An Interview with Hovhannes Kourghinyan

Hovhannes Kourghinyan is better known as the lead singer of Vostan Hayots, one of the most popular Armenian rock bands of recent years. Considered to be representative of what has become known as the "third wave of Armenian rock," Vostan Hayots successfully fused national influences with a progressive rock sound. Today, Kourghinyan performs with a new band, "Army of God," in his "Downtown" club situated in central Yerevan.

This interview is one in an occasional series of articles that will form the basis for an article on the contemporary rock scene in the Republic of Armenia.

Onnik Krikorian: Thank you for taking the time to hold this interview. Perhaps you could start by introducing yourself.

Hovhannes Kourghinyan: My name is Hovhannes Kourghinyan but I'm also known by the stage name of "Johann Kostani" and my friends call me Johann. I started to play rock music in 1978 at school and our first group was called Roundhead. I've been a rocker all my life.

OK: There was always the stereotype in the West that people couldn't listen to rock music in the former Soviet Union. Was this stereotype correct?

HK: Yes, I think it was. During the Soviet years many people had relatives living abroad and from time to time they would receive vinyl discs. My Uncle gave me a radio and tape player unit and although it was difficult to find something interesting to listen to, people with relatives abroad had access to something new. I studied in a school where I learnt English and so could sing songs in that language. We were playing Beatles covers but when we performed Smoke on the Water and Space Trucking by Deep Purple we were called into the Principal's Office and told that these songs had no artistic merit whatsoever.

However, one day I received a phone call from a friend who now lives in Los Angeles who said that he had just received some "new stuff." I went round and listened to the music, smoking Kent cigarettes -- something else that was also considered a luxury at that time. It was fantastic. It was the first time that I heard Pink Floyd. The album was Dark Side of the Moon. Then, after finishing school, I made contact with a band that needed a singer. At that time the equipment was very bad and as their drummer was singing, it was difficult to hear his vocals from behind the drum kit and so I joined them for about a year.

Between 1981 and 1986, the other founder of Vostan Hayots, Areg Nazaryan, and I were studying to be Film Directors at the Institute and used to play with Ara Gevorgyan although we weren't in his band, Raleigh . At that time, the main problem for rock and jazz musicians was to earn a living as professional musicians and there were really only two options. You could work with ArmConcert, the state agency that performed Soviet and so-called national music, or in restaurants and performing rabiz at wedding parties. Raleigh played in the restaurants and they were good too. Then I remember that two of them left for the United States.

In 1986, after serving in the Soviet Army for two years, we applied to open a theatre-studio. In the past, a theatre could only be opened on the order of the Soviet authorities because culture was considered very important for ideological reasons but as perestroika began, many changes started to occur on the level of art and culture. We opened the first self-financing theatre-studio called Nork in a building situated in Massiv and became well known. The first thing that we performed was based on the music of Vostan Hayots. In fact, the studio and Vostan Hayots were founded together.

The first musical we performed was a rock drama about the Genocide which we started in 1987. It took six months to complete and when it was finished, we performed it, accompanied by dancers, in all the large cities of Armenia . We also recorded our first album, Wake up my Son, so we can really consider that Vostan Hayots was founded at this time. Areg Nazaryan was on bass, Varouzhan Oughourlyan who is now in the United States was on lead guitar, there was Varouzhan Galustyan, Mikhail Babayan on keyboards and I was on vocals. However, we've always had problems with drummers and I think that most other groups experience the same thing.

There are many guitarists in Armenia but not many good drummers. I don't know why but anyway, the line-up changed many times. Sometimes I was playing drums until we found a drummer who was playing in a group called Ararat. They were playing good jazz-rock and they still work as professional musicians today with the exception of their bassist who makes very good guitars instead. Anyway, they were performing ethnic jazz-rock incorporating national melodies and it was very good.

In 1987, the second wave of Armenian rock music came along with perestroika and by the end of 1987 there were about thirty bands that rehearsed in two or three rooms at the Palace of Youth . A decision was made to organize a rock festival with bands such as Asbarez. They were the first metal group and wore all that shit. Oh yeah, all the nails and chains. They were good friends of ours but most of them are now working in Tata Simonyan's band which is strange. They were really a great band and very good in concert. At one point, another good friend of mine, Yuri Malyan, was playing with them. Now he's quite a famous guitarist in Moscow.

