Album cover illustration of “Ghedtair Composite”

‘Ghedtair Composite’ Album Reimagines Armenian Folk Music

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WATERTOWN — The classics of Armenian folk music may seem eternal, passed down from one generation to another. Yet variations and new interpretations always arise, whether regionally or over time. Today it is no different. If that music is going to remain something vital, it will be open to reinterpretation by new artists, and guitarist and audio engineer Justin Mayfield of Brooklyn, New York is doing his best to keep that music alive, starting with his inaugural digital album, “Ghedtair Composite.”

Justin Mayfield (photo Kohar Minassian)

Justin described the journey which led him to this project, declaring: “I think my story is pretty common with a lot of diasporan Armenians who were not exposed to the culture growing up but find the interest later in life and start to try to educate themselves. It has all been my own self-education after graduating college and going to Armenia for the first time in 2014. It has been like filling in holes.” He waggishly observed in his online notes to his album on bandcamp.com that “my childhood was more bacon than sujuk; more soccer practice than Armenian language lessons.”

Becoming a Musician

The 33-year-old grew up outside of Boston in Upton, a town fairly close to Worcester, in a musical environment. Justin said he always wanted to play an instrument. He learned violin as a young child through the Suzuki method with his mother, and in middle school learned to play saxophone, but his father always had guitars around the house. As Justin explains it, “My dad was a guitar player and an audio engineer himself, so it came from him putting a guitar in my hands at a young age.”

His father, who used to record in studios on tape and do all the manual, physical tape work for editing, also somehow passed that interest on to Justin, who recalled, “I remember recording on a tape machine, teaching my sister how to play and sing some simple parts, so I could record two people at the same time.”

Justin Mayfield (photo Kohar Minassian)

His mother is Armenian, and Justin was fortunate to have gotten to know his maternal grandparents, and even his great-grandmother. He said, “I grew up with my grandmother and great-grandmother. I had this feeling of guilt for not knowing where she [great-grandmother] came from. I knew her basic story of coming to America during the Genocide. My dad in 1982, before my sisters and I were born, sat my great-grandmother down and recorded her telling her story on a tape machine [together with Justin’s great-grandfather]…She was born in Marash and my great-grandfather was too. They came through France [to the US]. It is funny — my fiancée’s family came from there as well.”

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Despite this personal contact, Justin said that unfortunately he had little exposure to Armenian music as a child. His mother and grandparents used to say that they had all this Armenian music on vinyl, but they got rid of all those records. He exclaimed, “Now that we all have turntables it kills me to hear that!” His grandmother is 93 years old and still alive. Every once in a while, Justin said, he would catch her singing something and ask, what is that? Why have I not heard you singing that before? She will answer, I don’t know. Some Turkish music. He explained that they spoke mostly Turkish at that time and a lot of Turkish is still in her memory along with some Armenian mixed in.

He may not have been very familiar with Armenian music as a teenager, yet he never was interested in mainstream music. He said, “I was always searching for odd and experimental music. Even through the world music lens, Armenian music is different from other cultures in a lot of ways.”

Justin Mayfield (photo Kohar Minassian)

It took some other famous Armenian-American musicians to make him realize what he was missing. “Honestly, it started with System of a Down for me. A lot of people my age would probably say that. That is where I saw that these are cool musician who are Armenian and maybe I should figure out what they are influenced by. And that was what implanted it into my mind that I should dig into it a bit more,” he related.

Connecting with Armenia Is Life-changing

Justin graduated from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 2010, with a bachelor’s degree in music theory and composition. He said he was always curious to learn more about Armenia and a few years later, “that curiosity lined up with graduating college and trying to figure out what I was going to do professionally and artistically. I found out about the Birthright Armenia program, I applied, and immediately went over there in the fall of 2014.” He remarked: “I needed something to reinvigorate myself, and again, there was that feeling of guilt growing up and not having Armenian culture as part of my identity that I wanted.”

