An Armenian record produced by the Pharos music label

Musical Records: The Beat of Armenian Hearts around the World

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NEW YORK — The historical, cultural and political influences of Armenian music production were discussed and explored in an enlightening and insightful talk by Dr. Yektan Türkyılmaz at Columbia University on Thursday, March 22.

The lecture, “Armenians on Records: Music Production from Homeland to Diasporas,” traced the recording history of Armenian music from the Ottoman Empire to the Diaspora in the early to mid-part of the 20th century as well as the impact of musicians, producers and merchants on the market.

Türkyılmaz, a Turkish scholar who is the Henry Khanzadian Kazan Visiting Professor at California State University Fresno, not only shared his knowledge of Armenian music production, but also examined the themes of place, identity and trauma on the genre during a significant time in Armenian history. Throughout the evening, audience members had the opportunity to listen to centuries-old musical pieces that Türkyılmaz referred to in his talk, further enlivening the topic.

These works came into fruition because of the evolution of music through the invention of the sound recording phonograph by Thomas Edison in 1877, which according to Türkyılmaz was “as influential as the printing press in world history.”

Within a short time, the production and consumption of the phonograph became a global phenomenon, swiftly reaching the “Orient” in the early 20th century and making 78-rounds-per-minute (78RPM) records recorded by local performers available to a wider audience in major cities of the Middle East, the Caucasus and Asia.

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Yektan Türkyılmaz

Türkyılmaz, who received his PhD from the department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, noted that between 1900 and 1910, the Gramophone Company made more than 14,000 recordings in Asia and North Africa, with the highest numbers in Constantinople and Smyrna.

“Sound engineers are foremost ethnographers,” said Türkyılmaz, a Turkish scholar of Kurdish origin. “They would travel to cities where they had no idea about the people, language or music tradition and contact local dealers, who would find musicians to be recorded.”

Honing in on Armenians, Türkyılmaz said the first commercial recording took place in St. Petersburg in 1901 of renowned composer Komitas Vardapet’s Groong (Crane), followed by recordings in Tiflis and Baku in 1902 and Constantinople in 1906. Türkyılmaz played the original recording of Groong as silence filled the room, with many audience members hearing the powerful piece of music for the first time.

Türkyılmaz noted that when the first recording sessions began in Constantinople by the Gramophone Company and Disque Pour Zonophone, many of the singers were Armenian, including Agopos Effendi and Peruz Hanim. The musical influences of the period, which was under the oppressive reign of Abdulhamid II, was “kanto,” a genre influenced by Italian operettas and performed in cafes and bars for men.

“There was much demand for the female voice,” said Türkyılmaz, a genocide scholar who is currently working on his book manuscript about the Armenian Genocide. “In this early period a lot of Armenian women musicians were recorded and became very popular in the Ottoman Empire because they had a better accent for the Turkish audience.”

Singer Zabelle Panossian, who recorded on the Columbia Records label in New York City in the 1920s

Between the years 1909 and 1914, Armenian music was classified into the categories of liturgical and folk music as well as revolutionary songs and marches.

Türkyılmaz highlighted the 1912 Paris recordings of Komitas Vardapet and opera singer Armenak Shahmouradian which Orfeon, a local Ottoman Company, released on a special series of 10.5’ discs.

“Their recordings became widely popular in Constantinople as well as in the Diasporas, particularly in the United States,” said Türkyılmaz. “They successfully compiled over 4,000 folk songs in Ottoman Armenia, in the Caucuses and in Iran.”

As he played Hayrik by Komitas, Türkyılmaz noted the composer’s “strong influence in the Armenian music scene” and that the piece was influenced by composer Richard Wagner and the period of German romanticism. Following this recording, Türkyılmaz played Khorodik Morodik from the folk genre, which was recorded in 1910 in Constantinople by Mlle. Rosalie.

When discussing the group of revolutionary songs and marches, Türkyılmaz placed this category into historical context, touching upon the major political changes in the Ottoman Empire after the 1908 revolution in Constantinople, along with the revolution within the Armenian community.

Türkyılmaz remarked that revolutionary songs and marches were the most popular and successful music recordings by notable musicians including Krikor Berberian and Ohannes Effendi, in this period between 1909-1914. As he played Tsayne Hnchets Erzerumi, (The Voice of Erzerum Echoes) Türkyılmaz explained that the song was about the 1880 defense of Erzerum and was “inspired by the early revolutionaries in Ottoman Armenia,” highlighting the infectious melody of the song.