About twenty-four rock and jazz-rock groups performed at the festival held at the Velotreck (cycle track stadium) next to the circus. One of the guys who brought a lot of financial and technical support to the festival was Hratch Mushelyan who now works in the sound business all over the territory of the former Soviet Union . He started at that time with this very big festival that lasted for four days. There were concerts for the first three days and a competition on the last. It was really something for Yerevan.

Two days before the concert, however, some guys wearing suits appeared after we submitted details of our performance to the organizing committee. They said we couldn't play this stuff because it was about blood, dead people and the Turks even though it wasn't that clear in our lyrics. However, this was what we were singing about. Much of the first album by Vostan Hayots was based on old Armenians songs, many of which were written after the Genocide. In a way, the album was a call to arms for the nation and these guys from the KGB told us that we couldn't perform any of it.

We said okay and asked what we could sing. For example, there was one old song that's about nature but in fact, is actually about Western Armenia and they said, okay, you can sing that. However, when we took the stage and were broadcast live on television we sang whatever we wanted, creating a huge scandal. It was funny. As we were performing, a few people in the audience started running around making signs at us in the hope that we would stop but what could they do? Anyway, we received the prize for the best ethno-development in music while Asbarez were awarded the prize for the best rock group. Good days.

Then, in the year of the national liberation movement, we started to travel around the country and I guess that we can say that we played our part. For a long time, nobody had seen a concert where musicians, dancers and actors were working together although we thought that we wouldn't have much success, especially outside of Yerevan where the mentality of people was different. But, in Sisian, where we were meant to perform for one day, they kept us for five so that everybody could see the concert.

Then we performed in Meghri but on the road to Agarak word had spread about our show among a few Azerbaijani villages. They threw stones at us as we drove to our destination and after the concert about two dozen Armenians attacked a nearby Azerbaijani village, burning a few houses down to the ground.

OK: In retrospect, how do you feel about that?

HK: That's something for another interview but I will say that we were young and we were used. However, if we hadn't been musicians we would have been involved in some other way. My Grandparents were from Western Armenia and I had heard their story all my life. My grandmother on my father's side lost six children during the Genocide before fleeing to Eastern Armenia . Only one of her sons born in Western Armenia survived so I lost six aunts and uncles and therefore, this experience is very close to my heart. Until Mount Ararat is within our own territory, we will never be able to relax.

Maybe we don't understand why we have this syndrome, maybe it's subconscious or maybe it's genetic, I don't know, but even those Armenians who didn't lose relatives during the Genocide and that were born here feel the same. During the soviet years my father always had problems with this. He was involved in the movement in the sixties and always had problems with the KGB. As a child, I remember how people would gather in our house and talk about things I didn't understand but later in life, it was only natural that it would come out somehow. It is in our blood and that is why as musicians we left the subject of love very quickly and started to incorporate national themes into our music.

OK: You also performed in Stepanakert?

HK: Yes, it was at the end of 1989 and the beginning of 1990 when we were in Stepanakert and as was the case in Meghri, Vostan Hayots soon earned the reputation for arriving somewhere just before trouble broke out. When we went to Agarak there were clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The same was true in Kapan and when we returned to Yerevan , the Russians had already closed the city. That was strange. We had to wait until eight the next morning before we could enter Yerevan and were called into the Ministry of Culture to be told that we couldn't perform any concerts without special permission.

I also remember that we brought some information from some guys in Meghri, including the Head of Police, to Vazgen Manoukyan and this was the first time we met with the Karabagh Committee. A few people knew what was going to happen and they were getting ready by arming themselves. We were involved in that and we were performing anywhere we could. Every Institute had a small hall for events and we even performed in villages.

In Malishka there was a very small cultural center and it was a very strange experience. We had two crosses on either side of the stage and played for free because our own hall in Massiv had been closed. The villagers spoke out loudly during the performance because our dancers were wearing very short skirts and all we wanted was for people to think about why Armenians had survived the Genocide.

Then, Vano [Siradeghyan] said that they were going to fly to Karabagh and wanted us to perform there. Sumgait had already happened and they already had a lot of money. I think the revolution was sponsored as all revolutions usually are. The Yerevan Bank had already granted us a loan to buy some very good equipment to perform in stadiums and we took it by helicopter to Karabagh. We gave one concert and the next day, the Russians entered Stepanakert and confiscated all our equipment.

