Georgia Straight, Canada
July 22 2004
Lullabies Sad Beyond Belief
By alexander varty
It was just one of those games you play when you’re stuck in traffic
and it’s too hot and you’ve got to do something or go crazy, but it
got me thinking anyway. “Name some songs that make you sad,” she
said, and after trotting out the usual suspects–the occasional
Richard Thompson ballad, pretty much anything by Nick Drake, the
Hello Kitty theme–I found myself stumped.
On reflection, however, I think I’ve identified the most miserable
song in the English language: “Rockabye baby, on the treetop…”
You know the rest: the terrible wind, the splintering crash, and, one
presumes, the strangulated cry of the unfortunate infant. It’s like a
Lemony Snicket novel writ small.
I’ve always wondered why this dismal little ditty is so popular, and
I suspect it’s because it encapsulates the archetypal emigrant
experience: exile from the ancestral home, a stormy passage, and
disaster. Think of all those Scots driven across the Atlantic by the
Highland clearances. But the horrors of “Rockabye Baby” pale when
compared to “Nazei Oror”, an Armenian lullaby based on a poem by
Avetis Aharonian. It’s worth quoting at length: “The caravan
passed/With a burden of tears/And in the black desert/Fell to its
knees/Exhausted/Ah, with the pain of the world/Don’t cry/I have
already shed many tears/My milk has frozen/On your lifeless lips/I
know it is bitter/My child/And you don’t want it/Ah, my milk has
become/The taste of my grief.”
This is a more explicit song of exile: the caravan it refers to was
made up of women and children deported from Turkey in 1915, during
what has come to be known as the Armenian holocaust. Somewhere
between one and one-and-a-half million Armenians lost their lives
during this systematic campaign of genocide, instigated by the dying
Ottoman empire, and a million more fled to Syria, Lebanon, Greece,
North America, and Russia–where, following the breakup of the Soviet
Union, Armenians finally founded a state of their own.
Armenian Lullabies, which contains “Nazei Oror” and a dozen other
bedtime songs, is a product of the New York City – based Traditional
Crossroads label, but it was recorded in Yerevan, the capital of
Armenia. And it’s informally dedicated to the survivors of the
massacres of 1915; singer and folklorist Hasmik Harutyunyan first
heard several of its featured tunes from women who had survived the
Not surprisingly, it’s a beautiful but mournful document, even if
“Nazei Oror” is the only song specifically inspired by historical
events. Armenian music tends toward minor keys and plaintive
melodies, and a traditional Armenian childhood was never easy:
although the culture that produced these songs was devoutly
Christian–one reason for its persecution by the Turks–it also
believed in an array of supernatural beings, some quite malignant.
These could, on occasion, threaten a child, and thus many Armenian
lullabies have a magical as well as a soporific function: they were a
mother’s way of weaving a protective spell to keep her infant safe.
In her singing, Harutyunyan fuses maternal tenderness, fierce memory,
and spiritual conviction, making Armenian Lullabies a recording that
should appeal to more than just Armenians and ethnomusicologists. And
she’s helped in this by the instrumentalists of the Shoghaken
Ensemble, who have two CDs out on the Traditional Crossroads imprint,
including the recently released Traditional Dances of Armenia.
Naturally, the Shoghaken Ensemble’s dance music is more sprightly
than its lullabies; percussionists Kamo Khachaturian and Levon
Tevanyan contribute clattering, capricious rhythms that would be
effective in any village square, or at any folk-festival gathering.
But the band’s star is zurna virtuoso Gevorg Dabaghyan, whose
clarinetlike instrument wails and cajoles and chants as seductively
as any voice.
It’s interesting to consider Armenian music as the missing link
between the music of Mediterranean Europe, North Africa, and
Asia–appropriately enough, given Armenia’s location. On Traditional
Dances of Armenia the performers employ the dhol, a drum that’s also
used in Punjabi bhangra, and the bowed string instrument known as the
kamancha, a staple of Iranian classical music. But they also feature
the oud, which can be found almost everywhere in the Muslim world,
and the kanon, a kind of hammered dulcimer not unlike that popular in
both Hungary and India, while some of the melodies they play wouldn’t
sound out of place in Morocco or the south of France.
What’s more important, though, is that the performances on
Traditional Dances of Armenia, like those on Armenian Lullabies, are
passionate enough to possess more than merely academic appeal.
Armenian culture may have been threatened, but it clearly remains
very much alive.