The members of Collectif Medz Bazar

Two New Albums In Modern Armenian Folk Music: ‘O’ and ‘Acoustic Armenia’

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By Harry Kezelian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

DETROIT — The last few years has seen a very interesting phenomenon in the Armenian music world – the growth of what might be called “modern Armenian folk music.” These new interpretations of Armenian traditional folk songs as well as new songs inspired by the folk tradition seem to have started with Arto Tuncboyaciyan’s Armenian Navy Band, but the real movement today seems to be growing in the Diaspora, with such groups as France’s Collectif Medz Bazar, Los Angeles’ Element Band and Armenian Public Radio, and Lebanon’s Garabala. In this piece, I am reviewing two albums that have been released in the past year which are significant for the progress of Armenian folk music in the world and in the United States in particular.

Medz Bazar, which has been on the scene for a while now, has released their third album, “O,” this past year. Meanwhile the US East Coast, headquarters of the beloved yet controversial genre of “kef time music,” has finally brought forth two entries in the field, Raffi Wartanian’s second album, “Critical Distance” (reviewed on February 6 by Mirror-Spectator contributor Taleen Babayan), and Karinné Andonian’s “Acoustic Armenia.” (Though this is Karinné’s first album, she is no stranger to many in the tight-knit East Coast Armenian community.)

Collectif Medz Bazar is composed of ethnic Armenian, Turkish, and French residents of Paris. Their inimitable combination of Armenian, Turkish, and other regional folk music, along with influences from American jazz and many other genres, while obviously brand new, is strangely familiar to many Armenians in the US, especially in the East Coast. The reason is obvious – though the members hail from France, much of the same influences have gone into the traditional Armenian dance repertoire of the United States, and so to the ears of this writer at least, Collectif Medz Bazar’s work is something like postmodern kef music.

The members of the band are: Sevana Tchakerian (vocals, accordion, keyboard instruments, shvi, etc.), Ezgi Sevgi Can (vocals, clarinet and saxophone), Ela Nuroglu (vocals), Marius Pibarot (vocals, violin, cello, etc.), Vahan Kerovpyan (vocals, percussion), and Shushan Kerovpyan (vocals, double bass). The artists work in a collaborative way, alternating instruments and vocals, and they have written many of the songs themselves.

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Sevana Tchakerian tells us that “O” is composed of songs about love, as this happened to be what was inspiring the members of the band at the time. The album opens with Cambaz, a Turkish word which although it has several meanings, this author took, based on the music, to be a reference to a tightrope walker, and perhaps to the difficulty of retaining one’s culture in the Diaspora. The album gets off to an amazing start with Inch G’ella a fast, playful 6/8 tune by Tchakerian that can only be called a “kef song,” but for once told from a woman’s perspective, about a boy that doesn’t love the narrator back. Tchakerian’s wonderful interpretation of this song makes it so much fun that one could imagine it becoming a staple of Armenian-American kef bands – if they had any female vocalists!

Pari Dgha is an intense song by Vahan Kerovpyan, describing a boy torn between society’s expectations and his own youthful desires. At this point the music enters the inexplicable Medz Bazar genre – a combination of Armenian and Turkish folk music, kef music, jazz, and whatever else these energetic young people must be listening to. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to describe their style further, and it must simply be listened to. The Armenian lyrics and phrasing, at least, are reminiscent of folk and kef music, though often about different topics. The music is moody and could be described as Armenian jazz – or Turkish jazz.

Lion & Bear, sung by Shushan Kerovpyan in English, is a sort of philosophical song about the dual aspects of the loved one. I Leave You, sung by Marius Pibarot, also in English, continues with the soul searching. At this point the whole thing starts to sound like a Beatles concept album – except with an Anatolian clarinet solo. The album returns to Anatolian kef mode with Sevgi Mengisi, a Turkish song by Alevi troubadour Neset Ertas extolling love and peace. Then comes what will probably be the standout song for most Armenian-Americans, Vahan Kerovpyan’s Mi Mornar, basically a “heavy kef” song with noticeable hip-hop and jazz influences. Naturally, the singer asks an ex not to forget him. Done Yar, a traditional Armenian folk song straight from the Moushetsi repertoire follows, impeccably sung by Sevana Tchakerian, complete with davoul and zourna.

