Elie Berberian: A Singer Reignites Passion for Armenian Pop

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By Taleen Babayan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

NEW YORK — Singer Elie Berberian, one of the freshest voices of the new generation, is taking the Armenian Diaspora by storm. A classically-trained opera singer, Berberian, 35, was born in Batroun, Lebanon and discovered his passion for music at a young age.

Following his classical training at Montreal’s McGill University, he began to perform in his signature style for the Armenian community, blending both traditional Armenian songs and contemporary pop compositions.

Berberian is among an innovative crop of singers who are reinvigorating the Armenian pop genre, resonating with millions of Armenians across the world. Insightful and devoted to his craft, Berberian brings inventive music, entertainment, and professionalism to his music and live performances, which have been met with great fanfare across the globe. Most recently he performed at the 70th anniversary celebration for the Tekeyan Cultural Association at Biaggio’s in Paramus, NJ and the Tekeyan Cultural Association’s Mher Megerdichian Theater group’s holiday gala that took place on Saturday, December 9 at St. Thomas Armenian Church in Tenafly, NJ.

What follows are excerpts from an interview in New York on Friday, December 8, between journalist Taleen Babayan and Elie Berberian:

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Taleen Babayan: You were born and raised in Lebanon, studied in Canada and have spent considerable time now performing in the United States. What similarities and differences do you see among Armenians in the Diaspora?

Elie Berberian: The unified theme is being Armenian at heart. Here in New York, you have different challenges than other Diasporan communities, which face their own difficulties. The challenge, for example, in Beirut, is political unstableness, which gives Armenians there the opportunity for “hayabahbanoom,” that is to do your best to keep your Armenian identity. The challenge here in the US is assimilation and losing the language and identity. But what’s interesting here is that even without the language, the Armenian identity and pride is still alive. Lebanon is a war-torn country and we were raised to defend our neighborhoods. Growing up, I saw three wars and it was our youth who were protecting the Armenian homes. Here it’s a different type of survival game, which is more focused on ambition and work. But overall, the main similarity is being Armenian at heart.

TB: Did you always know you wanted to be a singer? Did you ever feel a calling?

EB: I was born a singer. My father had a very beautiful voice and my mom was culturally rich in providing me information and repertoire and giving me that spirit of feeling the song and the lyrics at an early age. I was bullied in school at times because I was a singer and both students and teachers targeted me. There was, however, encouragement at school from the right people. I remember the first song I ever sang on stage was Nubadagees Hasneem Miayn (If I could only reach my goal), an Armenian patriotic song very well known in Lebanon. With the support of my parents, at the age of 9 I performed two recitals and sang over 40 songs with a whole band. Each had a standing ovation and each had its tears and joys. But then I hit puberty and I had to stop singing because the voice changes during that time. I started again at 19 years old and here I am.

TB: You sing both nationalistic and pop songs and you can range from songs such as the catchy Arev Arev to the patriotic Gini Lic. Which gives you more satisfaction?

EB: The most important thing for me, and for every artist, should be to make people happy. It is fulfilling to me as an artist if I’m singing on stage and I can touch your heart with a nationalistic song or if I see you dancing at a wedding to one of my pop songs. People would ask why I would sing Tamam Ashkhar and then Arev Arev. They question the choice to move from one to the next so quickly. I say that every generation has its tastes and my first and last objective is to spread joy and the Armenian culture.

TB: Armenian musicians oftentimes put a modern spin on our traditional songs and also compose their own music. Why are both important for our community?

EB: Every time has its own demands, art-wise. Armenian music is now evolving into something new because we have two or three generations at any given time, such as a grandmother, mother, daughter. Each listens to a certain kind of music. My responsibility as an artist is to identify all three generations and find a solution that satisfies all of them because I don’t want to lose anyone. My joy as an artist is to bring my music to all three of those generations.

TB: Are there any musicians who inspired you?

EB: Armenian “kusanagan” (trouabdour) musicians, such as Norayr Mnatsakanyan, Roupen Matevossian and Hovhaness Badalyan. From the new artists, I’m proud to say they are my friends, such as Arman Hovhannisyan, Martin Mkrtchyan and Armenchik, who was the pioneer in bringing Armenian pop music back to life. He reached a new generation of people who weren’t interested in Armenian music before. From the classical point of view, my influences are artists dating back to the 19th century, such as Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, Franco Corelli and Luciano Pavarotti, who, like me, are all tenors. All of these artists have an input in my art.

TB: What is your writing process like?

EB: It all starts with the concept. In my song Arev Arev that I composed, I had the feeling of wanting people to feel sunny, happy and easygoing. I wanted to portray that sunniness so I started from that subject. And then I started thinking about blue skies and friends getting together and having fun on a beach. Once I visualize the concept, I can begin to write the lyrics accordingly.

TB: Can you take me through your professional music training?

