Eileen Khatchadourian: Meet the Armenian Björk

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YEREVAN / PHNOM PENH (Cambodia) — Eileen Khatchadourian Terzian-Sörmark is an award-winning performer and composer who was born in Beirut in 1978 to an Armenian-Lebanese family of musicians. She has performed in Beirut, Istanbul, Berlin, Moscow, Dubai, Yerevan, San Gabriel, California and London. She has been called “The powerful voice of the Diaspora” by Agos newspaper for her unique and bold interpretation of Armenian folk songs and her charismatic and emotionally charged presence on stage.

Her musical career is an ever-evolving mosaic of folk, jazz, rock and electronica.

In 2018, she was called “the Armenian Björk” in Berlin for her audacious experimental compositions and her unique live performances.

Eileen has produced several albums, including “Midan,” which received the “Best Rock Album” at the Armenian Music Awards in Los Angeles in 2009, and “Titernig” (Butterfly) in 2015, for which she was awarded Best Female Performer Of The Armenian Diaspora at the World Armenian Entertainment Awards. She is currently working on her third album, recording the first three songs at the Greenhouse studios in Reykjavik along with music producers Sandro Mussida and Francesco Fabris, as well as on a collaboration project with Berlin based producer Okydoky.

 

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Dear Eileen, many singers both in Armenia and Diaspora sing Armenian religious and folk songs. Your interpretations are quite new and fresh. Who makes your arrangements?

My first album Midan was produced by the excellent Beirut based music producer and friend Mazen Siblini. It has been 9 years now that I have worked with two other fantastic music producers (co- producers of “Titernig”) — my second album and my upcoming third album) Sandro Mussida, who is a composer and cellist and electronic performer based in London, and Francesco Fabris, based in Reykjavik, who is a musician and composer and sound designer who keeps on researching electronic music. They understand exactly what I want and they always surprise me. Of course, the original melody starts with me and then Sandro scores it and does the arrangements and the three of us meet for the production, which includes the recording, mixing and mastering, all done by Francesco. Of course Sandro is present also and the three of us discuss it until we finish the song. Spending weeks in a studio and with these two wonderful human beings is one of the best things in life. We haven’t been able to meet for a long time now, due to the pandemic. I miss them so, so much.

I assume young Armenians love your singing more than the old ones, who might object to your interpretations.

I suppose open-minded people are found in all age groups. People who like my music are from age 10 to 90. But it is true that my music is not mainstream. I try to make music that expresses my own feelings and moods, maybe I am not very mainstream myself!

You always speak about your parents with tenderness. How have they influenced on your formation as a musician?

At important family gatherings, with all the cousins and aunts and uncles, or even at friends’ gatherings, my father would lock himself up in the bathroom, put some charcoal on his moustache and under his eyes and put on an old black hat and come out imitating Charlie Chaplin, always with a stick and with a red rose that he would eventually offer to my mother and everybody just loved it! He was a natural entertainer and had a great sense of humor. He introduced me to classical music in all of its forms, from baroque to renaissance, etc. He played the piano, and drew very well. He was a well-read humanist, and very interested in Armenian linguistics and of course in love with everything Italian; he spent almost 20 years of his early life studying in Italy, eventually becoming an anesthesiologist.

Eileen Khatchadourian

 

If my father was the dreamer, my mother was the pragmatic realist and a very wise woman. My father was eccentric to a point that he would wear red tennis shoes with his black suit and attend funerals, while my mother was the very classy elegant lady, never leaving the house without her red lipstick on. My family was well anchored in the Armenian diaspora community in Beirut, and as a kid, I remember that it was hard to be accepted by the Lebanese Arabs. We had different traditions, spoke Armenian, and went to other schools. My mother kept the family together during the war (she stopped working when she had her second child: she used to work in Banca di Roma). She suffered a lot without letting us suffer, she raised three kids almost on her own because my father was often stuck at the hospital in West Beirut and we wouldn’t be able to hear from him for days … until now I can’t imagine what my mother had been through. My father always told me, “music will save the world.” And when my mom became very sick, he used to put on a CD and listen to Pergolesi or Wagner, holding my mom’s hand.

My dad was Boghos Khatchadourian and my mom Anahid Terzian; they were the greatest parents. When I decided to be a performer — I was thirteen — my parents did not object to it. They let me follow my dream in Lebanon, Paris, or Abidjan or anywhere in the world. Although they are now gone, I feel their presence and their support in all I am doing. I hear their voice in every step I make. I miss them terribly. I miss my mother’s loud voice, I miss my father’s quiet and reassuring voice.

