Much like its Azeri and Georgian neighbors, Armenia has a long, rich history during which its music has had the the chance to establish deep, resonant roots. Today’s Armenian music is a mix of ancient Church liturgy, super-ancient pre-Christian chants, relatively new indigenous folk (only centuries old) and raucously ultra-modern Euro-pop that draws substantially on what came before. Unlike Azerbaijan and Georgia, due to emigration following the early 20th century Armenian genocide in Eastern Turkey (look for details above), substantial populations of Armenians live and create music not only in their homeland but in many communities abroad.

The oldest Armenian music predates Christianity and takes the form of melodic chants known as sharakans, recorded in a homegrown musical notation called khaz that described melodies and modes by noting a voice’s pitch, duration and strength. According to Wikipedia, while some of these chants are ancient, “others are relatively modern, including several composed by Saint Mesrop Mashtots.” (What Wikipedia doesn’t mention is that “modern” Saint Mashtots was born in the year 360 A.D.) For about fifteen hundred years after Christianity appeared in Armenia the nation’s primary public music was religious in nature, at least until composer and musicologist Komitas Vardapet (1869-1916) traveled into the Armenian highlands and collected thousands of folk tunes to share with his countrymen. After the 1915 genocide in Turkey, Armenians who spread around the globe played this folk music as a way to remember and honor their cultural homeland. (In class we’re going to sing “Hele Hele Hele,” an Armenian folk song reinterpreted by Armenian-American oud master, Richard Hagopian. Watch Hagopian and his oud in action.)

Today’s Armenian artists respect their nation’s thousands of years of musical tradition but they also find inspiration in music from around the world. One of the most popular, and controversial, new Armenian musical genres is called rabiz, which blends Armenian folk with melodic modern pop. Not everyone approves. For example, at the time of this writing Wikipedia’s entry on the music of Armenia says, “Rabiz music is distinguished by low quality of lyrics and music with elements of Armenian folk music, though often deformed to such an extent that are becoming more similar to Arabic or Turkish ethnic music not Armenian.” Rabiz is known as “laborer’s music,” a genre of pop that captivates Armenian
youth both in Armenia and abroad, especially in Armenian communities throughout Russia and in Los Angeles. Both creators and fans of the catchy dance pop have developed their own street-level fashion and fast-moving, partying lifestyle. One of the giants of ribaz is Tata Simonyam, who is becoming an international pop star. We’ll embrace the spirit of ribaz and party with Tata below.

More about Armenian music:
Wikipedia on the music of Armenia | Armeniapedia on the khaz | An ancient shakaran | Lusine Zakarvan performs a modern shakaran | Watch Armenian duduk player Djivan Gasparvan perform live | Visit the Virtual Museum of Komitas

In class we’re going to listen to:

Tata Simonyan, “Karapner”
Tata Simonyan, known as “Tata” to his fans, is Armenian rabiz music’s most poplar international
star. Not only Tata has won award after musical award in Armenia and Russia, but he has toured extensively, bringing his energetic form of Armenian pop to fans around the world from 45 Russian cities to a much-anticipated 2010 show at the Los Angeles Staples Center. (sounds like it was fun.) Watch Tata rock the house on “Karapner” (were you at the show? were you the fan in the front row who handed him a strange thing shaped like a chicken?)

Shovkat Alakbarova, “Qizlar Mahnisi”

Shovkat Alakbarova rose
from humble beginnings as the daughter of an Azeri laborer to become one of Soviet Azerbaijan’s most widely revered singers. Officially recognized as, “People’s Artist,” Alakbarova toured the world throughout the 20th century introducing global audiences to the wonder of Azeri traditional song. The government of Azerbaijan marked her 1993 passing with a televised state funeral.

More about Shovkat Alakbarova:
A final conversation with Shovkat: “There are people that I have never seen even on a single occasion, but they have a great love and esteem for me. Can there be any greater luck than this?” | A severely pixelated Shovkat sings in Baku in 1982 to celebrate her ’60s birthday

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