expressive eyes and a very relaxed manner.
Still in shock, I finally greeted Hasmik.
“When I first heard your voice, I knew I had to meet you,” I said. “I’ve looked for you for three years.”
After talking a few minutes, I could resist no more — I asked if she would sing something for me. She sang “Msho geghen” and “Khorodik,” both songs from the town of Moush, in Western Armenia.
I asked Hasmik why the songs she sang were both from Moush.
“I am Mshetsi,” she answered. “My father is from Abaran, where mostly Mshetsis live.”
I told her my grandmother, Yeproxie Michaelian, was born in Moush.
Hasmik then sang “Gulo,” a song I remembered from the Shoghaken recording. “I learned this song from a Mshetsi in Abaran,” she said. “We’ll go to Abaran together. Maybe you’ll find relatives there.”
I was very happy to meet Hasmik. I was glad when she invited me to a rehearsal of her singing group, which she said had members as young as five. “The group is called Hayrig Mouradian,” she said. “It is named after Hayrig Mouradian, the great singer of folklore and old Armenian songs. He was my teacher. Hayrig is ninety-six years old. I want the young generation to know Hayrig and his music.”
I asked Hasmik if I could meet Hayrig.
“Hayrig is staying with relatives in Kaghtsrashen village,” she said. “I’ll make arrangements.”
I recently learned, with much sadness, about the death of Hayrig Mouradian. I remember our trip to Kaghtsrashen village, near Artashat. We traveled with Levon Kalantar and Harout Mansourian of Internews Armenia, who, several months earlier, had made a film about Hayrig.
One of Hayrig’s relatives walked with us to his room. “He’s lying down,” she said. “He’s not feeling well.” Hasmik asked Hayrig if he was ill. “I’m ninety-six years old,” he said. “I feel fine.”
I sat next to his bed. Hayrig talked about a book he had recently written about the Armenian Church. We were delighted when Hayrig recited a poem in English, one he said he had memorized seventy-five years ago.
Hayrig asked me about my trip to Armenia. I said that I would be leaving the following morning for Karabagh. “Let’s go to the table,” he said. “I’ll give a toast to the Armenians of Karabagh.”
Hayrig gave each of us a large peach. “These peaches were grown in our garden,” he said. A relative then poured us a glass of khaghoghi oghi, oghi made from grapes. Hayrig raised his glass. “To the Armenians of Karabagh. Health, happiness, and success. May the final victory be theirs.”
“Hayrig jan,” Hasmik said, “will you sing for us?”
Hayrig asked what song we would like to hear. I suggested “Im Hayrenyats Hoki, Vartan.”
Hayrig Mouradian was a story-teller. As he sang, “Im hayrenyats hoki, Vartan, anoosh Vartan, Vartan, Vartan . . .” he raised his arm and pointed forward, as if he himself were leading the brave Vartan to victory. Hasmik joined the song. The old master and his student were now singing together. As they sang, I thought of Hasmik’s group of young singers, continuing the legacy of Hayrig Mouradian.
Hayrig then sang “Lorig jan.” Hearing his pure, unadorned voice, I felt we had gone back in time a thousand years.
In a letter written just after he died, Hasmik said that I was the last Armenian from the Diaspora to visit Hayrig Mouradian. I felt very fortunate to have met this great man, a voice from Armenia’s past.
The morning after visiting Hayrig Mouradian, I left for Stepanakert. I spent six weeks in Karabagh, teaching English and traveling to remote villages and monasteries, and to the fortress of Gachaghagapert. I stayed in touch with Hasmik by e-mail. “Come back to Yerevan,” she wrote. “You can be a guest of my family.”
During a short visit to Yerevan, I met with Hasmik and her brother, Aleksan. “Andranik. I sing in a group which performs Armenian classical music,” Aleksan told me. “There is a concert on Monday at the Kamerayin Yerazhshdootyun Srah. I hope you can go.”
Hasmik and I arrived at the hall at seven o’clock. About one hundred people filled the small concert building. A grand piano was on the stage. Those sitting nearby were speaking in Armenian, Russian, and English.
Several musical groups performed that night, including one visiting from America. We listened uncomfortably as they sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” in a less than pleasing, almost comical style. I turned to a man sitting behind me and said, “Intz hamar, dzidzagheli e,” meaning, “For me, this is funny.” The man answered, laughing, “Mez hamar, voghbali e,” or, “For us, it is a tragedy.”
But it was a wonderful evening. Anna Mailian, a classical soprano, sang “Dle Yaman” and two songs written by Narekatsi. I was pleasantly surprised when Khoren Balian, the well-known singer of Armenian church music, walked onto the stage. I knew Mr. Balian was married to the great singer of Armenian medieval songs, the late Lucine Zakarian. He sang “Movgats Mirza” and songs by Nerses Shnorhali. I asked Hasmik if she knew Mr. Balian. She said she did, and offered to introduce us.