Really, the revolution harmed the career of Vostan Hayots but the inertia of that time kept us going through the beginning of the nineties. We were still able to give concerts until 1991 but then the energy crisis hit Armenia and in a second, everything died. We played unplugged until 1993 and then I started to work as the Director of the National Philharmonic Agency and later, with Artur Grigorian. We founded the National Song Theatre and I was its first Director. We wrote the first Armenian Rock Opera, Artavazd and Cleopatra, which tells the story of how Anthony presented the son of Tigran the Great to the Egyptian Queen.

As you know, Cleopatra was renowned for her sexual prowess and it is said that many men were willing to lose their heads just to spend one night with her. When Anthony presented the Armenian King to her, she wanted him in her bed but he refused and called her a whore. He was asked to kill her because she was destroying Egyptian civilization and relations with Rome but he refused to take the role of a pawn in these political games. It's very interesting -- and also very good music.

We presented this project to the Ministry of Culture who started to finance its production but the continuing energy crisis prevented us from completing it. Perhaps one day God will bless us with someone who has money for this Opera. Right now, some people who like rock music say they want to sponsor a project by our rock club and I've suggested that they support this rock opera. This will bring rock music to a new level in Armenia as opposed to what is happening now, which is really quite terrible.

Anyway, I worked for two and a half years with Artur at the National Song Theatre and then, because of these dark years, the rock movement collapsed. Without electricity you really can't play rock music. It's as simple as that.

In 1996, Vahe Khachatryan and a young guitarist, David Musheghyan joined the group and with their appearance the sound and musical expression of the band became deeper. David was a big fan of Metallica and brought that sound and those riffs with him. Before that, we had been described as the Armenian Pink Floyd although our second album, Cimera, was very nationally orientated in terms of exploring the inner life, complexes and problems of every Armenian. There's a song about emigration, for example, and one about religion.

This was the best time for the group because David came. He was from the conservatory and brought a new style of song-writing to the group. Up until then, Areg Nazaryan had been the main composer of the group.

Cimera was recorded in 1996 during the last days before I left for the United States and I was in the studio even on the night before my flight the next morning. When I returned to Armenia at the beginning of 1998 we finished the album and opened a rock club on the corner of Moskovyan and Tumanyan. At first we were just going to open a bar but when we saw that we had few customers we decided to have some live music. We started with blues, some rock and then some of our staff asked us to play some covers like Smoke on the Water and we began to notice that we started to attract more people.

The club wasn't very big but it was full and a new wave of rockers started to emerge from there. When we started to get tired from performing long sets, other groups such as Kings Cross, Alter ego, Reincarnation, Empyray and others started to appear. Then we moved to a new venue near the Journalists Union.

The interesting thing is that most of the members of Vostan Hayots were involved in the Armenian Army of Independence which gave birth to the Republican Party. We fought on the borders, in Karabagh and in Shushi. There was also a friend of ours who died tragically. He survived the entire war and when the Russians killed many people in Sovietashen, he didn't even receive a scratch but later there was what I call the Afghanistan Syndrome when those people who fought for their country came back home and found that there was no place left for them in society.

Now, many people who sacrificed their lives or their limbs are out on the street and most of them drink heavily. Our friend fell from the second floor of his building and died. For some reason he couldn't open the door and decided to climb outside to enter through a window. I think he was drunk and fell and hit his head. He died and the club was closed. I reopened it three or four months later but this was also the time when the group began to fall apart. We were already playing without a keyboard player and the sound had changed. Then another member of the band left for Moscow.

We stopped working and so I gave a space for young bands to perform but the quality of the music began to deteriorate along with the type of people that came to the club. They didn't come to listen to the music. They came to take drugs in the toilets or to fight and so I closed the club for a while before reopening it with very strict rules of admission. There was a kind of face control. We held some seasonal festivals and a dozen bands such as Oaksenham and Sard performed.

OK: Do you think that Armenians want to listen to rock music? When I look at the contemporary Armenian pop music scene it appears to be quite manufactured.

HK: Armenia is greatly influenced by what happens in Russia and that's why Russian pop is very popular here. This is a geopolitical process and I consider that what is happening deadens the brain. It's the same shit about nothing and this shit is also coming from the television. It's the same music and the same stupid words -- I don't want to call them lyrics. It's about sex and serving the body.

OK: But rock music can also be about that.

HK: No, rock music is never about that.

OK: What about bands such as Whitesnake? David Coverdale was always singing about himself and sex.