He stayed three months in Armenia, volunteering 20 hours a week at the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies in Yerevan, where he ran a music composition workshop with about 12 children and recorded their work. He helped build the music department there as much as he could, made some databases of music, and prepared some online courses on music theory. He went to some small club shows and remembers seeing the amazing jazz pianist and composer Tigran Hamasyan at the Opera House. Justin performed a few songs for the other participants of the Birthright Armenia program but said that he was not able to spend as much time studying Armenian music for himself as he would have liked.

Teaching a music composition workshop at TUMO (photo Kohar Minassian)

The rest of his time in Armenia he took two beginning level Armenian language classes a week and was staying with a host family. Though the stay was a short one, it had a great impact on the young musician. Justin said, “It felt like a year’s worth of experiences because every weekend we were traveling to different areas around Armenia. We also went to Artsakh. And I met my fiancée on the trip as well.” His fiancée was from northern California, and now the couple are living together in Brooklyn, where they participate in Armenian Creatives (as the name indicates, a local group of creative Armenians).

After returning from Armenia to New York, Justin went straight to audio engineering school in 2015 and obtained a certificate in audio recording. He said, “I was then pretty much floating around the kind of jobs that get you through the day and give you a paycheck and doing my music projects at night.” He worked for some e-commerce companies and music equipment companies, but composed and recorded music, and played shows at night.

While he continues to play guitar and perform in Brooklyn with numerous rock bands (including Sheena Marina, Brim, Miracle Sweepstakes and Edna, aside from being the sole member of Tag Cloud), his formal work is now in the audio book podcast world. He has been working as an audio post-production coordinator from June 2021 for Audible, doing audio book editing and some podcast editing and production, as well as sound design and music composition – basically, as he said, “anything audio that anyone will let me work on.”

Looking at his musical development with hindsight, Justin realized, “There is actually a piece of my musical interest that has always come from Armenian music, the way that it removes time signatures or removes structures from the melody. A lot of the melodies are free form, with no time signatures, or odd times and odd rhythms, and that has been something that I have always gravitated towards.”

The Album

Justin’s new album is called “Ghedtair Composite.” Ghedtair is his way of transliterating the Armenian word for “rivers” [keder/geter], which happens to be his middle name in English, while composite, he said, refers to different things coming together in this album.

“It is something I have been thinking about doing for a long time, probably since 2014, when I went to Armenia and felt I needed to learn more about the music. I was feeling I wanted my own project to help myself digest Armenian music, because it had not been in my life until that point. The time came with the pandemic last year, and I was in Los Angeles walking around Abril Bookstore [in Glendale],” Justin said.

There he found a book of Armenian folk music transcribed for guitar and this became his entry point for learning songs. He arranged them after entering them onto his computer note by note. He said he would add his own bass line or drum beat, and then move some sections around, doing a little restructuring of the music. The arrangements were generally for guitar, piano, drums, bass and vocals.

“I kept the melodies completely intact. I added some of my own countermelodies and sections to the music so it makes sense more. I would say I was pretty free with my interpretations of the music but kept the melodies intact generally,” Justin said.

Then he found some 9 or 10 musicians, many of them of Armenians, to record parts remotely and send them to him. He gave them the sheet music for their parts and the recording that he made without their parts, so they could record along with this demo track. Justin explained that he encouraged them to be liberal in how they played. For example, Armenian-American artist Sima Cunningham, based in Chicago, gave him the vocals for Gomidas’ Karoun A and, though he did not request it, recorded all of the vocal arrangements, including for background. He said that these arrangements were perfect, so he centered the song around them and mixed everything according to what she provided.

Justin added that the 2020 war lit a fire under him to complete this project, and he decided to donate all proceeds from the album to the Armenian Wounded Heroes Fund.

The two drummers on the album, Alex Ruiz and Pete Moffett, are both non-Armenian but they are close friends of Justin with whom he plays in a lot of bands, while there are a few Armenian musicians based in Brooklyn who also participated, including bass player and composer Noah Garabedian (whom Justin had not met before), trumpeter and composer Michael Sarian, and musician and songwriter Craig Heed.

Some musician participants hail from more distant locations. Justin found French-Armenian songwriter and musician Sevana Tchakerian, known for her work in Collectif Medz Bazar, who lives in Armenia and has a new band called Jinj. He wrote to ask whether she would be willing to sing on a song for which he had her voice in mind. Once she sent him her part, Justin arranged the recording around it to make it fit more.