Next, Hasmik’s brother, Aleksan, took the stage, along with the other members of his group. The audience was treated to the songs of Komitas Vartabed and Arno Babajanian, and other well-known Armenian composers. I asked Hasmik if Aleksan would be singing solo during the group’s appearance. “Not tonight,” she said. “But if you stay in Yerevan, you will be able to hear Aleksan sing horovels and other folk songs.” Hasmik told me she and her brother had sung together during the last concert of the Hayrig Mouradian group.
That night, surrounded by wonderful music and hospitality, I decided I would stay in Yerevan.
Hasmik and I got along well from the beginning. Often, she would surprise me with a song, or a visit with a friend or relative. Once, at the Avedik Issahakian museum, Hasmik sat at a piano and said, simply, “I am going to sing.”
Hasmik sang beautifully. As she sang, those touring the museum stopped and listened to the impromptu concert. A family with three young children walked in from an adjoining room to hear Hasmik.
After the song, several in the room introduced themselves to Hasmik. “The lyrics are by Issahakian,” she explained. “His lyrics are often used in Armenian folk songs.”
Traces of Moush
“I have a friend who teaches Farsi at Yerevan State University,” Hasmik said one day. “She is Mshetsi and has just returned from Moush. Let’s go to her flat and you can meet her.” We walked up several flights of steps of an apartment building on Mashtots Prospect and stopped in front of her door. There I met Armine, a stylish woman whom I would later nickname Mshetsi aghchig.
“Come in,” she said. “I have just made harissa. Would you like some?” We walked in and sat at a large table. Armine talked about her work in Yerevan, and her recent trip to Moush. “I traveled with friends from Yerevan. We’re making a film about Moush,” she said. I told her that my grandmother had been born in Moush.
“We need some information,” she said. “Do you know the names of the three churches in Moush, and the river running through the town?” I said that I didn’t, but would e-mail friends in Fresno and find out what she needed to know.
We enjoyed coffee, harissa, and chocolates. “I hope we can all go to Moush together someday,” Armine said. “Come back and visit again. I will give you a container of soil from Moush.”
I thanked her, knowing I would take the soil to my grandmother’s grave in Fresno.
Tatevos Tonoyan, Poet
I met Tatevos Tonoyan, a friend of Hasmik’s, at a concert of Tovmas Poghosian’s Sayat Nova ashoughagan group. Hasmik and I visited Tatevos, his wife, and their two daughters several times during my stay in Yerevan.
Tatevos is a tall, hospitable man. He is a poet who loves to sing. On several occasions, he joined Hasmik as she sang Armenian folk songs. Once, he helped me translate one of his poems into English. It was a sad poem, about a relative killed in the war in Karabagh.
Tatevos couldn’t do enough for me. “We can all spend a day together, Andranik,” he said. “Where would you like to go?”
I thought for a moment. “Ambert,” I answered. “Since seeing the fortress and church in Atom Egoyan’s movie, Calendar, I’ve wanted to see Ambert.”
“Wonderful. Can you go the day after tomorrow?” Tatevos asked. “We can leave at ten o’clock in the morning.”
Ambert is located on the slopes of Mt. Aragats, past the village of Byurakan. “My mother is from Byurakan,” Hasmik said. “She has a sister living there now.”
We drove through Byurakan, and then reached the road leading to Ambert. To the right was another road, with a sign that read “Khash.” “There’s a lake near the top of the mountain,” Hasmik said. “It’s very beautiful.”
We took the road leading to the lake. After winding our way up the narrow road, the tires began slipping on the icy pavement, forcing us to turn back. From there, we saw a stunning view of Mt. Ararat, its two peaks rising through the clouds over the snowy, rocky slopes of Aragats.
After slowly winding our way down the mountain, we finally reached Ambert. The natural beauty of the fortress was striking, its rounded ramparts seeming to rise directly from a gentle, sloping hill. The church stands alone on the edge of a plateau where two canyons merge, overlooking the river below.
From the hill behind the fortress we saw the huge, walled structure with the church in the background. Inside the ancient, domed cathedral we lit candles and sang “Hayr Mer.” Standing next to a khatchkar, Hasmik sang “Der Voghormia.”
After investigating the area surrounding Ambert, we sat in a sunny spot near the church and enjoyed a lunch prepared by Hasmik and Tatevos’s wife, Armine. Behind us were the church and fortress, with Massis looming in the background. I didn’t want to leave.
