Yerevan Journal – November 2006

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Someone working in the energy sector told me the Europeans were again demanding the closure of Medzamor, even offering the money required to close it down. But, he said, they weren’t offering any money to develop alternative energy sources, needed as Medzamor supplies only forty percent of the country’s energy needs. We then decided Armenia has become a slave to too many countries, such as Russia, the US, the Europeans, the list goes on. Before, it seems, Armenia was a slave, if it can be said, only to the Russians. Now, every time Kocharian goes to meet Putin, Armenians ask, “What are we giving Russia this time, what factory, what business?” Then, I was told who the largest investors to Armenia’s economy were, a depressing list to say the least: Greece (Armentel), Germany, Russia, and Lebanon, who has an economy rivaling Armenia’s. Most surprising was that Russia made any investments at all, being they own most of the country. Concerning culture, a visitor told us newly-deceased pop star Vardoui Vardanyan had been buried in the Pantheon, along with Komitas and other giants of Armenian culture. Yet, our guest said, possibly she had been buried in the “second Pantheon,” where Minas Avetisyan and others who were in some degree of Communist disapproval were buried. Whichever Pantheon was chosen, a dangerous precedent seems to have been set, as those in the rabiz and pop world feel themselves on the level of Aram Khachatryan, Avetik Issahakyan, or Komitas. This would go along with what a high-ranking member of the Dashnak party recently told us when we commented on the Dashnaks sponsoring a concert of one of the giants of rabiz . . . that, even though he didn’t approve of the singer, “the money will be used for a good cause.” I wonder if Simon Vratsian would have said the same. . . .

From Agyepar, a small town in Shamshadin, a road leads up a hill and on to the village of Movses, nestled in mountains and overlooking Azeri Turkish villages just across the border with Azerbaijan. As we traveled on this road, a little over a year ago, a local villager warned us not to step outside the car, as someone from the Turkish villages might decide to start taking target practice. Some months later, a shepherd was shot and several sheep were killed by Turkish villagers or soldiers, who periodically take shots at Armenian villagers or soldiers in this border area. Just yesterday, another “brave” Turk shot an Armenian soldier as he passed over the Aygepar-to-Movses road. Fortunately, even though seriously wounded, the soldier survived. Such is life in this part of the world, with uncertain and unsafe borders and an uncertain infrastructure, with an already infamous telephone system and occasional interruptions in natural gas supplies, as has been the case the past two days. Some say the reason is Putin’s doubling the price of natural gas for Georgia, along with probable insufficient deliveries, the result being Armenia’s current shortage. The lack of a strong central government, unfortunately, leads to the people often being left in the dark concerning this and similar issues. This lack of a strong government trickles down into the ministries, where not only are they subject to the whims of outside interest, but of local, powerful bosses. Once, as we talked with a culture ministry official about their supporting certain unworthy elements in the culture world, the reply was a sheepish “You should stop thinking there is a culture ministry. There isn’t. The sooner you realize that, the better off you’ll be.” Perhaps this is why people feel so free to make obviously false or outlandish statements, such as the singer/composer, and I use the term lightly, said on a television interview, “My current CD has some estrada and some folk, I don’t know, when I’m done with folk music, maybe I’ll move on to rock. . . .” exemplifying the lack of seriousness today’s estrada and pop stars have for the folk genre. Perhaps, though, some hope lies in the future, as after Hasmik stated this and similar concerns on a well known weekly cultural program, along with mentioning the pitiful and shameful attempt by so many of today’s singers to imitate Baku radio, we received phone calls thanking Hasmik for her steadfast support for traditional Armenian culture, and for talking openly about the realities of current culture in Armenia.

