Yerevan Journal – October 2006

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A holiday atmosphere reigned again in Yerevan, with the visit of French president Jacques Chirac and Charles Aznavour, with several meetings, visits, including the Genocide Memorial, and concerts, concluding with the concert in Republic Square on Saturday, September 30. Street closings in the city center became the norm, as we found out Saturday morning driving down Baghramyan towards the Opera. Reaching Proshyan St., we saw that the road to the Opera was closed, with a ceremony taking place near the Opera. From Proshyan, Shoghaken members walked to the Conservatory, where a bus was waiting to take the musicians to Lake Sevan. There, Shoghaken gave a concert for President Chirac and Kocharian’s wives and their guests, after which they greeted the first ladies and their entourages from the French embassy and elsewhere. On the way back to Yerevan, the Sevan highway was closed, maintaining high security for the guests and dignitaries. Back in Yerevan, travel remained a challenge, with many roads in the center closing for the Aznavour and Friends concert that night. Choosing to view the concert by television, we noticed first the elaborate stage set up in front of the fountains and National Gallery, a stage said to cost over $20,000, and brought from Moscow. Seats were set up in front of the stage, with most standing throughout Republic Square, numbers reaching in the tens of thousands. A neighbor who was present at the concert arrived at our apartment, tellling that there were so many people, movement became difficult. She said snipers were situated on top of the buildings, ensuring security for the event. As to the concert itself, it might be said Aznavour could have brought along better singers, but this was forgotten when Aznavour himself sang, his energy and voice carrying well through several songs. A comment we heard several times was the disappointment felt that Aznavour didn’t sing anything in Armenian, as his versions of ashoughagan music, especially Sayat Nova, are heard regularly on Armenian television. It was also said that Aznavour would have done our singers a service had he dueted, for instance, with Arax Davitian or Barsegh

A walk through Yerevan’s city center usually results in meeting new and old friends, as was today’s venture. Walking down Mashtots Boulevard, still known here as “Prospekt” from Soviet days, near the Opera, I met baritone Constantine Simonian, considered by many as the best “Mossi” (Anoush Opera) in the past twenty to thirty years (after the great Arshavir Karapetyan). I had met Simonian during a visit here in 1997, but hadn’t seen him in Yerevan in some time. After parting, taking just a few steps towards the Aram Khachatryan statue, I was suprised to see kamanchist Gagik Mouradyan, Yerevan-born but now working in France. Mouradyan played kamancha for Shoghaken in concerts in Die, France, in 2000, and was now in town to meet local folk musicians and see relatives. As I had business in the Conservatory, I crossed Sayat Nova and walked past the Komitas statue, where I met a musicologist who works at the Conservatory. He said he had heard that Shoghaken had recorded several Komitas dances, which Komitas had transcribed for piano. He said that it went against Komitas’ teachings to record those dances with traditional instruments. Shocked at what he said, I asked him what instruments Komitas had heard the pieces played as he went through Western Armenian towns and villages . . . the piano, or traditional instruments? Odd that instead of being glad we had recorded these dances in their original form, he had chosen to question our loyalty to Komitas. This, and with other, more important subjects to question, as, just what is going on in the Conservatory, where diplomas are given to pop stars who haven’t even attended classes, or, some saying good voices are actually ruined there, that it might be better now for a singer to not even attend the Conservatory. Sad, also, is the fact that so many good Armenian singers and musicians are teaching in European conservatories, as our government pays such low wages that those who stay and teach here are dependent on having private classes or, in some cases, accepting bribes to advance those lacking in true talent.

