Let There Be Light

LA Weekly
March 26-April 1, 2004

Let There Be Light
by Siran Babyan

Armenian folk:
Soul and inspiration

The eight members of Armenia’s Shoghaken Ensemble (the name means
`source of light’) are folk-music ambassadors, representing not only
their country’s biggest musical export but a bright torch of cultural
pride that dates back to pagan roots, before Armenia was the first
nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion in A.D. 301. The
group was founded in 1991, the same year the former Soviet republic
became an independent nation-state.

If your ABCs of this music don’t expand beyond the weeping willow of
wind instruments, the duduk, delve into one or all three of
Shoghaken’s albums. There’s a lot of ground to cover: With more than
20 pages of liner notes each, they’re mini-encyclopedias, really,
complete with English lyrics, dance instructions, maps, photos from
1913 and descriptions of all the classical instruments ‘ centered on
the duduk, kamancha, kanon and dhol.

The ensemble’s first release, 2002’s Armenia Anthology, is an example
of folk music as an oral tradition of largely unknown authors, except
for ashughs such as the 18th-century troubadour Sayat Nova, who
composed and gathered the treasured bulk of Armenia’s classical
songbook, its origins ranging from Anatolia to the Caucasus. Two of
Sayat Nova’s ballads for his beloved, `Kani Voor Jan Im’ (`As Long As
I Live’) and `Nazani’ (`Gracefully’), are sung here by brother and
sister Aleksan and Hasmik Harutyunyan and played on the upright fiddle
called the kamancha, the instrument most associated with the traveling
minstrel, which was thought to `console the heartsick, cure the ill.’
Anthology also contains the typical village-centric songs born or
popularized in ancient Armenian cities or towns now in modern-day
Turkey, Syria or Azerbaijan, including `Shiraki Harsanekan Bar’
(`Wedding Dance of Shirak’), on which ensemble founder Gevorg
Dabaghyan showcases the twittering, birdlike delights of the
pencil-thin reed shvi ‘ a sharp and exuberant contrast to the wailing
of the duduk.

You can hear more of Harutyunyan’s clear-as-the-wind vocals as she
plays mother on Shoghaken’s 2004 Armenian Lullabies, another
collection of historic tunes named after villages and provinces such
as Sassun and Kessab. With minimal backing ‘ usually the dham duduk,
which holds the drone in the background ‘ she repeats the word oror
(to rock) with language-defying stillness and comfort, turning these
somber songs about the hardships of mothering into aural blankets.

Folk dances are so intertwined with much of this music that it’s
really all one art form, from the song-dance baryerg to the popular
shourch dance performed professionally for the stage or at social
functions. Shoghaken’s other recent release, Traditional Dances of
Armenia, isn’t a definitive collection ‘ it’s missing `Im Anoush
Davigh’ (`My Sweet Harp’), the most recognizable and loveliest melody
in all the land ‘ but it features all the standard bars. In the
kochari and shalakho, men dance shoulder to shoulder with soldieresque
kicks, jumps and cross-legged footwork. (The latter is a familiar
tune, and here, Karine Hovhannisyan plucks the lap harp kanon at an
ear-boggling, almost unrecognizable speed.) Perennial wedding
selections such as the shoror and the favorite tamzara call for
everyone to put down the fork, link pinkies or join hands, and dance
in circular motion to the pounding of the dhol.

It’s women, however, who’ve elevated the art form on the stage to its
highest level. In the naz or zangezuri, they wear traditional costumes
with brocade bodices, and headdresses over long braided hair, while
executing slow upper-body movements and hand gestures (it’s all in the
wrist) that mimic knitting, sewing or rocking a cradle.

This preservation of one of the world’s oldest musical styles has
earned the group high praise from the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, who invited
the members to take part in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2002,
and Atom Egoyan, who included them in the soundtrack to his film
Ararat. Shoghaken’s performance at the Skirball is not only the first
stop on their national tour but their first-ever local appearance.
They’re guests, but not strangers; it’ll be like a homecoming to a
land that has become a second mother country.

Shoghaken Ensemble performs at the Skirball Cultural Center on
Thursday, April 1, at 8 p.m., preceded by Lucina Agbabian Hubbard’s 7
p.m. lecture.