The Nairyan Vocal Ensemble in concert at the First Church in Cambridge, MA on May 7, 2023 (photo Aram Arkun)

Yerevan’s Nairyan Vocal Ensemble Simultaneously Sings, Signs, Strives for Social Justice

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WATERTOWN — There are a fair number of Armenian soloists and ensembles who come to the United States on tour, but the all-women Nairyan Vocal Ensemble is distinguished from them by two characteristics: its primarily a cappella performances are accompanied by sign language and it works for social justice. The group toured the Eastern US and even the Mid-West in April and May of 2023 and gave eight concerts, including several in the Boston area, Philadelphia, Providence, Washington, DC, New York, and Chicago.

Poster for the Nairyan Vocal Ensemble US tour

Sign Language

The group was founded in 2015 through the Mughdusyan Art Center with five professionally trained young women and began using sign language in 2018. Yelena Azaryan, one of the singers, said that the Art Center was attended by deaf students, among others. When the center planned an exhibition of the works of students and non-students, which was to be accompanied by a concert, it became clear that children with hearing disabilities did not understand anything about the concert. She said, “So that the children could at least understand something concerning what the songs were about, and be involved in some way in the process, we invited an interpreter, who interpreted throughout the concert. Seeing what a beautiful language it is, how dance-like and visual it is, we decided to start to do it ourselves.”

From left, Tina Asatryan, Anna Minasyan, Naira Mughdusyan, Yelena Azaryan at an informal gathering (photo Aram Arkun)

She said that it took months and years to master the language and integrate it into their performances, and observed, “That is how our difficulties began, because not being familiar with that language, we could not imagine what difficulties we would have to confront.”

The broader musical community at first had difficulty in accepting what the Nairyan Vocal Ensemble was doing. Naira Mughdusyan, musical director of the group, said, “When we began to sing with sign language, many, especially senior musicians, would exclaim, ‘What are you doing? What kind of dance are you dancing?’ Gradually they became reconciled with it.”

Another singer, Anna Minasyan, stated: “We have translated approximately 30-40 songs. We cannot fully speak. Naira is the only one who speaks sign language a little in our group. We only sing in sign language.”

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Naira declared, “When we speak with sign language, the song becomes more discernable and more understandable even to those who can hear. Of course, for those who cannot hear, naturally only the words are translated and they are translated more in connection with their meaning.” She said that this is much more interesting for those who had lost their hearing later in their lives.

Deaf people explained to the singers how they benefit from such concerts. Naira said, “They say that they understand what rhythm of song we are singing because our gestures are subject to certain rules, dependent on the song’s tempo — whether the song is slow or fast, anxious or calm — so they feel everything.”

The Nairyan Vocal Ensemble singing with sign language (photo Aram Arkun)

Naira recalled the first time the group sang with sign language and invited deaf people to be present. She said, “The audience members, very moved, approached us and asked that we do not stop, that we should definitely continue to keep singing songs with sign language, and turn Komitas’s songs, for example, accessible to them. We promised them, and ourselves, that independent of whether in the ranks of our audience there would be people with hearing difficulties, we would always sing accompanied by that language.”

There is a school in Yerevan for children with hearing difficulties with which the Nairyan Ensemble has established a connection, and the Ensemble also circulated a notice through the organized deaf community to let people know of their concerts with sign language.

The Nairyan Vocal Ensemble at Alice Millar Chapel, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois (courtesy Nairyan Vocal Ensemble Facebook page)

Naira added that the Mughdusyan Center set the goal for itself that if it had anything important to say, it must also translate it into sign language. She said, “We decided, for example, to translate into sign language Zabel Yesayan’s letter to her daughter Sophie…It surprised me to find out that it is harder to simultaneously talk in sign language and read a letter than to sing accompanied by sign language.”

Mughdusyan Art Center

The Mughdusyan Art Center was established in 2014 in Yerevan. Naira, one of the founders, said, “The Mughdusyan Art Center is a space which gives the possibility for all to connect with art. It gives children the opportunity to obtain an art education. As for adult artists, it gives the space to develop.”

When Naira said “for all,” she meant it. It provides education to children whether handicapped or from poor families. Those who can pay for education do. She said, “We decided that we need to establish the same conditions for children coming from different social classes, meaning the same educational model and the same quality. With us, education is based on an academic foundation. We have a fine arts direction and a vocal one.”