As our conversation with the musicologist continued, he claimed that what Komitas wrote for piano must have been arranged, in other words, changed from what he originally heard somewhere in the Armenian homeland or in Echmiadzin, where Komitas recorded songs and dances brought to Eastern Armenia by Genocide survivors. Yet, it is known that Komitas recorded music as he heard it, the only changes being the removal of foreign influences, notes, musical styles, etc. Telling the musicologist this much, we added that although such discussion might be good, he should have more important things to do, such as speaking up when his collegues in the Conservatory ask for large sums of money to pass unworthy students and other similar “khaytarakutyunner” (scandal, disgrace) going on at the Conservatory. To the latter, he agreed, saying bribery and the like occurred during Soviet years at the Conservatory but not to the extent as now, and that the education received then was much better. Odd, though, he returned to the subject of the new Shoghaken CD, saying the duduk and kamancha that led into a certain folk song shouldn’t have played parts of church hymns, that the two (folk and hokevor) shouldn’t be played together, then continuing by saying the CD had too many ashoughagan songs, and shouldn’t have included a mugham, that the latter was too “Eastern.” This, even though the Armenian mugham, instrumental but not sung, like the Turks, Azeris, Arabs, and others do, is quite unique, and deserves to be respresented and presented by Shoghaken musicians. To which we answered the musicologist, saying he should spend his time protesting those in Armenia, including occasionally Conservatory professors, who put folk music to synthesizer and worse.
. . . Later in the evening, I was reminded of the high level of culture during the Soviet era, as an old “propaganda” film from 1984 was shown on the television station known as “R.” On September 1, every year, a “Day of Knowledge” was celebrated, that year with tens of thousands gathering in front of the Madenataran, with speechs honoring people like Khachatur Abovyan, considered in Armenia as “Enlightener,” and People’s Artist Edward Mirzoyan and Karen Demirjyan also greeting the throngs of Armenians and other Soviet peoples. Noteworthy was the folk dancing by young students and folk groups, dancing the Kochari and Ververi with more expertise than many, of not most, of today’s groups, including the major ensembles.

Towards sunset, we arrived at a private house near Abovian and Koruin streets, where a hogihangist for a member of the Akunk folk ensemble was taking place. There, we met with current and past Akunk members, including several from Shoghaken who had their start in Akunk. The deceased, a well-liked, popular member of the group, had died of cancer after a month of treatment failed to halt the disease. The sound of several duduks spread through the evening air, as men and women paid their respects to their lost friend. Outside, Akunk members reminisced past happenings and their friend’s humor and love for Armenian folk music. I talked with an architect whose design had been chosen for the St. Grigor Lusavorich church in the city center, but due to behind-the-scenes decisions the current design of the church was chosen. It happens that his designs are now being used in churches in both Russia and Armenia. The architect, and former Akunk member, was born in Guilstan, a melikdom of Karabagh during the late Middle Ages and now in Azeri-controlled Shahumian. He told of his place of birth, and how the Azeris had burned the village to the ground and dynamited a seventeenth century church and the older village church after deporting the Armenians there. As our conversation turned to politics, a university student told of a recent happening where the daughter of a well known oligarch had entered the classroom late, after which the professor said a few unkind words to the girl. The girl’s fiance (the son of a minister), hearing this, beat the professor. Likely due to the upcoming national elections, and early campaigning already underway, the oligarch had the student who beat the professor apologize to him . . . making the oligarch appear a person of law and order. This oligarch also bought all the tickets for an outdoor concert, passing them out free to the youth of Yerevan. Now, concerning likely presidential candidates, the talk has switched from the Defense Minister to Vardan Oskanian to Vazken Manukyan, the latter still popular after having the presidency taken away in the infamous 1990s election.

Life in Yerevan continues with its usual array of both comical and sad stories. A student who had been to the outdoor concert sponsored by one of the wealthy on the occasion of his daughter’s wedding said she heard that each musician had been paid a sum of $50,000, although I couldn’t verify this claim. The girl did say the concert wasn’t to her liking, with not-so-talented rap and pop stars, mostly from Russia, being introduced by like-minded announcers from National Television’s talk shows. What she did know, from talking with participants of an Internet conference held this past weekend in Yerevan, was that an entire planeload of passengers traveling from Amsterdam arrived in Yerevan without their suitcases, all because the baggage compartment in the airplane was loaded with several tons of flowers for the previously mentioned wedding . . . not a way to leave a good first impression for those visiting Armenia, and traveling on an Armenian airline, for the first time.

After finishing some work on our new balcony, the Oshakantsi asked if I knew how old his village was. “On old maps,” he said, “you can see Oshakan and Tegher (a small village on the slopes of Aragadz, and home of Tegher Monastery). Yerevan doesn’t even appear on the map. Excavations were done recently, on the hill you see as you enter Oshakan. They found an old fortress, built with gigantic stones. The fortress was declared to be from about 3,000 B.C., maybe earlier, from about the time Karahunj was built in Zangezur.” As it happened, a concert attended by the president and Catholicos was shown live on National Television, celebrating another year of Yerevan’s ancient history, dating back to the time of the Urarteans (said by Herouni to be Armenians). Watching the concert, which was merely a parade of carefully selected pop stars and mediocre comedians, etc., we began making toasts to the Soviet Union and the culture of the time. We told our Oshakantsi friend about the concert the evening before at the National Gallery, held for French journalists and Armenian notables, how when Shoghaken was asked before the concert which of their CDs they were going to bring, we said we weren’t, that we weren’t going to use CDs for our concerts, as long as we’re all still alive, that they needed to bring 10 microphones, which brought protests due to the fact no one else was planning to sing live, thus they were going to have to bring microphones specially for Shoghaken. So be it. After a few dozen Frenchmen started dancing to the Mayroke, the concert arrangers probably realized the value of live music. . . . As the evening’s concert for Yerevan ended, we watched the national news broadcast, in great part about the French lower house’s decision concerning the Armenian Genocide, about how the Turks thought it terrible that the French would punish someone for speaking his mind about a historical matter, a point aptly argued by Vardan Oskanian, who reminded the Turks they had a similar law, to punish those who in their opinion insulted Turkish nationalism, a law which nearly punished the new Nobel winner for literature, the Turkish writer Pamuk, who dared talk about the Armenian massacres.