A player of the blul (kaval) whose identity I could not determine, beautifully opens the next number, a song of separation sung by Vahan in beautiful authentic Armenian folk style, similar to a “maya” (think of Dle Yaman). The fact that Vahan or another band member appears to have composed this themselves makes it even more impressive. It is at this point in the album that Vahan and Shushan’s strong influence from their parents, Aram and Virginia Kerovpyan (of the Akn Choral Group and the Kotchnak Ensemble, specialists of Armenian liturgical music as well as folk music), becomes most apparent.

After a light, authentically presented 1920s style English-language offering from Marius (who like everyone in the band, has a great voice) Don’t Know What to Do, we return to Armenian folk music with Shushan singing the Western Armenian folk song Ousge Gou Kas, well-known in this country by kef music fans from its rendition by the Gomidas Band of Philadelphia and many others after them. The band converts the classic 10/8 number about a lovesick singer going crazy into a light-hearted 6/8, which works quite well. The tone gets heavier with Les Memes Histoires, a rap song in French (with ethnic influence) performed by Sevana. Translated as “The Same Stories,” it’s a political/social statement about the recurrence of war, invasions, lack of compassion, etc. as Tchakerian explained in an interview.

On the Dikranagertsi folk song Khorodig (Pesan Tirash Min Enink – lyrics by Onnik Dinkjian) a full-scale Anatolian wedding breaks out, with davoul, zourna, and clarinet. Shushan’s beautifully delicate singing style on this track is reminiscent of her mother, Virginia Kerovpyan. Shushan finishes the album in the same singing style with a sad song in Ladino, the Spanish-based language of Constantinople’s Jews, Yo Era Ninya De Kaza Alta. Shushan’s command of two different singing styles, jazz and Anatolian-Armenian, and Sevana’s ability to both rap and sing Armenian folk songs with authenticity are some of the amazing things about this group. In fact, all the group members comported themselves wonderfully on their many instruments and vocal pieces. This was the third but we hope it will not be the last album from that amazing, inspiring collective of French-based musicians, Medz Bazar.

Karinné Andonian

East Coast Voices

But new voices in modern Armenian folk music are also now emerging on the US East Coast. Raffi Wartanian’s “Critical Distance” has already been reviewed in this paper. ( https://mirrorspectator.com/2020/02/06/on-new-album-wartanians-experiment-goes-the-distance/)

Another of the new albums in the field is “Acoustic Armenia,” the product of the musical mind and soul and especially of the enthralling voice of Karinné Andonian, a young Armenian-American singer from the Philadelphia area. Unlike Medz Bazar’s work, Karinné’s is solo art, for the most part. Though her repertoire consists of mostly well-known, traditional Armenian folk songs, she does not allow the familiarity of her material to restrict her to familiar interpretations.

“Avant-garde” is not a word that would be used to describe Karinné’s music, but the word “vivid” immediately comes to mind, as do “authentic” and “moving.” Vivid, in the truest possible meaning of the word – alive. Authentic, because Karinne sings from the heart. Moving, because her voice moves us with emotion. Karinné’s voice is that of a young mother improvising songs for her children, of a person for whom music and singing is a part of daily life, and of whom the emotions, joys and sorrows of her own real-life world are reflected in her vocalizations. But it is also the expression of a woman whose musical ideas are profound, whose emotions are palpable in her singing, and who has been endowed with a superb, beautiful singing voice. Karinné shared with me that in fact, her young children comprised one of her sources of feedback, and that the song Kisher Pari was in fact a lullaby written for them.

A labor of love some 10 years in the making, Karinné has taken a list of mostly well-known and well-loved songs and has created brand-new arrangements for practically all of them. Her arrangements give a fresh, living feel to these songs without losing the moods or emotions associated with each of them. Sometimes, the arrangements are surprising, new, and refreshing. Throughout, we hear Karinné’s own inner musical voice and ideas, as well as the power of her singing.