“Next year,” Tatevos said, “we can come to Ambert in the summer. We’ll walk all the way from Byurakan, and see the fortress from the valley below. If you want to, we can stay overnight.”
The Passing of a Friend
Earlier in my trip, while visiting Holy Echmiadzin, I learned of the death of an old friend, Vachagan Hovhannisian. I had met Vachagan in 1982, and had visited him each time I had traveled to Armenia. Vachagan was a poet who taught at the seminary in Echmiadzin. Last year, while talking with my proud Sassuntsi friend, it was apparent that he was quite ill. I knew it might be our last visit.
I told Hasmik of my friendship with Vachagan. “I know his son, Hovig,” she said. “He’s a poet, like Vachagan. He’ll be happy to meet a friend of his father’s. Hovig works at the Armenian National Radio building. I’ll tell him about you.”
Late in my trip, I met Hovig. In a large office, we talked about my trip to Armenia, and his work at Armenian National Radio. Hovig asked me how I had met Hasmik. I told him the story of the Shoghaken recording, and that I had been fascinated with her voice, and her songs of Moush, the birthplace of my grandmother.
Hovig laughed. “I was co-producer of that recording,” he said. “You are Mshetsi? I’m not surprised. All of Hasmik’s friends are Mshetsis.”
Being with Hovig, it was impossible not to think of Vachagan, remembering his unbridled enthusiasm. . . .
We then talked about his father. “My father is buried in Talin,” he said. “We can go there and visit his grave.”
I asked Hovig about Talin, a town in northern Armenia located on the road to Gyumri.
“It’s a town of Sassuntsis. Maybe 99 per cent,” he said. “The other one per cent is Mshetsi. We’re the same, don’t you think?”
It was my last day in Yerevan. Hasmik and I walked the streets of the capital city, saying good-bye to friends and taking care of last-minute details. Time had passed far too quickly. I couldn’t believe the next day I wouldn’t be in Yerevan.
Earlier, Hasmik had made arrangements to meet Khoren Balian, but the tragic assassinations in Parliament had postponed our visit. Now, on my last night in Yerevan, I looked forward to visiting Mr. Balian at his home in Yerevan.
We arrived at his apartment a few minutes after seven. Khoren greeted us at the door. In his deep, musical voice, he invited us into his flat.
We sat at a table in the living room. I noticed several pictures of his late wife, Lucine Zakarian, which adorned the walls. I gave Khoren a red rose, which he placed in a vase under one of the pictures.
I asked Khoren if he knew of the book by Zori Balayan, Between Hell and Heaven, in which Mr. Balayan wrote a very touching tribute about the passing of Lucine.
Khoren was pleased. “I know the passage well,” he said. “Zori and I are close friends.”
Khoren then asked me about my trip. I told him about my travels in Armenia and Karabagh, and my attempt to photograph all of the churches and monasteries in Armenia.
“Andranik. If you want to, you can donate pictures to the School of Theology, where I teach Grabar and Medieval Armenian Music. Everyone will be able to see the monasteries and churches of Armenia.”
His offer had special meaning for me. Khoren Balian, once a priest of the Armenian Apostolic Church, is a highly respected authority in Grabar and Armenian church music. Also, it had been almost twenty years since I first heard Khoren sing the sacred music of Armenia with his wife, Lucine. Their voices were haunting. I felt I was in an Armenian church in the Middle Ages, in the time of Narekatsi and Shnorhali.
Now, I was especially grateful to have met Khoren in his home in Yerevan.
Before leaving, Khoren gave me a cassette of his songs, including “Movgats Mirza,” which he had sung at the concert in Yerevan.
Near the end of my trip, several of Hasmik’s friends and family gathered at Aleksan’s home for a traditional breakfast of khash. It was a festive atmosphere. Even those I had just met invited me to return to Armenia.
Soon after finishing breakfast, Aleksan picked up a guitar and began singing an ashoughagan song. Their sister, Heriknaz, joined the song and then sang a solo of her own. Another woman sang an enchanting song that she had composed herself.
Hasmik’s parents then sang a beautiful love song by Sayat Nova, smiling as they took turns singing verses to each other. Someone commented that the couple had the look of newlyweds.
Aleksan asked me what I would like to hear. “Kamancha — one of my favorites by Sayat Nova,” I answered.
Aleksan sang slowly, thoughtfully — looking as if he were composing the song himself. He then sang “Kani Vor Jan Im,” also by Sayat Nova. As he sang, I looked at the faces of those gathered around the table, at their deep, expressive Armenian eyes.
Journey through Armenia
Shoghaken Folk Ensemble
Hayrig Mouradian Children’s Ensemble
Aghpyur Children’s Journal
About the Author
News and Updates
The Humor of Armenia
Scenes and Observations
E-mail Your Comments