“My ancestors,” the Oshakantsi continued, “are from Moush. Actually, they are from a village of Bitlis, between Bitlis and Moush. My great-grandfather thought of becoming a priest, and spent time in Jerusalem. After returning to his village, he became known as ‘Maguts Mourad.’ His son, my grandfather (Sedo), and his brother fought with General Andranik, both in Western Armenia and in Rumania. Then, by way of Tiflis, they came to Oshakan. Even though I was born in Oshakan, and plan on moving back there soon, I dream about Moush and Bitlis. I tell people I’m Mshetsi, since there are so few Bitlistsis in Armenia. I want to see Bitlis, and my grandparents’ village.” . . . A pity the Oshakantsi didn’t come to this evening’s concert at the Komitas Chamber Hall, for kamanchist Hakop Khalatyan’s fiftieth birthday, as Hasmik sang “Garun Batsver,” a song of Moush, and “Imal Enim Lao,” about the lost lands of Moush and the Plains of Moush, backed up by Levon Tevanyan on blul. Appropriately, Khalatyan chose to open his program with the folk music, then continued with a combination of ashoughagan and classical symphonic music written for kamancha. A highlight was Khalatyan’s mugham, a several-minute trip into the world of the Armenian instrumental mugham. . . . Otherwise, in Yerevan, people are talking mostly about parliamentarian Hakop Hakopyan, who will be prosecuted for an attack which apparently surpassed Hovik Hoveyan’s son’s pistol whipping of utility workers, and the automobile accident in which pop singer Vardoui Vardanyan was killed as the BMW she was driving went off the road into a gorge on the road from Sevan to Yerevan. Two passengers lived through the crash, in which wet roads were the likely culprit. Vardanyan was perhaps the best of current long list of pop singers, one who actually had a voice, and who could have gone on to something beyond what her contempories are doing.

A university-age student told a story about a gay Armenian male being beaten up near the French University in the Zeitun district of Yerevan, saying the gay approached another male and asked him if he would “like to meet somewhere . . . ” to which he was immediately punched and knocked to the ground, where several other males continued beating the gay man. “I have nothing against them,” he said, “but they’re starting to feel brave, maybe because of the Europeans and others here who are demanding freedom for everybody. Or maybe it’s because their types are given preference by some here, becoming hosts on National Television talk shows and the like. I think the treatment this gay man got should be given to sect members too, before it gets too late, before there are too many to deal with.” This, in spite of the bombardment on television, likely demanded from the West, to try and convince local Armenians to be tolerant towards everyone, despite what they might personally feel. . . . Others today talked about the death of pop star Vardui Vardanyan, and that she was going to be given a government burial, starting with her coffin being on display in the Opera building, before being taken for actual burial. Perhaps the last time such an honor was given was for Vasken Sargsyan, Karen Demirjyan, and the parliamentarians killed in the infamous 1999 slayings. “People like Aram Khachatryan are deemed worthy of such treatment,” a Yerevantsi said. “Normally, those who rate the Opera ceremony are worthy of being buried in the Pantheon. Now a pop star is given this honor. What is the government telling us here? That being in the Yergi Bedagan Tadron makes someone another Aram Khachatryan?”

