Despite the international accolades, the Shoghaken Folk Ensemble doesn’t register on the Armenian government’s cultural radar
Hetq recently spoke to Hasmik Harutyunyan, an Armenian folk singer and the leading member of the Shoghaken Folk Ensemble, about the state of music in Armenia, her travels worldwide, and other interesting bits and pieces of her long and illustrious career to promote the true national music of Armenia.
Shoghaken’s Armenian Lullabies was recognized by the New York Times as an outstanding world music CD in 2004.
Hasmik, what is the plight of folk singers in Armenia today and what are the challenges they face?
In the past, it was much easier for us. There was the Akounq State Ensemble and other amateur groups. Akounq was perhaps the first and last state vocal folk ensemble that was truly ethnographic in nature. It lasted right up to Armenia’s independence. Afterwards, like everything else, things got harder.
We had an organized schedule of concerts ion the provinces, or recordings, but those plans collapsed and we found ourselves alone and facing the world beyond. That’s when we started our folk, or as Gomidas put it, our leaderless folk art period.
When and how did this period begin?
When TV was separated from the radio and they began to broadcast theirgroups, not only Akounq. No one kept those groups going. An absurd situation came about when those groups both existed and didn’t exist. Everything remained in the memories of people, in their thoughts.
Artistic individuals are far removed from the business world. For people of my generation it was difficult to appraise their work. We never thought that it was up to us to put a price on what we were doing.
Later on, when we saw that it was difficult to maintain a large ensemble and to tour, we decided to create a smaller one – Shoghaken. That was in 1994-1995. Back then, we didn’t have a clue about what was going on in the world outside and what was the state of folk singing in other countries. It seemed to us that we were the only ones around.
After all that, when you see how the torrents wash away everything and left muck…And that slime took bodily form; a nose and a mouth. And if that wasn’t enough, these characters decided to show themselves and spout forth babble. The tragedy of this society rests in those individuals who are squeezed in everywhere with their bad Armenian, bad education; in a word semi-literate.
Are you saying that slime rules over Armenia today?
If it was quality slime, it wouldn’t be a big deal. But when they show a pear to the people and say it’s an apple, that’s the tragedy.
If people believe that singing with a synthesizer is a folk sing, it’s a crude misunderstanding and laughable. What worries me is the superficial approach. For instance when I say that something is illiterate and must be modified, they answer that it’s better than nothing. Why should I make do with something that’s ‘better than nothing’.
Does the Shoghaken Ensemble get invitations to perform in Armenia?
They don’t invite us anywhere. But when the president tours abroad and has to show his ‘cultural’ face, they plead with us to show up and perform. Oftentimes we perform for free, given that even when they promise to pay us they don’t.
Our feeling is that we are doing it for our country. But when there are grandiose programs and paid events, you won’t find us around.
Just look around. The TV stations and the groups organizing cultural events have their own teams. When we perform overseas people get to hear unadulterated songs. Then, they ask us why we don’t appear in this or that program. I don’t want to name names. We answer that it’s a mafia like business. Everyone has picked up a frying pan corresponding to their mental capabilities. They fry something up and call it culture.
So what happens? When we come across one or two remarkable personalities we are happy and figure that our people have a future to look forward to. On the flip side, you’ll see a talented young person looking for work in some restaurant. Thus, our cultural future isn’t so clear-cut.
What needs to be done to remedy this situation?
Whatever I say, who will listen? As the popular adage goes – a talker needs a listener. There’s a government and a ministry with their programs. One time, at the ministry of culture, I said that I wanted to know the reason why what we’ve done hasn’t found a home in the past 25 years of our country’s cultural policy. Perhaps what we are doing isn’t important. We want to know. But those songs are what have preserved our people’s identity. Whenever we raise such questions the other side has prepared answers.
What do you find disheartening?
What depresses me is that even young people with talent can’t find a path to follow. Perhaps the history of humanity is such – the semi-talented ones bang on the doors and solve their problems. Those endowed with talent and who realize the scope of their talent have a hard time banging on doors.
Will you ever leave Armenia?
No. If I wanted to leave I would have done so long ago. My husband Antranig from Fresno relocated to Armenia fifteen years ago. We travel to the States to see his relatives.
