Armenia’s 'Choir of the Blind': No Government Support, But Still Rehearsing and Performing
Amidst the July afternoon heat and the noise of cars in one of the central streets of Yerevan, the sounds of Horovel (a traditional labor song) are suddenly heard.
It’s not clear if it’s a recording or a concert. Following the sound, I enter a nearby building and reach the third floor, thinking that perhaps it’s an academic chorale rehearsing, or a chamber choir.
A narrow and dark, creepy corridor with a wooden floor leads to a bright and sweltering hall. On the stage, a conductor with white hair directs the choir, mainly composed of blind or visually impaired singers.
There are around 35 people, some also visually impaired, listening in the audience. Their numbers don’t matter, and the choir, despite the heat, does its best. The conductor is trying to induce more out of them.
He nervously walks right and left on the stage after each song, holding his hands high, as if praying. He invites one of the soloists, Alexander Zhuykov, to sing
Alexander performs the song “Armenia” by Komitas with such an enthusiasm, his booming voice almost blowing out the walls of the hall.
I’m listening to the Armenian Association of the Blind's choir. During the Soviet-era, artists performing here enjoyed the same social and labor rights as everyone else. Its name has been long absent from the list of the state-sponsored choirs.
Here, the artists don’t receive a stable salary. They might get 10-20,000 drams once in several months. Despite their disabilities, musicians come to rehearsals, give concerts from time to time - mostly in their own concert hall.
Piruza Pashyan - One of the oldest members of the choir. She’s been singing for 35 years.
"When I sing in the choir, I see the world as much more beautiful, much better and cleaner. I have magical feelings. I see the whole universe through Komitas, Yekmalyan, Alan Hovhannes, Beethoven. Music has made my soul very beautiful.”
“Do you feel socially protected?” I ask.
"No, how can I feel protected? I was dismissed from the choir so that I could get my pension. I sing in the choir for free. If I get a salary from the choir, I will not get a pension. And the choir is given very little money.
The government doesn’t understand that the ones who do not see can still have a soul and sing beautifully. They’ve never come to hear us. For example, the president takes part in everything, like basketball and chess competitions, but he’s never visited the blind. Because blind people do not matter.
If we are financially supported, we can achieve much more. The First Lady once said she was aware of this choir. But she has never visited us. "
Arpine Martirosyan - Studying for her Master’s Degree at the Conservatory. She’s been with the choir for seven years.
"The choir has given me an opportunity to live and dream.
I learn the songs by listening to them. My part is played separately, I record it, then learn it at home. It would be good to print notes in braille.
First, we have a problem of integrating into society. For the past two months, I’ve been trying to walk alone, with my cane, to come to my workplace. When people see the cane, they cannot imagine what it’s for. They think I have a problem walking. Instead of giving way, or offering some help, they step over the cane.
I don’t have big dreams, given the situation in the country and my eyesight. My only desire is to sing and develop, as well as to find a well-paying job.
I work only in the choir. The salary is not permanent, from time to time we get a small amount of money. "
Vahe Kochinyan - One of the newcomers to the choir, serves as an acolyte in the church.
"I started singing in the divine liturgy. When I sing in the choir, I feel some internal freedom. Spiritual music gives me peace. "
Alexander Zhuykov. "By nationality - Russian, by soul - Armenian" - this is how he describes himself. He was born in Yerevan and lost his vision at the age of sixteen. He is a professional musician, an assistant to the educational department of the Komitas State Conservatory of Yerevan.
"The choir’s situation is bad today. The state offers very little support. And the leadership of the association for the blind creates obstacles. Even when there is somebody wanting to help us, the board does its best to prevent it. They need us to be passive. If we are active, we will begin talking about our rights.
Blind people often occupy themselves with music. I know there are only three or four choirs of the blind in the world. We perform on a professional level. It is desirable that young people come and believe in their strength. Blind people can receive free higher education in Armenia. They just need to take advantage of the opportunity."
Gagik Hakobyan - Ateacher by profession,who worked as an opera choir director and sang in Armenia's most famous choirs. He lost his sight in 2012 and joined the Association of the Blind Choir.
"We do not work in winter. It’s cold here, and there is a mobility problem. Being registered as a 1st degree disabled person adds nothing to my pension. The difference is only 2000 drams. It's ridiculous. We get paid every three or four months in the choir. In some cases, the funding is provided by the Ministry of Culture or foundations. They give money from holiday to holiday, as if to calm their conscience.
Choirs around the world are business ventures. In Armenia, the government pays everyone, except for the choir of the disabled. Others can go and earn money around the world. It’s us who really need support. "
Marika Siradeghyan - She works in the Coca-Cola company labelling bottles.
"I was able to find a job with a free schedule to be able to sing in the choir. Naturally, it is difficult for me to work as a laborer. It would be better if I could get a proper salary while singing in the choir.
I would like people to be more kind and dignified; not aggressive. On the other hand, I understand that they have reasons for that.
I learnt singing by myself. I can’t read music. I do not know a note. I was scared and couldn’t see prospects for my future.
I love the conductor's teaching methodology. He makes you fall in love with the Armenian land, culture, nature. I can listen to him for hours as he interprets a song."
Karlen Alexanyan - Since the establishment of the choir, he’s been the artistic director and conductor.
"The choir was created 41 years ago, in 1976. There were many blind musicians. Such a choir was first created in Bulgaria, and then in Lithuania, Georgia. We were the next. We had many difficulties. We wanted to do the impossible. We worked for hours. We performed songs that nobody else did in Armenia. And we did them brilliantly. We had tours in several USSR countries.
Now, the choir is on its own. It’s neither supported by the government nor the Association for the Blind.Donors sometimes give us charity, to put it crudely. Twice a year, the Ministry of Culture organizes a concert and allocates money for that. The worst thing is that we cannot work consistently. When you cannot afford to pay people, you cannot call them to rehearse three or four days a week.
No one can probably imagine themselves losing their sight or hearing. The world's worst disability is not being able to see. A blind person depends on the help of others. The government doesn’t realize that these people need help. Which minister today feels bad when they see a beggar digging in a garbage bin when passing by in their luxury cars?
Sometimes, I think about making a plea to Armenians around the world to donate 10 drams each. At least we’d collect 60 million drams and resolve the problems of these people for a few years. "