Politics has a way of weaving its way through the fabric of Armenian life and culture, now including black lists of who can and can’t be shown on television. Today a crew from a Yerevan station came to our home to interview Hasmik, afterwards asking to see photographs of family, friends, trips, etc. Showing a photo taken with the late Bishop Mesrob Ashjian and Raffi Hovhannisian, the leader of the group said they couldn’t show that picture on their station, as Hovhannisian is on a “list” of those not allowed to appear in any form on their station. Not a surpise, however, as higher ups here have silently declared Hovhannisian a non-person as far as television goes, be it for news programs or any other programs. . . . A trip to Zangezur began in Sissian, where we planted a small experimental plot of wheat, barley, and lentils, our farmer friends then telling us to follow them to a restaurant near the main road leading to Goris. “We know you’re in a rush,” they said. “We’ll have a fast lunch and you can be on your way.” The fast lunch turned into an hour and a half of several courses of various local delights, starting with lavash, cheese, and greens and leading to chicken and fried potatoes, a plate of barbecued pieces of heart, lung, and liver, then a plate of barbecued lamb, not to mention a bottle of “honi oghi,” vodka made from hon, a small red berry. A village farmer from nearby Brnagot, who had joined us for our “short lunch,” led the toasts, saying, amongst other things, that Armenians need to remember their past, as they work to secure their future. “Our village had two heroes of the Great Patriotic War, both generals. Before the Genocide Memorial was built in Yerevan, we built our own in Brnagot. Communists destroyed it; we’d rebuild it, finally, it stayed. We also have a statue of Komitas in our village. . . .” After leaving Sissian, we drove past Goris and Khundzoresk before reaching Tegh village, where we would plant another experimental plot, on a flat area just outside Tegh. A farmer who operates a nursery there told us about the village: “Just past that gorge was the old border with Azerbaijan,” he said. “Those houses you see are Lachin. Our people are proud of their village, and that they live in Zangezur. We all have roots in Zangezur, from ancient times. Did you know that our defense minister’s father is from Tegh? Most people think (defense minister) Sargsyan’s mother is from here, but that’s not true, it’s his father. Often, he comes to the village, for funerals or other reasons. A good man, down-to-earth. We hope his son becomes president. . . .” We continued our work until dark, the silence being broken only by the occasional cries of coyotes or birds’ wings flapping as they crossed the open, rolling fields of Tegh.

A filmmaker expressed his feelings about traditional music in Armenia and her surrounding countries. “In Iran, Kurdistan, and various areas of Turkey, if one wishes to hear old vocal styles or experts on traditional instruments, he goes to the regions, to villages. He doesn’t go to Conservatories. In most Eastern countries, traditional music is a way of life, and maintained, albeit naturally, in remote regions. Such was the case in Armenia, up to and even including Soviet times. Now, unfortunately, Armenians seem to want to look to the West, and appear to be trying to deny their Eastern roots, even their own traditions and music. In the end, if this continues, we could lose our culture, everything we’ve had over the centures.” As to prevailing thought here in Yerevan, talk is about Georgia, and its relations with Russia and how that might affect us here, not to mention Armenia’s relations with our neighbor to the east, Azerbaijan. Our filmmaker friend continued his thoughts about the region: “When Kocharian became president here, the elder Aliev said he was glad that a ‘former vassal had become president of an enemy country, that Armenia would by all means weaken with Kocharian as president.’ Now, Kocharian has been ranked as the richest man in Armenia, with an official fortune of a billion dollars. Sargsyan, the defense minister, also from Karabagh, is ranked second, with nearly the same fortune to his name. Only then come Hayastantsis like Gagik Tsarukyan and Central Bank president Tigran Sargsyan, who continuously tells us he is watching out for the country’s monetary security. Need I say more?”

A return visit by the television crew interviewing Hasmik for a local station led to discussions about culture and area politics and, after finding out I was related to Saroyan, a viewing of an old family video of the author and other cousins and various friends and relatives from the Fifties and Sixties, shots taken in the Fresno and Bay areas of California. The show’s host, along with younger members of the crew, were shocked to see the old Armenian characteristics, facial and personality, of the early generation of Fresno-area Armenians, especially Saroyan, his uncle, Aram Saroyan, and others in the clan, some born in Moush and Bitlis, some in California. “We need people like that here, in modern Armenia,” the host said, going on to talk about what modern times had done to our culture. “Did you know,” he said, “They asked Aznavour’s translator, when he was here, if he knew the names of any Armenian singers. What was his answer? I hate to say it.” His answer turned out to be one of the newest recipients of the “Meritorious Artist” awards, a pop star with little to no voice. After asking about a comment during their previous visit, that Raffi Hovhannisian was on a list of people the station wasn’t allowed to show, the host said he didn’t agree with the decision, then telling us others on the list, which included a dead writer-playwright, an outspoken actor, and a singer-songwriter who insulted the station owner, saying, “While I’m writing songs, you’re making ‘bonchiks,’” a pastry related to the doughnut. The talk then entered the realm of local politics and education, about the new law, or proposed law, which would move university entrance exams to the high school level. This has university professors angry, as they supplement their low incomes by way of having classes in which they prepare students for these entrance exams . . . regular teachers now picking up this duty, which means a decent income for them, as opposed to the professors. All of this, it is said, is to help clean up corruption, with part of the new plan having examinations corrected by computer, not by human hand, as, when those grading the exams noted whose test they were correcting, could grade the exam according to whom their friend was or how much money they may have accepted from the student. Another unannounced development in the schools is the sudden change in directors, or principals, in several schools, as, with national and local elections planned for the near future, school directors have been chosen who can better organize how teachers and parents vote, and, in some cases, can help assist in voter rigging, should the following election prove to be similar to recent ones.