The Mughdusyan Center financially is supported by Naira, her mother, and her sister, Maryam Mughdusyan, a painter who both sells her pictures and works in different places. Naira said, “We all place all our financial means at the disposal of the Mughdusyan Art Center. When the children of families, the families provide the necessary materials for their children, while we do this for the children from poor families. Unfortunately at this time few paying families attend.”

The Nairyan Vocal Ensemble in concert at the First Church in Cambridge, MA on May 7, 2023 (photo Aram Arkun)

The Nairyan Ensemble also for many years sang on a purely voluntary basis, without any permanent financing or salaries. Naira elaborated: “We all work different jobs to earn money, but we try to have our activity connected with music. Anna Minasyan is a music teacher with 40-50 students in a choir. Yelena worked at a military orchestra for five years, playing clarinet….However now, I can say honestly, that the Nairyan Ensemble is not in the early stages where they would invite us purely on a voluntary basis for performances. Now they already know and love us, and the time has come that we begin to get paid.”

The Mughdusyan Center acts as an umbrella for many different initiatives. Naira said that at present, with the Nairyan Ensemble giving many concerts, not only in Yerevan but in the Armenian provinces, it did not have the resources to keep the children’s singing group active, but the fine arts activities, both with pottery and drawing, continue on an academic basis. Naira noted, “We do not work on the model of a general education school, but on a painting school model, which has meetings after regular school, a few times a week for a few hours.”

In addition to the Yerevan center, it has initiated a project called “Kenats Kav-Berdavan” [Clay of Life-Berdavan] in the small village of Berdavan of Tavush Province which is still ongoing. Two years ago, Naira related, it sent specialists to Berdavan with its own means, and started a group there, giving children the possibility of learning pottery. It sent two clay ovens, one for learning and a larger one for production. Naira said, “We have shown the children that it is possible with your skills and education to also earn money. We put their products on sale and give the revenue to them. They were very inspired.”

One of the somewhat older children seemed to have native skill, Naira said, so the Center gave her the possibility to come to Yerevan to continue to develop her skills and education, on the condition that she then returns to Berdavan to teach the little ones there.

In 2021, the Center established the Masoor Art House, located in Jrvezh, in Kotayk Province. Here there is a display about 12 Armenian intellectual women. Naira said, “Through this, we tried to turn those ladies and intellectual women, thanks to whom we are here today, more recognizable. We always had the impression that only our men had an intellectual life, but that is not true. There was the first female [Armenian] novelist Srpuhi Dussap and also Zabel Yesayan; there were three Armenian female deputies during the first Republic.”

The Masoor Art House also provides classes on different skills and hosts concerts by the Nairyan Ensemble. There are even cooking classes teaching how to make traditional Armenian dishes which are today not made often, ro are made with difficulty. Naira concluded, “This is a zone where you can truly feel Armenian, both in connection with food and also by means of clothing, because we also have costume samples, which you can try on and be photographed.”

Nairyan Vocal Ensemble

Normally, there are five members of the ensemble. However, Naira said, during the recent tour of the US the fifth person was preparing for her final examinations at the conservatory, and it was also not initially clear whether all five could be invited, so four singers came: Naira Mughdusyan, Yelena Azaryan, Anna Minasyan and Tina Asatryan.

While it is possible to sing with fewer members, the group also makes small dramatic presentations, for which they usually need all five. Naira said that the presentations are accompanied by short musical numbers. In other words, they both speak and sing about the theme. Examples include a presentation on the role women played in the 2020 war, or on the Armenian intellectual women of 100 years ago.

Naira declared that many singers have started but were not able to continue as part of the Nairyan Ensemble. She said, “They were not able to both sing and accompany this with sign language. It is a difficult process. However, the interest in our group is great and many people try to sing.”

The most recent singer to succeed in joining the group is Tina Asatryan, who is still a student at the Khachatur Abovyan Pedagogical University. She loved singing from childhood and learned how from her family. She related: “In 2021, when the Nairyan Vocal Ensemble came to my village, Berdavan of Tavush Province, I sang with them for the first time Komitas’s Karun. After that, I stated that I had always wanted to sing, and that I had wanted to wear costumes like those of the Nairyan Ensemble since childhood. Since I didn’t know the songs, nor sign language, I had to learn both at the same time. I hope I succeeded.”

