Shoghaken Ensemble, Traditional Dances of Armenia

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

Traditional Crossroads
Released: 2004

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Listening to Traditional Dances of Armenia is a little like traveling (via time machine) to an historical moment that never quite existed: a moment when Christian and Moslem, Zoroastrian and Jew, nomadic herdsmen and city dwellers, artisans and warriors all lived together, hung out, exchanged recipes, and otherwise partied and danced the night away. The oddness of Armenia--its proximity to both Christian Europe and to Islamic Arabia, not to mention Turkey, Russia, and Jerusalem--makes Armenian culture an incredibly vibrant melting pot of musical tastes from all over the world. On this collection, the Shoghaken Ensemble, the preeminent traditional music ensemble in Armenia, manage to make all of these different musical forms and styles come alive.

Most people's knowledge of Armenian music goes only as far as the duduk solo at the beginning of Peter Gabriel's Passion. The duduk (a flute-like instrument made out of apricot wood) is, indeed, Armenia's national instrument; the fact that the instrument possesses a warm, velvety texture that sounds a little like the human voice. In fact, it often sounds like a human voice crying. Hence, the duduk's sound is often considered to mirror Armenia's turbulent history. Because the duduk is at the center of much Armenian music, and because this instrument sounds sad, many people assume that all Armenian music is sad, depressing, and not at all fun.

But that's silly. Of course, Armenian music can be happy, exciting, and all kinds of fun. One listen to Traditional Dances of Armenia is all you need to confirm this. As the title suggests, this is dance music, and dance music cannot be depressing (well, not intentionally, at least). While there's plenty of duduk here, this is first and foremost ensemble music, so the focus is on the songs, not the solos. And the songs are bouncy, fast-paced, and even a little elegant--perfect for the kinds of celebratory and ritualized dances that they are designed to accompany. Many of these dances were created to commemorate specific events: the end of a harvest, the remembrance of a war or other historical event, or a wedding. Some of these wedding dances are a bit unusual. If a groom had recently lost his father, he would perform the "Gerezmani Par" dance atop the father's grave on the morning of his wedding. Other songs are from the daily lives of Armenians: pantomime and comic dances, guild and urban folk dances, and "numerous occupational dances in which dancers imitated the gestures of carpet weaving, or rolling logs, or harvesting wheat and sewing cloth, or shimmied like fish" (liner notes). In short, these are largely happy, festive dances that keep Armenians in touch with their cultural and historical roots.

But I'm neither Armenian nor a dancer, so my appreciation for this CD is musical. This is an excellent album because it brings into sharp focus the amazing depth of Armenian music and culture. I've heard a lot of Armenian music, from medieval and folk to religious and classical, but usually the dance-oriented music is lumped together (on compilations) with the ballads and other folk tunes. This is the first American release focusing solely on Armenian dance music, so it's an important release. This is especially true because, as I said earlier, Armenian music is an incredible melting pot of musical influences from Turkey, Arabia, Persia, Russia, and Africa. There are zithers, lutes, bagpipes, fiddles, cymbals, large and small drums, and all sorts of other instruments. The music might be Armenian in shape and structure, but the sounds themselves could be from anywhere in Asia or Eastern Europe. Songs like "Aparani Par" and ""Zangezuri Par" (all of the songs, really) seem lifted straight out of some weird Silk Road bazaar, fusing these diverse instruments together into ritualized, complex songs. It's good stuff.

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