Watching a morning talk show with a Dashnak relative resulted in an interesting phone call, as Yerkir Media’s host began unending praise of the Armenian rap group which I think is named “Haik,” two of whose members were guests on the show. Our guest called one of Yerkir Media’s editors, telling her “As if it isn’t enough this group does video material just as lewd as American rap groups, and you show it, your television host praises the group, saying they’re a good example of a solid Armenian cultural success story. You say you care about Armenian culture, that you have higher ideals than National Television, where are they?” The editor answered that Armenian youth are similar in many ways to the members of the group, to which our guest said that even though there might be Armenian youth who act or look like these rap people, none of the youth he knows cares for the group or wants to be like them, and that if the Dashnak station wants to have such guests, and put them into a position of cultural importance, to stop making claims that the Dashnak party is any better or more national than any other party. Then, not long after the phone call and the talk show had ended, as if the station was answering the phone call’s comments, a special documentary-style video was shown about Stepanavan-born fedayee Artur Gharibyan, likely a Dashnak, and who had fought in the liberations of Shushi and Lachin, only to lose his life due to a land mine explosion. . . . All that said, I met with several musicians at the side of the opera building, when a pianist commented about the “Opera Club,” which is part of the opera building. “This club opened when Tigran Levonyan was running the opera,” she said. “Everything goes there; it’s little more than a strip club. Do you think such a thing could happen in Italy or France, or anywhere else, for that matter?” She went on to say that it was a shame that the main hall of the opera, named after Aram Khachatryan, was now being used for pop concerts, saying “they have places they can give their concerts . . . it’s a new and bad precedent that they’re given free access to the opera building.” Another musician told of how a director of a state-sponsored ensemble is keeping his job, by paying bribes to a certain culture ministry official . . . probably with money he’s made by telling his musicians he “can’t pay them for such-and-such a concert, because not enough tickets were sold,” even though it was clear time and again such wasn’t the case. Another cultural development had two known personages, Alvart Petrosyan and Hakop Movses, the first a member of Parliament and the second a past minister of culture, and both members of the Dashnak party, announce that the Turkish writer who had recently won a Nobel Prize for literature “couldn’t be full Turkish, as Turks aren’t capable of creating a high level of culture.” Quite a statement to make, as, even if true, political saavy should have dictated to hold such feelings to themselves. And, with the culture currently being created in Armenia, such a bold statement seems at least somewhat empty.

The strong, warm winds of recent days turned icy today, Yerevantsis reacting with sweaters and heavy coats, especially in the Massiv district of northern Yerevan, where the season’s first snow fell. Today, I was surprised to hear about the sudden death of rabiz king Aram Asatryan, who died while serving as godfather for a wedding in Yerevan. I remember meeting Asatryan in a recording studio, a friendly sort, talking with us after his recording session concluded. “I was in form today, don’t you think?” he said. “Maybe I should continue. . . .” The story of how General Manvel ordered Asatryan to leave Armenia after a disagreement at a wedding in Echmiadzin, where Asatryan had performed, has become legend here. Asatryan’s brand of rabiz, although not highly considered by many in the past, had become somewhat classic, possibly in part due to the depths rabiz has since fallen. Which leads to the subject of using Turkish and Arabic rhythms and styles in much of the rabiz, and pop music, being produced in Armenia today, the latest example expressed in a new video clip of one of the major pop stars, one who was notorious for her whining voice and was due for a change, the new video having a strong influence of Baku radio . . . sadly, but naturally, not as good as done by Azeris. A pity, after the extensive work done by the likes of Komitas and Hayrik Mouradian, to reenter Turkish modes into our music . . . odd, that as the Turks are suffering defeats at the hands of the Europeans, concerning entry into the European Union and Genocide recognition, that here many are again using Turkish melodies to decorate their songs.