I remember several Hayastantsis telling someone who had come here as an election observer that no matter how careful and attentive he might be, he could never figure out the methods of cheating, or election fraud, used in this part of the world. In some cases, perhaps fraud isn’t even needed, as in one of the Yerevan districts, word is out that higher-ups have already decided who the new “taghapet” was going to be, the brother of one of Armenia’s most powerful political figures. This culture of corruption, although hardly unique to Armenia, is one which disgusts many living here, and is said to be a major cause of emigration from the homeland. Today, a small group of university students told of the widespread corruption existing in universities, saying it wasn’t easy to study hard, earn a degree, and see the son or daughter of an oligarch who hadn’t done a thing all year “earn” the same degree . . . or to see how these same offspring of the wealthy do pretty much as they please in classroom situtations, from the elementary age up through high school and university, with teachers and professors knowing whom not to offend, fearing for their jobs or physical safety. One student said all this could change, but only if the average person wants it to, saying the corruption here starts from the bottom, not the top. We even went back to Khorenatsi, who, some 1,400 years ago, wrote of the same corruption, in the Armenian church, politics, and education. The student then noted, in his opinion, that when an Armenian is alone, he is talented, hardworking, and honest, but when he is with other Armenians, things change, continuing by saying that Armenians here have adjusted to, or accepted, the corruption here, making the person who adjusts a criminal too . . . a positive comment, it seems to me, coming from a member of today’s youth.

A cousin living and working in Moscow came to see our new apartment yesterday, saying first of all he was always glad to be in Yerevan. “Moscow is a bad place to live,” he said. “And not only because of the problems with Russian skinheads. Here, even though I don’t like what they’re doing in the city center, with all the unneeded construction going on, things are basically peaceful. I want to have my daughter come here to attend Yerevan State, to get her out of Moscow, and to let her know what it’s like in the homeland.” We picked up a book by the English traveler Lynch, written before the Turkish massacres, and found a photo of an Armenian living in the Plains of Moush, where our guest’s ancestors are from. “Maybe we can go there together,” he said. “I want to see where my grandmother lived, then I’ll be able to understand why she always praised Moush, and St. Karapet.” On television news, an announcement about who had won the position of taghapet in Ajapnyak was announced, to which our guest commented, “I see politics hasn’t changed in Armenia. Even in Moscow, we knew who was going to be elected.” The news was announced at two p.m., as, legally, results aren’t allowed before this time, even though, in this case, the results were known by everyone. “So be it,” he said. “In Moscow, they cheat one way, in America, another. This is politics. In time, things will smooth out here, and even the oligarchs will relax, and not feel they have to always be in the limelight, passing out potatoes and living in castles.” Later that evening, with a friend from Internews Armenia, we finished the previous morning’s khash, each of us having a generous serving of the popular dish, loaded with probably too much garlic and salt, nonetheless a treat. As we ate, we listened to the new Shoghaken recording, replete with Armenian folklore and ashoughagan music, including examples of the Armenian mugham. After voicing his approval of short duduk and kamancha solos of Armenian church music as part of a folk song (saved by a student of Komitas), we mentioned that a musicologist had made his disapproval known of having folk and church music as part of the same song, after which our guest laughed, saying that not only is no one else producing music of this quality, but that the musicologist was insecure, and should spend his time doing something creative instead of announcing his childish criticisms. As the song was from the Taron region, he told us about his desire to go to Bitlis, where his mother’s ancestors were from, adding it would be nice to travel there together, during our next trip to Taron.
. . . Continuing my reading of the book by Lynch, the traveler tells about the prison in Bitlis being full of Armenians, and that one of them was the revolutionary Damadian. It happens that Damadian was in prison in Bitlis along with my grandmother’s grandfather, Khachik Minasian, who had been one of four founders of the Hunchakian party in Moush . . . the party to which Damadian belonged. According to relatives, Damadian escaped from prison and continued his activities, while Minasian drowned, or was drowned, likely in the Bitlis River, in his attempt to escape from prison.
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