Nemra at the Baikar Building in Watertown: from left, Vaspur Yeghiazaryan, Van Yeghiazaryan, Marianna Karakeyan, Marek Zaborski (photo Aram Arkun)

Yerevan’s Nemra Recreates Musical World for Boston, Supports Erebuni School

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WATERTOWN — The four musicians of the band Nemra have come from Armenia to the Boston area to play for the first time in the United States. They perform original alternative rock songs in English and new renditions of traditional Armenian folksongs in Armenian.

The band is composed of two pairs of siblings, lead singer and guitarist Van Yeghiazaryan and bass guitarist and backup singer Vaspur Yeghiazaryan, and keyboard player and singer Marianna Karakeyan and her brother Marek Zaborski on drums. They have issued two albums, “Mubla” (2016) and “Hmm” (2019), along with a number of singles.

The band’s September 24 performance at the Robbins Memorial Town Hall in Arlington, Mass. in support of the Erebuni School was well attended.

Creating a World through Music

Van explained that both the band’s name Nemra, and the name of their first album “Mubla” are reversed versions of the words Armen (the root of what the world calls the Armenians) and album. The reasoning behind this, he said, is “we in general like to look from different points of view at any matter. For example, if something is said to be white, we want to examine it in various ways to confirm that it is white. We don’t participate in brainwashing. We want to form our own opinions by thinking and looking from different points of view.”

However, he said, they don’t espouse any particular philosophy or ideology and do not try to give advice or educate through their music. Instead, he said, “What is important is that we attempt to be sincere to the greatest degree.”

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“In addition,” Marianna said, there is the idea that in this reality, we created the planet Nemra. Often there are certain things that we don’t like in this reality, so we go to our reality, to our world, and transport people with us.” Visitors to the band’s website (https://nemraband.com/) immediately are drawn into this world with the greeting “Welcome to Planet Nemra, where music is life.”

Van said that life in Armenia in particular can be very difficult sometimes and escape is necessary. The band’s music does not deal with political issues. “When we give our concerts, together with our audiences, we walk in a totally different world,” he said.

The custom in Armenia has been that people enjoy concerts sitting down, but do not participate more viscerally. Marianna said that Nemra serves as an example to show people that they can be more free with their emotions and energy. She said, “When people come to our concerts, even those who are shy, slowly while seeing others dancing and happy, begin to feel more free. In today’s reality, it is very important that a person can express his energy. We are establishing the platform [for this].” Van added that Nemra also is an example to concert goers to not be anshnork (indecent).

Turning into a Band, Attaining Success

The idea of Nemra was established in 2012. Van and his brother Vaspur studied classical music as children but in their late teens began to love rock. They soon knew that they wanted to form a band, Van related, and there was a boy in the courtyard of their apartment who also loved music, so they decided to become a group. They needed a drummer, and found out about Marianna through an acquaintance. Marianna had learned a little drumming from her brother Marek, but they learned that she was actually a professional pianist, so they told her to stick to that.

However, she left the country, disrupting the group for a while. She proposed that Marek join the band, and after coming to a few concerts he did so in 2015 and from around 2015-16 the group began to work seriously and perform more live.

“In Armenia,” Van said, “you have to be crazy to found a rock group. It was not accepted and even now it is not fully accepted by all of society. It is largely underground.” Underground means performing in pubs and small venues with 70-100 seats, where you do not generally make money, Van observed.

He said that soon Nemra became one of the fortunate bands that were liked and could turn mainstream. Usually in Armenia there is a stereotype that rock must be metal or hard rock, and Satanic in nature. People are not aware of pop rock, alternative rock and other similar styles, Van said. Hearing their music, people understood that there can be melody and the words can convey emotions for all. He said that perhaps their music videos contributed to their popularity.

Their audiences are very varied, especially after they issued versions of Armenian songs. People of all ages, ranging from children to grandparents, come. Van said that their audiences were distinguished by being very good singers. In fact, sometimes they sing half of the songs themselves, he said laughing, making things very easy for the band.