Karinné, while accompanying herself on guitar on many of the tracks, has also enlisted the assistance of oudist, Roger Mgrdichian, Jr., guitarist, Vahe Sarkissian, and dumbeg player, Haig Hovnanian (her brother). These three have also contributed in part to the arrangements, but I was surprised when Karinné told me that she even wrote some of the guitar and oud solos. Even more impressively, she said she had essentially come up with all the parts of the arrangements by singing to herself, saved them by recording them onto her phone, and sent them to the other musicians.

“My voice is my instrument” says Karinné, and that extends even to her arrangements for other instruments, for which sheet music was apparently superfluous.

Perhaps at this point we should add that Karinné’s father and grandfather, Steve and Jirair Hovnanian, respectively, have both been featured vocalists with the Vosbikian Band (Karinné’s grandmother was a Vosbikian) and that Roger’s namesake father was a member of the Philadelphia Gomidas Band along with his uncle, legendary oud player Udi George Mgrdichian. The influence of years of Philadelphia Armenian music history is strong here, and the presence of these past and present figures is felt in the album as well.

It’s important to note that Vahe Sarkissian is a first generation Armenian-American who grew up with the Armenian folk music and language and has been a highly talented guitarist on the American scene.

The genesis of this album lay in Karinné quest to find the origin of a beautiful song her grandfather Jirair sang to her grandmother, she said in an interview. With no success, she decided to record the song for posterity herself (track 2, Grandpop’s Song). With this song in mind, she crossed paths with oudist Roger, when they both participated in a local group that performed Jewish music. Despite their family connection, they had not met previously, at least to their recollection. Karinné shared her musical vision with Roger, who was interested in recording an album of new versions of Armenian folk songs. World-famous oudist Ara Dinkjian also encouraged Karinné in her dream to create what became “Acoustic Armenia.”

Aside from the delicate beauty and romantic aura of Grandpop’s Song, some of the outstanding moments of the album are the use of acoustic guitar solos by Vahe Sarkisian and oud solos by Roger Mgrdichian, both instruments close to her heart. Voice doubling is used to great effect on Oror Oror and Anoush Karoon. For the latter song, Karinné chose to reinterpret the melody, as she didn’t care for the traditional piano accompaniment originally written for this song. In her version the melody stands alone, but in a slightly different interpretation and phrasing than the original. She explained taht with many of these songs, she learned them from the many Armenian song books she had access to as a child. She would take what she liked and create something new from it. The arrangement of Sari Siroon Yar, for example, a childhood favorite of the artist and a staple of Vosbikian Band performances, is totally new and features surprising rhythmic changes probably never envisioned by the author, Ashugh Ashot, and aided by brother Haig’s dumbeg. Karinné’s wordless vocalizations add to the charm of the song here as throughout the album.

The Gomidas Medley (Karoun A, Gakavig, and Shogher Jan) features excellent guitar accompaniment by Vahe and more vocalizations by Karinné in addition to her excellent arrangement and vocal interpretation of the trio of songs. Kherovadz Er, interpreted with only Haig’s dumbeg for accompaniment, has a more Middle Eastern feel, which gives way to the masterpiece of the album, Sareri Hovin Mernem. Karinné’s exquisite performance of this Armenian folk classic is delivered with her signature breathy and enthralling vocals, in a free meter style, accompanied by Roger’s oud obbligato, allowing her to focus on her phrasing, which eventually gives way to more open-vowel vocalization as Roger joins her in oud improvisations. As the song ends on a perfect note, one would think the album was over, but Karinné returns for a sort of encore, a gentle, heartfelt lullaby, Kisher Pari. Just as in the song, Karinné promises her children “ardoon ge desnuvink,” we hope that we will soon again hear more of Karinné Andonian’s immense musical talents on record.

Collectif Medz Bazar’s album is available on all streaming platforms: Spotify, Amazon, Apple Music, etc.

Andonian’s album is available on Spotify, Amazon, Apple Music, can be viewed on YouTube, purchased directly from CDBaby or from Karinné herself.

 

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