While watching the film Heghnari Aghbyur, starring Sos Sargsyan and featuring much traditional folk music and culture in general, a Mshetsi began talking about his ancestry, which he had heard from family elders. “My family came from the town of Moush to Eastern Armenia in 1828,” he said. “I want to go there, to see St. Marineh, and the famous monastery of St. Karapet, even though almost nothing remains. But I also want to go to where the Hamshen Armenians live. I hear there is a village high in the mountains, where winter snows make the road impassable for four or five months each year. During this time, the people live as Armenians, practicing old ceremonies. Then, when the snows melt, they live as Moslems. Also, I want to go to Kars, where Yeghishe Charents was born. A friend told me that his grandfather went there, with a picture of his father, and showed it to the town’s mayor, in hopes of finding his ancestral home. When the mayor saw the picture, he said the man was his father’s friend, then invited him to his home and treated him like a king. I would rather go to Kars, and Moush, when Armenians again control the area, but I don’t want to wait, I don’t know when that will be.” Our dolma-dinner guests had unexpectedly turned from seven to ten, causing an extension of the dinner table and a lot of noise by the younger set. We watched videos of recently-deceased singer Aram Asatryan on television before one of our guests, who had participated in the liberation of Shushi, asked if we had a version of the horovel from Karabagh, which led to us listening to Aleksan’s rendition on Armenia Anthology and then from Shoghaken’s Paris concert, after which we listened to Lucik Kochyan, Vatche Hovsepyan, and Glakho Zakaryan. “I remember the 1980s, when Armenia was listening to Hayrik Mouradian, and the music of Old Armenia,” the freedom fighter said. “A young customer in my store today said it well. She said that ‘While we are entering Turkish motifs into our songs, what are the Turks doing? Do you think they are listening to our music, to the music of Aram Khachatryan, or that they are using Armenian motifs in their music?’” A typcial Armenian goodbye lasted about an hour, with various periods of standing and sitting, as the Mshetsi told about an Aparantsi he knows going to Dubai with $10,000 to buy certain goods he could resell in Armenia, but enjoying the expensive hotels and night life so much that he spent all his money and had to borrow the price of a plane ticket to reach Yerevan. While there, in a posh hotel, he couldn’t understand the room’s cooling system, and, being too embarrassed to ask, suffered in a freezing room, occasionally going outside into the blazing heat of Dubai just to warm up.

As we walked towards a bus stop this morning, I heard someone say “William Saroyan,” and, looking up at an apartment window, saw a teenage boy smiling at us, apparently noticing a similarity between me and the author, a relative on the Bitlistsi side of the family. During National Television news a night or two earlier, part of an interview had been shown, with poet Vahagn Davityan interviewing Saroyan. During the interview, Saroyan had left his Russian-style hat on, saying the studio was too cold to remove the hat. Talking about Armenian musical instruments, and finding out Saroyan didn’t know what a shvi was, Davityan explained that it was an instrument used by shepherds, to which Saroyan said “What lucky animals these sheep are in Armenia, to be able to listen to a shvi every day.” We continued on our way to the bus stop, taking a yertooghayin van to the Bangladesh district of Yerevan, where we would eat khash with friends and family. We were told by a Karabaghtsi that khash became famous during the time of Julius Caesar, who, while eating a meal with poor people, who happened to be eating khash, liked the dish so much he said, “The rest of you can eat your lamb and beef, I’m eating khash with my new friends.” Then, reading on a bottle of store-bought tuti arak that the drink had a history of over 2,000 years, the Karabaghtsi said a famous historian from Karabagh had proven tuti arak was being used over 3,000 years ago, basically for its curative power but likely also for its great taste. The conversation then turned briefly to Aram Asatryan, as news showed film of the funeral service in Echmiadzin. With rumors already being spread of the singer being poisoned, now talk is about why it was announced that Asatryan’s body would be on display in the National Opera building, then somehow the decision was made to take him to the cultural house in Echmiadzin before burial. A surprise to us, although nothing in Armenia should really surprise anyone, was General Manvel standing with the family of Asatryan at the funeral (attended by thousands), as General Manvel had demanded Asatryan leave his jeep behind after a birthday party for Manvel’s mother, Manvel angered that Asatryan had asked to be paid for performing at the party.