Vaspur said that their audiences help change the stereotypes in Armenia that rock audiences always break things. On the contrary, he said, Nemra’s listeners are educated and mature and serve as examples for others. They arrive, be happy, and then leave without any injuries or damage.

In 2018, Nemra sent in a song for the Armenian national level of competition for Eurovision. Van said that their approach was not suitable for the Eurovision format, with a big show, as Nemra wanted to focus on the music. Nevertheless, of the 20 participants chosen, Nemra won second place, and only very narrowly lost first place. The same year, Nemra was recognized as the best rock group in Armenia. Since that competition closed afterwards, they remain as such, Van said with a laugh.

While Nemra would not participate again in the initial selection competition, if it were to be invited directly to participate in Eurovision with its songs and its own ideas, it would gladly represent Armenia, Van said.

Nemra performing at Yerevan’s Platform concert hall, celebrating its 10th anniversary (March 19, 2022; photo David Jotyan)

Recently they have been able to perform in large halls. Van said their latest concerts usually are in a hall holding 1,000 people, while in Moscow, they played for 2,000 people. They also are called upon to perform on Armenian television.

At the Starmus Festival this September in Yerevan, Nemra performed as an opening act for Queen guitarist Brian May in a hall that holds around 10,000. Brian May even gifted his pick, a sixpence coin, to them and wished them good luck, Van said. The band also met there for the first time in person Serj Tankian, lead vocalist and primary lyricist of the Armenian-American heavy metal group System of a Down, who had shared two of their songs previously on social media.

Nemra at the Starmus Festival (photo courtesy Nemra Facebook page)

Marek added that Nemra was one of the few rock groups able to earn money in Armenia. It plays in different venues, not only in Yerevan but in the provinces, and can fill public squares up with thousands of people, and they sing Nemra’s songs by heart.

In fact, Van said, their success has led to a few incidents but they have become accustomed to the adulation. He said, “We are a hotblooded people, and when people crowd in to take pictures, they push one another. Sometimes they surround me and squeeze from all sides, but our security has worked well.” He said that at first having such followers was very pleasant. He said they encouraged that energy, casting wood onto that fire so that it would burn more, but now they are more calm and try to prevent incidents from happening.

Working Hard

Despite this growing success, only Van at present works fulltime for Nemra. Van studied music as a child but graduated from the Armenian State University of Economics in marketing and business management. He never worked in that field, but has done various jobs in the past, he said. Today, however, he deals with publicity, social media and managerial issues for Nemra fulltime along with writing songs.

Vaspur, a year younger than Van, graduated in radiophysics from Yerevan State University and today works as a web developer. Marianna graduated Yerevan State Conservatory as a classical pianist and then went to Poznan, Poland to study culture management for a year. She said, “Since a musician must have other work, I worked at various places and at present have been working for two years at the Polish embassy in Armenia.”

Marek said he is a self-taught drummer starting in 2000, who had the famous big band drummer Robert Yolchyan as his mentor. He was the first drummer of the Armenian State Jazz Orchestra in the Soviet period. Marek played for 12 years with Armenia’s Reincarnation Orchestra, before leaving it. He works as a sound engineer and auto mechanic.

English vs. Armenian

Van explained that they did not make a conscious decision to only write their original songs in English but it just naturally happened that way. They were inspired by English-language songs, and their style or genre, more than by the English language itself. They first became familiar with rock through System of a Down, and then went on to like various classic rock groups. Their favorite is the Beatles, followed by Led Zeppelin.

Furthermore, he said, “we always thought that we should speak in the language of the world, to present our ideas so that any nation or people can understand them and feel their emotions. For us, a person remains a person irrespective of their nationality.”

