Various Artists, The Music of Armenia: Volume 5, Folk Music

Michael Heumann The Library Discography Haunted Ink Haunted Ink Review Archive The Inkbottle

Celestial Harmonies
Released: 1996

Listen and Buy at Narek

My first introduction to the music of Central Asia or the Middle East was this double CD, which is one of six volumes from the comprehensive Music of Armenia series put out in 1996 by Celestial Harmonies, a world music label based in (of all places) Tuscon, Arizona. I bought it shortly after reading a fascinating book by Philip Marsden about his travels throughout the Middle East and Europe in search of Armenians and Armenian culture. From this book, I learned a great deal about the Armenian people's plight throughout the centuries. Armenia was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity (in 301 CE); only two centuries later they were excommunicated from the Catholic Church for their belief that Jesus was not human but divine. Armenia once spread across the Middle East, from the Caspian to the Mediterranean Sea; however, the modern Republic of Armenia occupies only a sliver of that land, surrounded by Moslem nations like Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Iran. Armenian culture today is dominated by one event: the 1915 genocide of 1.5 million Armenians (at the hands of the Turks, who still refuse to acknowledge this obvious, factual event). Despite this, Armenians survived, even thrived; today, there are Armenians all over the world (including my home state of California, which has a sizeable Armenian population). Without a doubt, this is an ancient, rich culture that has endured more hardships than almost any other, yet continues to survive and even to thrive. And, as I discovered through this CD collection, it also possesses a rich, beautiful musical tradition that is sadly too little known in the rest of the world.

Relistening to this collection today, I am struck by how the music, while joyous at times, is dominated by a deep melancholy that seeps even into the happier dance numbers. This melancholy is (in part) a product of the duduk, the ancient wind instrument that serves as the musical symbol of Armenia (and whose presence is felt on nearly every track on these two disks). It is a simple instrument, whose range is only slightly larger than an octave, yet it has gained its power and popularity through its versatility. As the editors of this series note, "The timbre of the duduk is immediately recognizable: its signature tone is plangent, mournful, and slightly nasal. But it is also capable of tender lyricism and genuine, if somewhat subdued energy." That "subdued energy" repeatedly translates--in this and other compilations featuring the instrument--as a melancholy sadness, reminiscent of a wailing chorus at a funeral. This wailing sound is common for many wind instruments, of course, but the duduk has an unusually soft, warm sound--thanks largely to its organic (not metallic or plastic) reed--that actually does sound a lot like a human voice.

The folk music found on this collection ranges from traditional urban and rural work songs to traditional dance songs to traditional love songs created and performed by wandering minstrels (known as ashugh) to traditional nostalgic songs about Armenia's past (generally, focusing on Armenian culture's principal obsession, Ararat). Yes, tradition is key here, as is the continuity of performers (two distinct but similar, classically trained ensembles create this music: the Shoghaken Folk Ensemble and the Sasun Folk Group). Another key to this collection's success is the simple fact that, despite the type of song being performed--work or dance, love or nostalgia--each track carries with it a mournful tone that is at once unsettling and spellbinding. For example, the first track, "Jeirani pes (Graceful like a deer)," is a dance number that is peppy and fun, yet its very melody (performed on a duduk) is tinged with a sadness that is hard to describe but ever-present. This sadness recurs again and again in likely places (the nostalgia song "Arshaluis noren batsvan" expressing a mother's sadness at the death of her son) and unlikely (the lively dance number "Aparani par," which includes a sad, soulful interlude).

Sadness and folk music often go hand-in-hand, though it is a bit unusual to hear such vibrant, happy songs performed in such somber tones (it's usually the other way around--somber songs performed happily). But the tones seem appropriate to Armenia, a country that is far more Diaspora than reality (the present-day Republic of Armenia is only a fraction the size of the traditional region of Armenia; there are more Armenians living outside the Republic's borders than inside). Hence, like the Jewish culture, African-American descendants of slaves, Native Americans, and Tibetans, the Armenian culture is shaped by loss and suffering--that is, the struggle to keep the Armenian culture alive is, itself, the one enduring feature of Armenian culture.

Of course, none of this information is necessary in order to listen to, appreciate, and enjoy the music on this collection. Presented here are several hours worth of wonderful music, some of the finest traditional folk music I've ever heard. Some of the music might be recognizable: Armenian melodies (particularly for the duduk) have found their way into a number of Hollywood productions, including The Last Temptation of Christ, Gladiator, Xena: Warrior Princess, and The Crow. All of it, however, is essential listening.

Note: True, Armenia today isn't, strictly speaking, part of Central Asia. However, I feel that Armenian music warrants a place on this site. Not only did Armenia once stretch into Iran (to the eastern corner of modern-day Turkmenistan), but also its musical heritage contributed a great deal to the musical cultures of various peoples along the Silk Roads (just as Armenia's music was influenced by these same people). Besides, it's more interesting to juxtapose a Christian culture's music with the many musical cultures of the Islamic world (surprisingly, the two cultures have much more in common than most people realize). Finally, I include Armenian music as part of this site's sphere of influence because I personally love Armenian music. I love it so much that I even have my own duduk, which I'm struggling to play. So there!

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