So, what keeps you here?
People. When we got married I told my husband that I had nothing to give him other than my friends; good people.
Hasmik, you’re also described as someone who delves into the roots of Armenian lullabies. Given that these melodies are full of grief and distress, don’t you think they’re a bit heavy for young children?
Mothers weren’t only trying to get their kids to sleep in the cradle. Even in peaceful times, mothers would recount their concerns since they couldn't share their problems with anyone else.
In the past, before they gave birth to a boy and thus allowed to talk, moms would only share their thoughts with their children. If you study these lullabies, you’ll see that mothers sang about all types of things – even unrequited love and their dreams.
There was something else going on as well. Mothers had to show their children their place in the universe. She relayed missives and conveyed stories about the family’s history. That’s why they sound sad, but we mustn’t forget that our wedding songs are also in a minor key where there is light and love.
How did you first become interested in lullabies?
It was quite by accident. I was helping my brother’s family and would sing lullabies to the kids. They didn’t like to hear the same song over and over. So I began to do some research to see what else I could sing.
I found quite a lot and began to record them. When Armenia celebrated the 1,700th anniversary of Christianity I requested that the organization record the songs and give each family with a newborn a CD as a gift. They didn’t agree because they wanted to sell the recordings. I refused.
Years passed. At our performances abroad I pushed for the inclusion of some lullabies. One day the producer was amazed to hear one of the lullabies and exclaimed – so when you say lullabies these are the treasures you have in mind. He then agreed to produce a CD of just lullabies. Armenian Lullabies (Traditional Crossroads) was issued in 2004 and won a special prize given by the New York Times as a brilliantexampleof Armenian music produced that year.
Not to brag, but all our CD’s are well-known overseas. But we aren’t of that generation that likes to tout its own horn.
Hasmik, you earlier said that the cultural future of Armenia is at risk. What then must be done to avoid such a fate?
I don’t want to appear so pessimistic because positive things are happening as well. A good example, and a shining beacon of light for me, is Tigran Mansurian. He’s worked away quietly, never promoting his art, but he’s achieved international acclaim.
Perhaps we are to blame. Perhaps we should be more dogged when it comes to presenting our art. People should also learn to recognize the accomplishments of others.
When was the last time you performed in Armenia?
The last time was the first and only time. We contactedthe culture ministry and requested a free auditorium to stage a concert so that folks in Armenia could get an idea of our work abroad. Many people were asking us this question.
It was at that concert that we understood that we were guilty and not guilty. We understood that they are deceiving the people from morning to night….that there isn’t a demand for this type of culture.
People listened in awe. They didn’t know whether to shout out, to jump up from their seats, to control their tears. That was in 2009. We haven’t had a concert here since. We want to do something but who will assist us?
We’ve been rehearsing in our house for the past twenty years and haven’t complained. The musicians show up to rehearsals in high spirits. They take the stage and play. You have to see it. But just a few are financially secure.
I once told the members of the ensemble that we’ve sown some good seeds and that a better day is coming. The percussion player turned around and said –Hasmik we’re all past 50 and we’re still sowing seeds? We should be harvesting already.
Do you see a way out?
I don't have the time to tell people do this or that. There are so many songs to be sung I sometimes regret the time I spend teaching. I teach world music in English and try to familiarize them about our culture; at least to sing our ABC’s. (Hasmik teaches at the QSI International School of Yerevan – MM)
If I can include something of the Armenian culture in the educational curriculum then I can say my time spent in that school is worthwhile.
I know that I must record all those songs and leave them for posterity. Then perhaps, a wiser generation will come along – more educated, more in tune with the universe - that will find the meaning of our language, of each sentence and melody…A generation that will not allow anyone else to take this from them and who will take guardianship of our culture.
In a nutshell, how would you describe the times in which we live today?
Estrangement…we’ve all gone astray. And the prime culprit is the airwaves. People don’t have the money to attend concerts, they rarely visit none another – so TV is what’s left. And those who shouldn’t be on the television are.
Look what’s happening in the villages. They turned them into old age homes. And if those people don’t sing about the good times, at least to themselves, they’ll go crazy, because songs are life for them. Songs are their friend in good times and bad.
Photo: Hasmik Harutyunyan’s Facebook page