“If you’re a revolutionary and you have a cause, you need to get to the masses,” said Türkyılmaz. “With this song you get to the masses right away because of the melody.”

In terms of the business aspect of Armenian music production, Türkyılmaz highlighted the vision of Setrak Mechian, who opened his own record-pressing factory in 1908 in Cairo, Egypt, pressing the records one by one by hand. He became an important figure in the music production business and his company became a success, despite having very little money or capital when establishing his business, making him “one of the pioneers of local labels and pressings,” according to Türkyılmaz.

Elaborating on the influence of Armenian music in the Diaspora, Türkyılmaz noted the vibrant creations in many countries, including France, Syria, Lebanon, Argentina, Iraq and Iran, where Armenians founded record companies such as Baidaphone in 1930s Beirut, Lebanon, and the Sodwa label in 1930s Aleppo, Syria.

Shifting to the United States, Türkyılmaz shared photos of the Ottoman- Armenian music scene in the US in the 20th century, including photos of gatherings in Los Angeles and Fresno, where Armenians gathered to sing and dance to popular folk songs such as Lorke. These groups contributed to the ethnic music recordings of immigrants during this period in the US, at the same time the country geared its marketing towards immigrants, such as the ads of the Universal Talking Machine and Record and Pharos Record Catalog, whose headlines between the years 1916 and 1928 included, “Your fatherland and the phonograph” along with “You can live and enjoy the songs of your homeland and sweet memories.” Türkyılmaz remarked that the major labels showed interest in ethnic recordings not because they would make a large profit off it but in order to “encourage immigrants to buy phonographs and gramophones.”

Well-known Armenian musicians at this time in the US included Torcom Bezazian and Zabelle Panossian, who were on Columbia’s label in New York in 1917. Independent Armenian labels and producers soon began to form in the 1920s, including New York’s Yeprad Records (named after the Euphrates River) and M.G. Parsekian in the Armenian-populated West Hoboken, NJ enclave.

“The music recording was a marker of tradition and locality,” said Türkyılmaz. “Many people wanted to sing the songs from their villages and it was beautifully amateurish.”

Demonstrating the politics of the recordings and the feelings of immigrants in 1920s America, Türkyılmaz discussed two key songs with opposite climates, Why Did I Come to America? and Alas! I Could Not Reach America, both recorded in New York.

“The immigrants lived in an environment that marginalized them, but at the same time they still desired an America that was filled with a thousand regrets and unfulfilled desire,” said Türkyılmaz. “It was less about the preservation of culture and more about creating a community and expressing desires and problems and everyday life of that community.”

Regarding the Armenian Genocide’s influence on music production, Türkyılmaz remarked on the song Der Zor by Vahan Boyajian and Hayoon Vokhpeh on Margosian Records in New York in the early 1920s, which “remembered Armenian resistance and heroism.”

“The Armenians emerged from the catastrophic genocide, which turned Armenia into a Diaspora without a reference,” said Türkyılmaz, noting the survivors had no social network and no family back home. “It was the end of a homeland and the only thing they could do was to create a new life in the Diaspora.” Soon the Diaspora began to reshape the Armenian musical tradition.

Moving further into the 20th century towards the conclusion of his lecture, Türkyılmaz discussed the records from the Soviet Armenian period, noting the music became more ethnic and nationalistic. Türkyılmaz’s in-depth and all-encompassing talk continued with a question-and-answer session.

Reflecting on the event and the roots of his interest in music production, Türkyılmaz said his fascination with 78 RPM recordings went back to his childhood and his interest in Armenian recordings developed when he began studying the Armenian language in the late 1990s.

During the course of his doctoral studies at Duke University, his interest in Armenian music and recordings “transformed into a scholarly curiosity” and he’s now working on broader projects that address the “emergence and spread of the recording industry with a specific focus on the Armenian experience.”

“Armenian journeys of recording can be compared to the Armenian printing history,” said Türkyılmaz. “It was a surprisingly similar multi-centered, multi-sourced creative global enterprise.”

Welcoming and closing remarks were made by Khatchig Mouradian, lecturer in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University, who thanked sponsors of the evening’s program, including the Armenian Center at Columbia University, the Research Institute on Turkey, the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), and Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR).

 

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