One thing visitors to Yerevan should be careful doing is crossing a street at any of the central Yerevan crosswalks according to the street signals meant for pedestrians. It seems best to cross according merely to a lack of cars at the given intersection, as I experienced today crossing Mashtots at the corner by Nairi Cinema (known here as Kino Nairi). Seeing two lanes of cars stopped at a red light, with the green light meant for pedestrians flashing, I considered crossing the street, when a large black jeep coming from the direction of the opera crossed the double white line into oncoming traffic before making a right turn in front of the two rows of stopped cars. Thinking all must be safe by now, I took a step into the street, when a Niva repeated what the jeep did, crossing the double line but heading straight up Mashtots towards the Madenataran, honking his horn at traffic as he sped north before heading right on Srjanayin. Finally, I ended up crossing against a red light, finding it safer winding my way through the passing cars than using the green light as a guide. And all this with city hall declaring Yerevan roads unsafe due to the huge increase of automobiles in the capital. Today, policemen were seen at the major bus stops guiding, with police sticks waving and whistles blowing, yertooghayin vans to stop only at designated bus stops, giving tickets to those who dared stop at an undesignated stop. A pity they aren’t allowed to put a stop to those who speed recklessly through town, as those doing the speeding are almost always with connections in higher places. . . . This evening, a musician who plays several traditional wind instruments, not to mention the clarinet, came to our house to help hang a new curtain on our balcony. In the living room, as I switched channels and came across traditional musicians in concert on National Turkish television (TRT4), the musician came into the room, sat down, almost unable to talk as he watched and listened to the Turkish musicians, as a clarinetist backed by both traditional and classical instruments played Turkish and regional music in between slipping into Turkish mughams. I asked if he thought the clarinetist was good, and he said, “The Turks wouldn’t put a bad musician on one of their national television stations.” Next, several men and women in national costume, sitting in a simulated village scene, played traditional instruments with male soloists occasionally bursting into song, one with, I must say, an excellent voice for folk music. As the program ended, we checked through Armenian television, both National Television and others, and went from a martial arts film to a cheap talk show to a soap opera, with two stations playing video clips by pop stars, one where the female singer was trying to sing a rock song, followed by a known music producer explaining to everyone how wonderful it was this singer was delving into rock music. Our musician friend, seeing this, went back to work.

A Mshetsi expressed his desire to see his grandparents’ birthplace, in the town of Moush, but said he heard some Armenians had trouble on a visit to Western Armenia. When I asked what sort of trouble they had, saying we had no problems of any kind during either of our recent trips there, he said his friends had tried to plant a large Armenia flag somewhere near the city of Kharberd. Assuring him that his friends were a little foolish, and asking him what he would do if a Turk tried to plant a flag in Yerevan or Aparan, he understood, and agreed to make the journey. While this Mshetsi and most Armenians here are hopeful for worldwide Genocide recognition, especially with the progress made in France and with newly-elected U.S. Democrats promising proper recognition concerning the Genocide, local politics and the social situation seem to outweigh what might happen in the courts or parliaments of the world. When one of Armenia’s wealthy asked me today what the most serious problem facing the country today was, I answered that unemployment and injustice were, according to most, the most damaging problems facing the country. “You are right,” he said. “Everybody should be treated the same, not according to one’s wealth or position.” Then he asked me if I thought next year’s elections would be free and fair. I told him nobody really thinks fair elections are in the offing, to which he opened up a little and said, “We know that television won’t allow certain people or candidates to appear, and that newspaper and television reporters have to be careful with what they say or write. To me, this is a more important fact than ballot box stuffing and other election day irregularites.” When I told him about an acquaintance who was told by a high party official that it would be better if he stayed home if he was going to protest or make a scene when he saw irregularities (during the referendum vote), that “this thing has to pass, and we’re going to do anything necessary to make sure it passes,” my wealthy friend seemed a little shocked, asked which political party I was talking about, but I just smiled and began talking about other matters. . . . A meeting later in the day had a young male student telling about his and his friends bit of mischief, throwing some sort of device that make a loud bomb-like sound into the office of a director of one of the sects operating in Armenia. He said that when the director came running out of his office, scared out of his wits, his friends all ran away, but he stayed and faced the man. “I wanted to tell him ‘this is only the beginning’ but I stayed quiet. One thing I like about Soviet times, even though I wasn’t born yet, was that they knew how to take care of these things.” The next morning, he and his friends, all apparently of the same mind, were going to skip school and go to a restaurant to eat khash, a tradition not in the least losing its place in current Armenia. “I like my life here,” he said. “When I turn eighteen, I don’t know what I’ll do about serving in the army, being I’ve heard stories that aren’t very pretty, but if a war started, you can count on me. How could I stay in Yerevan if my friends were dying, if our country’s existence depended on me, or others, fighting or staying at home?”