Musically, Naira said, “We primarily want to make Armenian songs more popular and prominent. We try to present the works of Komitas as they are. But concerning traditional songs, in the last part of our concert, we try to turn monophony into polyphony, and harmonize, with different instruments, which is rare in our traditional music. We all play different instruments, and it is interesting that it is possible to combine our traditional songs with contemporary instruments. This is an innovation I think.”

Yelena added, “When we founded our group, we only started with classical songs — from Komitas, Karo Zakarian, Tatul Altunian, etc. We started from the classical school but understood over the years that we could turn any song into polyphony, and we can even write our own songs. Our group is a cappella, but we understood that if you want to be more influential, there must be musical accompaniment. We are now trying to compose in different styles.”

Social Justice

There is one other key aspect to the group. “In truth our team not only must sing but also share the values, that system of values, with which the group operates,” Naira said. “Living in our society,” she continued, “we saw many issues, so we decided that we should not only sing but also through our songs raise issues and propose solutions. Our center is thus. Our group could not help but be affected by such things. And the Mughdusyan Center already did this through drawing.”

Yelena recalled that in the Covid period, since it was not possible to give theatrical presentations or concerts in halls, the group prepared various videos and programs. One was on human rights, more particularly on women’s rights. A song called “Hamardzak em” [I Am Bold] was created by the Nairyan members. The words were written by Mariam Mughdusyan, one of the founders of the Mughdusyan Center, and the ensemble members composed the music. Yelena noted that the next video program they did was called “Oror, nani” [Lullaby, Nani], which presented Armenian lullabies. The theme was gender-selective abortions in Armenia, where unborn girls are subject to discrimination. The latest video prepared by the group, Yelena said, was filmed this year on the fight against breast cancer, in which the group calls on all women, and people in general, to go to a doctor to see if they have this illness, and if yes, fight against it.

Naira said, “Songs don’t exist about those topics. In fact, we know very few groups which speak about social issues through song…We would be very happy if more artists would deal with such issues. Perhaps our society would be better.” She added that the Nairyan Ensemble has always been independent and does not belong to any political party. She clarified, “There have been proposals but we have turned them down because we believe that art must not enter into politics, nor in any political party, especially those organizations which don’t give artists the freedom to speak about this or that topic.”

The Velvet Revolution has not changed this approach. Naira said, “We sang before the revolution and we sang also afterwards. We were in general, in my opinion, people about justice, because it is not important for us who is in power. What is essential, for is, is what is right as citizens. It is true that we are not in the field of politics and do not want to be there, but as citizens, we cannot be indifferent to whatever takes place in our country, whether good or bad. We reflect every circumstance in our songs.”

The US Tour

Arman Gharibyan has been the administrative manager of the Nairyan Vocal Ensemble for the last two years, and the US tour was the first one on which he accompanied the group. Gharibian is cochairman and cofounder of the Human Rights Power NGO in Yerevan and a screenwriter at Content Media Production.

He said, “I am first of all a worshipper of the group. I joined to help the group because I like what they do so much. My second motivation is that I don’t want the girls to work always as volunteers and that there is someone to negotiate on their behalf and organize administrative work.”

He stressed that because this music is not pop or “easy” music, and it has an educational component, “This type of art always needs supporters. We don’t have a mass audience so that with many views we get money, or that our CDs are bought so much to obtain sufficient financing. In general, high art always needs patronage.” He suggested that people go to the group’s Facebook page to find out more or provide support.

Naira related that this was the first visit of the group to the United States and that the members were very impressed by the warm response of the Armenian community. They previously had participated in international competitions, winning first prize in Moscow, and had also visited Egypt on the invitation of the Armenian community of Cairo.

The tour was organized by the Amaras Art Alliance, with its president and founder Arax Badalian, and supported by the Naregatsi Art Institute, founded by Nareg Hartounian. The Armenian Museum of America was a cosponsor, and Maestro Konstantin Petrossian helped make arrangements with the host churches for the concerts (some of his compositions were sung by the group during their tour too).

Yelena declared, “During our concerts we learned that the Armenians who live here like the Pari Arakil [Good Stork] song a lot, and we perform that song. We also are moved by it a lot. We understand why, because of the feelings of garod [nostalgia, yearning]. So I wish for our American-Armenian community that their garod be light in their hearts. Although the garod may remain, let them be able to return sometimes to the homeland and let them not forget it. Let the homeland always be with them irrespective of where they may be in the world. I wish that Armenia will always remain in their hearts.”

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