On the other hand, Vaspur said that they like Armenian songs because when they were young, their parents always sang lullabies and other Armenian songs to them. Therefore they chose Armenian songs which have not been performed that much and transform them into their style. They do experiments. For example, they included a segment from the Western composer J. S. Bach in the song Nare. Van interjected that Armenian music is not in any way inferior to Bach, and that when they have the good fortune of traveling the world they also have great pride in presenting the Armenian language and culture.

They tried writing their own songs in Armenian but Van said that what they do in English pleases them more at this point because it has a more “smooth” sound. Using Armenian with their style so far has not worked out because Armenian’s “dry” [chor] letters are many. He and Marianna also said that the stress is often on the third or last syllable in Armenian words and for this to musically be appropriate is very difficult.

The four are all self-taught in English. Van said he learned primarily from songs but was inspired by artists from non-English-speaking countries who similarly decided to create in English, though with accents. He noted that they might eventually find speech coaches to regularize their English pronunciation more but “it is not a priority because we know that it is also a distinctiveness.” When asked whether what sounded sometimes like a twang in their English, akin to US Western or Southern pronunciation, was deliberate, Van with a smile only replied that it was Armenian English.

Whatever language the band members use, they attempt to maintain a unique style. Van said, “We have struggled a lot to avoid becoming too similar to the music that we love. There have been periods when I have deliberately not listened to my favorite bands for as long as two years, for example, so their influence dissipates and we create our own. I think over time the mix of Armenian spirit and music from abroad that has inspired us has succeeded in becoming our style.”

Going Abroad, Going to the USA

So far, the group has performed outside of Armenia in Russia, Poland, Georgia, Ukraine and the Republic of Buryatia (Eastern Siberia, in Russia). Often such concerts happen because of personal contacts. In Buryatia’s capital of Ulan-Ude, they performed at the Voice of Nomads festival in 2015, and it marked their first taste of fame.

Van said that the festival was so well organized that large loudspeakers were placed in their public square to play the songs of the participants for one month. As a result, when Nemra gave its concert the locals had learned the words and sang along with the band. Vaspur said that this was the first time that when Nemra came on stage, they were photographed. Van said it wasn’t like that then in Armenia, exclaiming, “We felt it for the first time there. The girls all ran towards me.”

As Armenia is a small country, sooner or later Nemra ends up performing in the same places there. Van remarked that in such circumstances, their popularity will decline sooner or later, so opportunities to seek new audiences abroad are wonderful.

Arminé Manukyan, center, with Nemra members, at left Van and Vaspur Yeghiazaryan, and at right Marianna Karakeyan and Marek Zaborski (photo Aram Arkun)

It is at this propitious point that Arminé Manukyan, principal of the Erebuni Armenian School in Belmont, Mass., entered the picture. She came across the video of Nemra’s popular song Nare, which by now has been viewed over 7 million times. She said she had always heard it sung in the same style by ethnographers, but Nemra’s interpretation showed great talent. That led her to write to Marianna, who she did not know personally, to invite the group to perform in Boston in a benefit for the school. The Covid pandemic interrupted the process, which required a lot of paperwork, but afterwards, as things got better in the US, it was possible to arrange the concert.

Van thanked Arminé for her work. He declared that they had come to Boston with great excitement and were very happy to support the activities of the Armenian school, which performs the important function of keeping Armenians outside of their homeland Armenian in identity.

Arminé remarked that Covid had a deleterious effect on the school and community at large. Before the pandemic began, there were 180 students, but now the number has practically halved, since parents prefer online classes. She pointed out that the health motivations were understandable but this leads to a loss of the sense of community.

Arminé stated, “Keeping a school in the diaspora is part of patriotism and love of Armenia. Believe me, it is very important for Armenians from Armenia to have a school here amidst foreignness.” She pointed out that Armenians are very divided here among themselves, with various cliques and factions, but schools can provide an occasion for the community to come together.

Vaspur said that they were happy to be doing a good thing and helping the school. At the same time, the trip also provides fresh air and new energy for the band. Their one wish? In one voice, they all exclaimed, peace for our country, peace for the world. May people come to their senses.

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