An interesting statement made by film director Armen Mazmanian concerning the killings of Armenians in Russia stands apart from the usual complaints about lack of action by Russian authorities in apprehending the criminals. Mazmanian said that one reason Armenians aren’t welcome in Russia is the way they flaunt their wealth in Russia, especially in Moscow, as they now control much of the city’s wealth. Had they remained at least somewhat modest in their adopted home, Mazmanian states, perhaps the skinheads, hired or not by Azeris, as Writer’s Union president Levon Ananyan speculated, wouldn’t be reacting as they are towards Armenians. As one local said, how would Armenians feel if Uzbeks, Tajiks, or anyone else purchased half of downtown Yerevan and didn’t hide their delight? Later, it became clear that the same Mazmanian has been taken to court by Tigran Karapetyan of ALM television station, Mazmanian calling Karapetyan illiterate for the language he uses on his television shows. Mazmanian said he would admit his guilt if Karapetyan passed a comprehensive test for tenth graders, saying everybody knows Karapetyan bought his purported university degree. . . . In Yerevan, cultural programs and concerts abound, last night’s being Hamazkayin’s “For You, Lebanon,” concert, featuring singers and dancers whom Hamazkayin had sent to Beirut and Anjar over the last decade. Norayr Mehrabyan’s traditional female dance group was perhaps the classiest of the acts, which ranged from the State Dance Ensemble to pop stars Hayko and Aida Sargsyan. The dangers involved in having a concert where the musicians’ CDs are played, with singers mouthing the words and musicians pretending to play (a bit comical with kamanchists and dholchis) came to light when, as Maestro Harutyun Topikyan was just reaching the spot where he would supposedly conduct the singers, the CD was turned on a few seconds too soon, forcing Topikyan to start moving his arms while still walking. The only live act was a duet by Lilit Biboyan and Armen Movsisyan, who sang their song about the Kilikia boat that sailed around the world. As a woman sitting next to us said, “Had I known they were all just going to play their CDs, I could have stayed home and turned on my stereo or television and heard the same music. And even if Ruben Matevosyan is older now, and can’t sing like before, I would have liked to hear him sing live, but I guess this isn’t to be.”

Several weeks ago a Yerevantsi told me to change any interest-earning money I had in dollars or Euro to dram, saying that each year, as the New Year holidays approach, the Central Bank lowers the value of the dollar, with the exchange rate of the dram thusly dropping, the interest earned from a dollar savings account dropping as a result. My friend said that those who set the exchange rates know full well people try not to exchange their dollars unless the rate is to their advantage, but that during the holiday season, people are somewhat forced to change their dollars to provide for proper holiday celebrations, travel, or whatever, so I should therefore expect the usual holiday drop in dollar value. Fortunately, I took his advice, as the rate of 378 dram per dollar, steady for some time, has taken a drop to 370 in just 2 days, with a further drop predicted by everyone. Amusing, if that can be said, is the occasional round-table meeting showing local bank and finance people supposedly seriously discussing Armenia’s finances with EU representatives or Americans, as if these Europeans and Americans don’t know what’s going on here, or, possibly, their hands could be in it all. Concerning elections, though, word is out that these same Europeans are talking about the necessity of a fair election in 2007, that past irregularites should be just that, in the past. Perhaps this is why Serzh Sargsyan, rumored to already be chosen as Kocharian’s successor, is busy traveling the length and breadth of Armenia, meeting with potential voters everywhere, not to mention talk from the Yerkrapah Union’s commanders about their participation in upcoming elections and their purpose of a change in the country’s leadership, which seems to imply disagreements or dissatisfaction with Kocharian and Sargsyan as the country’s leadership and expected concessions concerning the Karabagh conflict.