EB: It started by encouragement from the elders. I used to go to class and get bored but then I realized it gave me a passion and that I had so much to learn. I followed the phrase, “know that you don’t know.” The most successful people in the world know they don’t know. University gave me that insight to always keep my teaching index open, to be humble and to work hard. Nothing is granted to you. As long as you’re bringing quality to the people and not imitating anyone and as long as you’re innovating, this is the key process of being an artist. The hit song Mi Gna made such an impact. It was discovered by the rapper Super Sako and he chose the singer and production. In fact, I had a very interesting conversation with Super Sako a couple months ago. We were sitting at a table and I asked him this same question about his writing process. He said he follows his feelings. If he’s going to write a song about happiness, he’ll think about it during his wedding anniversary or his child’s birthday. If he’s going to write a sad song, he reflects on a fight with his wife. You have to create the atmosphere for a song to be born.

I refined my operatic studies at McGill University in Montreal. I was accepted among 300 students with a full scholarship to study there for five years. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree and performed five operas as a student. The tenor voice is a rare voice. My voice was a God-given talent and with hard work I was able to elevate it. We put McGill on the map, in terms of opera. The last opera we did had a $700,000 budget, which is huge for a university. We performed Puccini’s “La Boheme.” At the same time, it was playing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Opera de Montreal so it was significant achievement for the university.

TB: Do you see yourself returning to the opera world one day?

EB: Maybe. As an artist and as a vocalist I may face technical difficulties, though. Opera is all about dedication. It’s a disciplined art and one of the hardest arts to perform because you’re an actor and you’re a vocalist. You have to learn your music by heart and you have to know your character. As an artist, you’re portraying a certain character that gives certain emotions to people. Opera is like acting, singing and playing at the same time. My desire to sing opera again can reactivate at any time but it would be more so because of my passion than world-class operatic singing.

TB: How do you feel when you perform on stage at an Armenian event? Is there a distinction in your emotions when you sing for an Armenian versus a non-Armenian audience?

EB: Both audiences bring me joy. In an artistic aspect, the audience gives you more energy if they’re from your culture, regardless if you speak the language. I’ve seen an Armenian-American who didn’t speak Armenian, in tears when I’m singing Pajakneruh (Raise your glasses) and he tells you he doesn’t understand the words, yet, there are tears streaming down his face. That gives me another boost and appreciation for what I’m doing.

TB: Aside from your live performances, are you also working on recording an album?

EB: That’s another goal. Studio work is not easy because it requires a lot of planning and you have to keep your signature too and be cautious of what you’re releasing. I am always thinking of those three generations and how to bring in the younger generation. I want to do with Adiss did, what Paul Baghdadlian, what Levon Katerjian did for their time. They were pioneers because their generation was still listening to Turkish songs. Eastern Armenian singers don’t have the same challenges we face in the West. They all speak the same dialect. We have a big issue here with the language. For example, a Bolsahye may not understand a Beirutzi expression. There, it’s universal. They sing and everyone understands the words and the subject. For us, it’s even more difficult to write lyrics for an 18-year-old guy or girl and make sure he or she can relate it to their culture and linguistics. If you make it a little difficult, you won’t hit that goal. Assimilation is worrisome to us at the same time. We can’t forget that we have to show appreciation and love to everyone. Maybe those who don’t speak Armenian feel more Armenian at heart and maybe one day will be very successful in gaining Armenian Genocide recognition. So, for me it’s to invite them in and balance my music with those who do speak the language.

TB: Singers such as yourself and those of your generation are carrying on our Armenian musical traditions. How do you feel about the torch being passed onto you and your fellow musicians?

EB: It’s a burden because it’s not easy to fill in the shoes of those legends before us, even living legends like Adiss and Harout Pamboukjian. It’s very hard to gain people’s hearts. That is something you earn and you shouldn’t take it for granted because you can lose it in a heartbeat if you don’t know what you’re doing. Love is reciprocal. Some singers understand this concept and love their fans right back because we’re born to make them happy.

TB: Is there a network or collaboration among Armenian singers?

EB: I’ve heard legends talk about other legends very badly and even singers of our generations have this same competitive mentality. The way I address it is that each one of us is a king in our own kingdom. We can all be successful and work together as long as we respect one another. If I’m singing with Harout Pamboukjian, I would enter the stage with humility. My body language would change because I know I am singing with a legend. And in 15 years if someone is singing with me, they better show the same respect as well. You cannot overmaster the master.

Right now, there’s a good channel among Armenian artists as well as friendship. Just yesterday I was talking with Armenchik and since I first met him, I felt the connection and the love right away. We give one another respect and love. They have to respect your art before you because they don’t know you as a person yet. Armenchik the other day told me he saw my Sayat Nova clips on YouTube and he then he began singing my song Arev Arev to me and I sang his songs right back. There’s a real brotherhood going on. Our goal is to keep the Armenian identity. We all face our challenges. I call singers pioneers because it’s really a blessing to keep that fire alive. When people are singing Arev Arev or Mi Gna I feel like it’s a real victory. These kids aren’t supposed to sing songs like that. They’re not even supposed to be interested in it, so we must be doing something right. Assimilation is not just limited to Armenians. Every nation outside of its roots is suffering. There has to be more effort. Do your own homework. Light a candle. Instead of saying “it’s dark,” light a cultural candle in your house. “Oor vor kales, togh dzaghik dzaghgee.” Wherever you walk, let flowers bloom.

 

 

 

 

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