Two other Armenians included on the album are his old friend Daniel Ehramjian, a bass player, and Shauna Topian, Justin’s cousin, who studied musical theater and performed on and off Broadway before the covid-19 pandemic.

Justin said, “I am not great at meeting people at shows or networking, so this was a great excuse to communicate with these people and form a connection or relationship with them. It was my ideal way of doing it, my ideal path to forming a friendship. I was pretty nervous to contact these people. I wasn’t sure if I would get shut down, rejected, or no replies at all, but a lot of people were super-enthusiastic to be a part of it – which is awesome. It worked out amazingly.”

Even Justin’s fiancée, Kohar Minassian, a videographer and photographer skilled also in graphic arts, played a role in the preparation of the album. She helped design the artwork and as an Armenian speaker familiar with many of the songs, Justin said she provided him with various types of guidance.

There is one other family connection in the album, but this time to the past. Justin was able to insert the voices of his great-grandparents Hagop and Grace Sunukjian from the 1982 recording by his father into four of the tracks.

The kind of music Justin usually plays in his American bands, he said, is mostly guitar-based rock. You could call it psychedelic rock, indie rock or alternative rock, with some bands more straightforward rock and others more “spacey.” In “Ghedtair Composite,” Justin said, “The main goal is to transform Armenian sheet music to the kind of music that I would play with people regularly, in a band in Brooklyn. It was just to put it through my own lens and make it feel natural to me. This is my way of wearing the Armenian identity, like it is a T-shirt.” We could call it in general psychedelic Armenian rock, he conceded, if that were a genre.

Justin said that he did listen to several versions of each of the songs before coming up with his own take but did not want to listen to too much in order to avoid being influenced. Each song, he said, he cast into a specific genre, so that one might sound like a jazz song, with another electronic opera, or surf rock.

The main source of the original material was the work of Gomidas Vartabed, along with Grigor Suni and Alexander Spendiarian (though there is even also a piece based on a part of the Makar Yekmalian version of the divine liturgy). Justin said, “I wanted to learn what these songs were written about and the context for them being written or transposed.” He is trying to post images for each song and give liner notes, with production and composer information, one song at a time, while trying to build up a bit of publicity for the project (see https://www.instagram.com/ghedtaircomposite/).

Illustration for Gakavy Yerke/ Le Le Yaman (courtesy GhedtairComposite Instagram)

The album itself is already finished – recorded, mixed and mastered. The songs include Kotchary, Gakavy Yerke/Le Le Yaman, Karoun A, Alagyas/Ah Maral Jan, Kele Kele, Es Kez Tesa, Khorhourt Khorin, O Rose (Ay Vart), Havadarim, and Saren Guka. Justin said that the album will be released in full on February 18, and can be purchased online at https://ghedtaircomposite.bandcamp.com/releases. After he can collect enough to make a donation for the Armenian Wounded Heroes Fund, he will make the songs streamable on sites like Spotify and Apple, where they will be free. Technically, he would also receive 1/1000 of a cent each time someone listens to a song, but that will not build up to anything significant.

Justin revealed that he would like to do a physical release eventually of the album, whether as a CD, vinyl record, or cassette tape, but this would be expensive, so that he wants to first be sure that there are enough interested people. With covid, it is too complicated for the time being to have an inaugural live concert, he regretfully remarked.

Justin Mayfield (photo Kohar Minassian)

To his potential audience, Justin declared, “I know this is an album of Armenian music that doesn’t sound like Armenian music. A lot of people say it sounds weird, avantgarde, or experimental. I hope some people enjoy it and think about other ways to transform and evolve our cultural identity in the world public sphere.”

He is already planning his next Armenian-themed album. Justin said, “The next one I definitely already want to make more of a surf rock version of songs, where everything is played straight ahead and not as much production. I want to find a group to actually play them with as opposed to remotely recording. Hopefully the times will allow that to happen. I just want to continue to put this old music into a new format and get more of it out there. I think it is important to continually bring these pieces of culture to the surface and keep them relevant, even if it is just for our circles of people.”

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