This morning I found myself watching an old documentary film in Russian, my lack of understanding the language not mattering as I took a brief trip through the Madenataran and viewed several illuminated manuscripts, heard Arax Mansourian sing, with her brother Tigran Mansourian on piano, saw paintings by and pictures of Mardiros Saryan and Minas Avetisyan, and dancing to Aram Khachatryan’s Sabre Dance. Something almost sad were the happy, even educated, confident looks on the faces of Armenians back then, which looked like the late seventies or early eighties, compared with what one sees in today’s Armenia. With today’s economic condition being what it is, along with the country being flooded with foreign influences as well as our culture becoming a victim of the “shooka” (market) mentality, massive changes in traditional Armenian values are doubtless taking place. On Monday night, actor-comedian Vardan Petrosyan, to a sold-out Stanislavksy Theater, touched on this, acutually, centered his entire one-man show on what is happening to Armenian values. Petrosyan talked about Armenian girls during the massacres throwing themselves from cliffs to save their honor, saying, “What do you think they’d do now if the borders with Turkey were opened, and Turkish men made themselves at home in Armenia?” Of course, Petrosyan wasn’t insinuating that all Armenian girls would act this way, but the fact remains.. . . . The actor also reminded Armenians that they shouldn’t put trust in Russia or Europe, telling about the overnight French pullout from Cilicia in the early 1920s, and the Turks, led by Ataturk, using weapons sent by Vladimir Lenin. At Monday’s presentation, Petrosyan also talked about the mentality of much of the wealthy, especially the offspring of the wealthy, and how they live for their money and, especially, their expensive jeeps. Odd that after the show ended, and we walked towards the Opera bus stop, three black Mercedes jeeps sped through a red light as they honked their horns, passing Aram Khachatryan’s statue as they raced down Sayat Nova, cars slamming on their brakes to avoid colliding with the speeding maniacs. Even a quite wealthy Armenian acquaintance lamented the country’s condition, especially concerning the lack of following laws while adding that people should have taken to the streets after the constitutional referendum vote, as happens elsewhere in the world. This Armenian differs, perhaps not in his honesty or lack of it from Armenia’s new rich, but in the fact that his wealth comes from the past, making him at least somewhat disgusted by the arrogance and attitude of today’s new rich towards Armenia and its people and culture.

I was surprised to come across several Hamshen Armenians dancing to the kyamani, to the backdrop of an Armenian church, on Turkish television. The Hamshen Armenians converted to Islam over 200 years ago, and still live in their traditional homeland in the Trabezon region of modern Turkey. The question remains as to whether the footage was shot in Turkey or possibly in Russia, where many Hamshen Armenians live, and where a church similar to the one we viewed exists . . . yet it is doubtful Turkish television would go to the extent to travel to Russia for their folk music programs. This while word has reached Yerevan about one of the major pop stars having a concert in London and the financial aftermath. It happens that the star had asked for a certain amount of money for himself, and an additional figure for his musicians, being the musicians were “big-name, worthy musicians, and deserve to be paid well.” After the concert, the London Armenians found out little of the money meant for the musicians had been given to them, instead kept by the star, who refused to answer the London Armenians’ questions as to why he had led them on this way. Such bold behavior by pop stars, as well as government figures in today’s Armenia, is said to be a result of the arrogant attitude of the powers-to-be, thus, the enthusiasm produced when a new political alliance was recently announced, that of Vazken Manukyan and Raffi Hovhannisian, both of whom are lacking in the arrogance of the current leaders. A meeting at a government building is planned for today, held by Manukyan and Hovhannisian, as Hovhannisian and his Heritage party had earlier been refused a place to meet by the government, apparently fearing the possibility of a fair election in 2007 and even 2008’s presidential election. As a friend told me, all 900 village and city mayors in Armenia are from coalition parties . . . not one is from an Opposition party . . . something needless to say not coincidental, and making people hungry for a change, almost any change.

