Part Two: Armenia

Quick facts from the CIA World Handbook

Population: 3,326,448
Capital: Yerevan
Ethnic Groups: Armenian 93%, Azeri 1%, Russian 2%, other (mostly Yezidi Kurds) 4% (2002)
Religions: Armenian Apostolic 94%, other Christian 4%, Yezidi (Zoroastrian/animist) 2%
Languages: Armenian 96%, Russian 2%, other 2%

Armenia is located in one of the most treacherous parts of the world: east of Turkey, west of Azerbaijan and Chechnya, and north of Iran. Situated at the edge of the Caucasus mountains, Armenia is a country of immense turmoil, both internally and externally. The country has basically been at war with its neighbor, Azerbaijan, since it became independent from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. That war was centered on an area known as Nagorno-Karabakh, an area within Azerbaijan whose population is largely Armenian. The war over this area lasted about ten years (from 1988-98); however, even though the fighting has subsided, the territory is still disputed by the two nations. It's a bloody mess.

Because of this strife (and because Armenia is a Christian country, and for a lot of other reasons), its other major neighbor, Turkey, has cut off ties and blocked off the border between the two nations, effectively crippling Armenia's economy (since Turkey blocks most land routes in and out of the country). Of course, Armenia's relationship with Turkey extends back a lot further than just the last few years. Back in 1915, Turkey tried to wipe Armenia off the map by killing every Armenian they could find. This was the Armenian Genocide, the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey still claims that Armenia is lying about the genocide (that it never happened, or, at the least, that Armenians killed as many Turks as Turks killed Armenians), and even western countries (eager to appease Turkey for military and economic reasons) refuse to acknowledge the Armenian genocide for what it was. Turkey's denial is helped out by the fact that documentation about this genocide is sparse. They didn't do a Germany and keep extensive records or leave behind gas chambers; rather, they took Armenians out into the deserts and either killed them there or let them die on their own--far away from prying eyes.

The genocide is the central point of reference for Armenians all over the world, who continue to push for western countries (including the United States) to recognize its existence (and, by extension, acknowledge the struggle that all Armenians have gone through over the century). Until that happens, however, at least Armenians can take solace in the fact that their music--their wonderful, rich, incredible music--offers them a voice in world culture that few groups can match. Their musical tradition is an ancient one, yet it is also a decidedly unified one. The key instrument, the duduk, is perhaps the saddest musical instrument I've ever heard; when I hear a master of the duduk play, I can feel the suffering Armenians have gone through over the past century (and even the prior centuries, which weren't too great, either). Below are some glimpses into Armenian musical culture: its instruments and people.

This is a picture of a duduk made by the master SAM (Minasyan Surik Hovhannesi). Like all high-quality duduks, this one was made from Apricot wood only found in the mountain regions of Armenia. The wood is aged for about 5 years before the duduk is actually created, tuned, and treated with natural oils and salt. This is the same duduk that I own and am currently trying to play. If you want to get your own duduk, then I'd suggest getting one of these, as they're the best. They're available for sale at Armenian Musical Instruments.

This is a photo of Djivan Gasparyan, the famous Armenian musician, playing the duduk. Notice how his cheeks swell with air; this is a technique used by duduk musicians to allow them to play continuous notes without pausing for breath.

There are two things that identify Armenians around the world. One is the duduk. The other is this mountain: Mt. Ararat. This mountain is currently in Turkey, but it can be viewed from many parts of Armenia. It is the national symbol of Armenia, the place where Noah's Ark was said to first find land, and the place that links Armenians today to their ancient past. This photograph comes from Richard Smith's Armenia: Yesterday and Today.

This is a picture of the Shoghaken Folk Ensemble, whose music I've reviewed at this site, performing at the 2002 Folklife Festival in Washington DC. The one in the middle is Gevorg Dabaghyan, the famous duduk musician whose album I've reviewed here, as well.

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