The Lebanese Armenian community has been always active in the field of music. Whom do you consider to be your teachers in music?

Gomidas and Sayat-Nova have been big inspirations to me, as to many other Armenian musicians. They were always on in my home. And of course, being a classical music lover, Aram Khachatourian has always been a reference. And I believe there is no Armenian Lebanese who has not been touched by Oror by Parsegh Ganatchian. But the biggest inspiration of all, was my fantastic piano teacher Sevan Karjian Balabanian, who made me love the piano.

In 2015 you performed at the Istanbul Congress Center, as part of the “In Memoriam” Concert, for the 100 Years Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide. This seemed something fantastic — the commemoration of Armenian Genocide in Turkey in a Turkish location. What are your memories from that concert?

Oh My! One of my best experiences ever! But it was a bit scary, of course: I think I was the only performer that night, who openly talked about the Genocide on stage, in front of this Istanbul audience. It was an overwhelming feeling to perform in the land of my grandparents, who, when they were just kids, were forced to leave the country and barely survived the Genocide. To be there on stage and perform was tremendous also because it was a huge recognition of my people’s sufferings, although not official of course, but still a recognition from fellow artists and from the audience, it made me feel so great.

We performed an electro rock version of Der Voghormia looking into the eyes of the Armenian apostolic priest, and got a standing ovation from the 3,000 people there was a very moving moment. Sadly enough, Osman Kavala, who had organized this event to promote understanding and solidarity among different ethnic and religious communities in Turkey, is now one among many other political prisoners in Turkey. I am not sure this type of event would be tolerated in Turkey today.

In that concert you said you are happy to be in a country from which your ancestors come. Where are they from?

My grandfather on my father’s side, Aaron Khatchadourian, was from Kharpert. He was seven years old, when an Armenian Catholic priest saved him in the desert of Der Zor, where his mom died in front of his eyes. He was eventually sent to the Mekhitariste Congregation Boarding School in Sèvres, France. A couple of years later, he was sent to the Moorat Rafaelian College in Venice. He continued his studies in Rome and became a pediatrician. He met my grandmother Aroussiak in Rome, where she was studying piano at the Rome conservatory. They then moved to Aleppo, because my grandfather wanted to be near the Armenian people. He was known to treat poor people for free. He was also an active member of the AGBU of Aleppo.

My mother’s father, Baghdassar Terzian, was from Adana. After the Genocide, he ended up with his younger brother in the Ratisbonne orphanage in Jerusalem and both later moved to Beirut, where he met my grandmother Perouz, also originally from Adana. Baghdassar took care of his little brother and they remained very, very close to each other until the end of their lives. The Terzian family is very close to each other, they taught us to love and respect each other. Other surviving brothers ended up in Argentina, in France and in Armenia.

What about your concert in Armenia?

I had a mini acoustic concert with Raffi Vartanian, a fantastic American-Armenian musician and friend, in Armenia in 2012, which was a cute experience. I never had the pleasure to have a proper concert in Armenia.

 Now you live in Cambodia. How did you end up there?

My Swedish husband, Staffan Sörmark, works for an international organization and he was posted there, that’s why we moved to Cambodia. Now that I have lost my both parents shortly after moving to Cambodia I’d rather not talk about this difficult time. But on the whole, Cambodia has been good to me. I have had the opportunity to meet fantastic people and make amazing friends, whom I will miss dearly when I move to Colombia later this year.

Do you continue your musical activities there? Armenian songs should seem very exotic for Cambodians and their songs – to us.

The Covid pandemic hit not long after we arrived to Cambodia and with all movement restrictions it has unfortunately not been easy to organize musical activities. I did an acoustic recording with adorable pianist Meta Legita for a fundraising campaign for Lebanon, it was a beautiful moment of musical sharing. And I launched my EP “Lullaby for Kami” while here.

Cambodia is one of few countries with no Armenians. However, have you ever met any Armenian there?

You can count the number of Armenians in Cambodia on one hand. But yes, I made a beautiful Armenian friend from Armenia/Russia here, her name is Svetlana Sahakyan and I just met another Armenian friend from France, Anaïd Panossian, and we could have created a New Armenia, but now I am soon leaving so it will be up to them!

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