A somewhat typcial day started with a trip to a government building in the city center, where Raffi Hovhannisian and Vazken Manukyan were having a meeting, not necessarily of their political parties, but of the new movement they recently declared, to give the government back to the people. A full hall listened attentively to the words of academician Rafael Ghazaryan and journalist Hratch Matevosyan (brother of novelist Hrant Matevosyan) and finally to Hovhannisian and Manukyan, who lambasted Kocharian and Serzhe Sargsyan and the Dashanks, whom he said were just as guilty as Kocharian for the condition of the country, being they are part of the ruling coalition. Several members of Opposition parties were present, most notably Arshak Sadoyan, who recently succeeded in defending those individuals who had been presented with bills of thousands of dollars, by Armentel, for supposedly visiting pornographic websites on the Internet. Although unable to stay until the end of the gathering, due to work, it was interesting seeing the determined looks on people’s faces, making it clear why the powers-to-be fear an honest election in 2007 or 2008. Later in the day, we went to the Ojakh restaurant, on the road to Abovian, for the wedding of a Minister’s son. This was Hasmik and Aleksan’s second singing engagement of the day, as they had sung the national hymn for the political meeting, and were now going to join their sister Heriknaz to sing traditional wedding songs during the wedding reception. Vazken Manukyan couldn’t help but smile when he saw Hasmik and Aleksan arrive at the wedding party, having already heard them sing in the afternoon meeting. Several government ministers and parliament members were present at the affair. The Harutyunyans presented several songs, explaining the meaning of each song, including Ganachatsav, En Dizan, Tagvori Mer, and other songs praising the bride and groom. With a previous engagement, we left, yet it seemed good we had to leave early, as we heard they used synthesized zurna sounds and that the female singers looked like, or worse than, street walkers, making it seem strange the family of the bride and groom had gone to the trouble to include traditional wedding songs in the program . . . yet, in our anything-goes Armenia, we watched the concert for the eightieth anniversary of National Radio, and although the concert wasn’t live (I’m not sure what these singers are afraid of), the worse of it all was that, besides those associated with National Radio, from the past and present, it became little more than a pop concert, with pop stars ruining ashoughagan songs (one being “Vard e Batsvel,” made famous in “Shiraki Meghetiner” by Albert Sargsyan and later by Rouben Matevosyan), and rap and rock groups taking center stage. The last section of the concert, though, did have several live acts, including Robert Amirkhanyan, Constantine Orbelian, and a duduk player from France (odd they brought a dudukist from France, as Armenia has at least ten duduk players, if not more, better than the guest from France).

I sat almost stunned as a villager from Aghavnadzor, a village near Areni in the region of Vayk, sang “Hov Arek” as he stood with a shovel in his hand in front of his home, filmed for National Television’s “Karot” program. The fifty-seven-year-old man sang well, with a natural voice, appropriate for the surroundings. Strange, I thought, that this man sang better than almost every singer at the National Radio anniversary concert, a concert being talked about by Yerevantsis, on the streets and on television. A well known actor, guesting on the ALM television station, answered questions from callers about the program, most callers either indifferent or disgusted with the concert, shocked that National Radio, obviously with a healthy budget for the concert, wasn’t able to organize things better or give more time to quality singers or ensembles, centering mainly on pop groups and singers with no tie to National Radio. “What can I say,” the actor said. “My feelings are obvious. The people in charge are taking things in a direction that isn’t good. I just saw a video clip of another new ‘star,’ and National Television has arranged for the clip to be in some Internet contest. We need a change. Can you picture our youth being brought up with this kind of culture, then, if the country faces any serious danger, for this youth to pick up a gun and fight for our country?” This evening, I was fortunate to see the premiere of the Malyan Theater’s production of the parables of Vardan Aygegtsi, held in the remnants of the Theater House, most of which was torn down to make way for another new high-rise. With the help of my experience at the Armenian Church altar, I was able to understand the language of the presentation, done mostly in Classical Armenian. The comical show featured young, new actors now working for the Malyan Theater, with two veteran actors taking part and Stepan Shahinyan, another veteran of Malyan, telling the meaning of each parable. It was inspiring, to say the least, to see the youthful actors act and sing in the high tradition of the theater. At a wine and dried fruit reception, we talked with our friends from the theater, whom I first met in France at the Armenia Festival in 2000. Later at home, I was happy to hear that Rouben Matevosyan’s group of young singers would be on National Television’s Nor Alik, knowing the group performs ashoughagan songs to the accompaniment of traditional instruments, but was disappointed when I heard the entire group sing in unison, with no solo voices whatsoever, a style not accepted in Armenian traditonal or ashoughagan music. This style is accepted in Turkey, which is fine for them, but why Matevosyan has promoted this style here is a puzzle. Puzzle turned to embarrassment as a friend called and told of a recent concert in Germany, where world-renowned Armenian bass singer Barsegh Tumanyan (People’s Artist of Armenia) was featured in the most famous concert hall in Germany. The hall was sold out, yet, noticeably vacant were several seats meant for members of the Armenian embassy in Germany, all with the proper invitations, but none in attendance. Seems the lack of respect by the current higher-ups for talent such as Tumanyan has spread its wings; be sure that if Andre, Haiko, or any of the wide array of “stars” were in Germany, our embassy people wouldn’t have dared to be elsewhere.

Before leaving Yerevan, we picked up an Agriculture Ministry official and a World Bank specialist, and headed towards the region of Zangezur. Passing the road leading to Noravank, the ag official pointed to the new restaurant complex across the river. “Because of the location of that restaurant, Noravank was taken of a list of protected sites in Armenia. They said that for a site to be listed, a restaurant or anything similar can’t be located on land considered part of the historical complex. Construction was halted; then, after the future owner talked to the Catholicos, construction was continued, and Noravank is no longer listed. You can use your imagination about what occurred at that meeting.” When we reached the “Vayots Dzor” sign, the same official told some of the region’s history. “The city of Vaik was at one time, around a thousand years ago, a major business center, perhaps part of the Silk Road. I think Aziz Bek, a Turk, ruled the area. An earthquake struck, completely destroying the city. There was so much mourning (vay, vay . . .), locals say, that the area was named Vayots Dzor.” We continued on our way, stopping as always at the entrance to the province of Syunik, a spot where, even in August, a strong, cold wind blows. Today, we stood in snow, drank icy water, and ate sandwiches, gaining strength for the day’s journey. We drove past Sissian and on to Goris, where we met an old friend before continuing to Tegh village, the last village before Lachin. Snow had fallen the previous day and into the night, making driving somewhat treacherous, our Niva nearly tipping as we entered a village road leading to a grape and tree nursery. After investigating our snow-covered plantings of lentils, peas, and garbanzos, we returned to Tegh, thanked our local guide, and drove to Sissian and then to a field bordering the village of Brnagot. By then, the snow had started to melt, allowing us to get a good view of several varieties of winter wheat. Our business completed, we went to a restaurant to have a bite to eat, greeted by the same owner and waitress as in previous stops. Our host, a local farmer, took on the role of “tamada,” one-by-one praising each of us, in a dialect I am finally starting to master. “Kshumei depi Ghapan. Hasam. Yeghbayrs gyalis er hetevits. Hasav. Kerank, khmank. . . .” Fortunately, only on occasion I didn’t understand the dialect, yet by then it didn’t matter. . . . Due to an upcoming trip, Yerevan Journal will be temporarily suspended, until sometime in the latter part of February, when I will continue to write my thoughts and observations about the cultural, political, and everyday life of Armenia.
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