HK: That's why nobody will remember him. Deep Purple was never about that even when they sang about relations between a man and a woman.

OK: Of course, we have the same problem of manufactured music in the West with record companies spending millions to create bands based on an image but when I first started to look into contemporary Armenian music five years ago, I had hoped that something better might have emerged by now. I was tired of hearing only about Nune in the Diaspora and wrote about others such as Shushan Petrosyan and Alla Levonyan long before they were known outside Armenia . However, since then that potential has not been realized.

Of course, one significant problem is that the local market for music is very small and you can't make money by making records or by performing. You need a sponsor.

HK: Why not? The problem is that when you plant different crops in a field, you can feed yourself for a year but when your fields are full of weeds you will starve, you know what I mean? The same thing happens with everything in our country. This isn't just the case with music -- it's a problem with everything. Perhaps this is an Armenian problem. When someone does something here they don't ask themselves if it's good or bad. People instead declare themselves to be geniuses even though I know that many of these performers will be gone in the next two years. Nobody will remember them.

They're not here because of talent or because of music. They're here because of money. When Nune started I was Director of the Philharmonic Agency and I remember her very well. She wasn't known in Yerevan at that time although she had a good voice and sang Whitney Houston songs very well. Artur created her but before that I remember how she came to shows. I remember what she was wearing and how she was thinking and I don't think anything has changed since. She realized that this business was good and maybe she likes what she's doing now but I can see in her eyes that she is not happy. Maybe these people have nice cars now but as artists, they are not happy.

OK: However, the market in Armenia is not very well developed, is it?

HK: There is no market here and I understand that in order to prevent rock music from dying it is important that bands do not consider that their music is simply a hobby. There was one band that was very good but fell apart and so I invited their bass player and drummer to come and work at my rock club. Then they invited Artur, a young guitarist who is studying oud and before that, flamenco, but who really didn't play rock. They said he was very talented and so we started a new group when my attempts with Areg to restart Vostan Hayots failed.

OK: You call your band, Army of God, a Christian rock band but you also play Metallica and Black Sabbath covers. Isn't this a contradiction?

HK: No, because this music exists without us and is anyway part of rock culture. I don't allow any music that's satanic in my club which is why some people don't come here. In the old place, there was a group of Satanists that used to come but I immediately threw them out and as a result some other youth stopped coming. Okay, so if they want to do something like that let them do it somewhere else. That's their choice. Anyway, I don't consider Metallica to be something very terrible. Their lyrics make you think rather than want to fall asleep.

When we started, the same question was also asked by other journalists. How can you play rock and be a Christian? My response was that the world is full of far more terrible things than rock music -- things that push people towards their death or towards a life of crime.

At the moment we're recording a new album, In Your Light, because we know that we are always walking on the edge of a knife between two forces and that we have to make a choice. On this album we identify those choices through some songs that describe this inner struggle. Other songs are not so much declarative and are more concerned with the feelings and fears of somebody who lives in this world. That person is Armenian and it's more psychological but in any case, this person is also a Christian and has no doubts about the existence of God or that Jesus Christ is the son of God.

We've performed several concerts which were attended by a few hundred people and with advertising I think we could attract a few thousand. We want to invite those people who live by their faith and have accepted the presence of the Holy Spirit. For many centuries, external powers have tried to destroy Armenia as a nation but they were never successful. Yet, when Armenians live among themselves, they will destroy each other. Why? It is because we burn candles without knowing why. We don't have the shield of faith.

When we didn't have a state the Armenian Apostolic Church united people but then the soviets gave us a pseudo faith. They told us to work so that one day we can create a Utopia. Everybody would be equal and everybody would get what they wanted or whatever they needed. This was the main message of Communism that was enforced through ideological methods in the schools. There was also a fear that if someone disagreed then any chance of creating this Utopia would be destroyed. Those were terrible times when a collaborator would write a letter if they had a disagreement with you. The next day you were gone.

OK: You're now trying to establish your own political party?

HK: Yes. The name of the party is the National Christian Mission and the main idea is to bring the truth to the nation about why we exist and what our responsibilities are. Every person, every community, every family and even every race has a purpose. Because I can not separate religion or even culture from politics our emblem is a circle surrounding a triangle which represents the trinity with a cross in the middle. We will stand in the next Parliamentary Elections and we are also involved in cultural and educational activities. I see the circle that surrounds the emblem as something that brings all of these things together.

Because religion can be considered something discriminatory, science, education and culture have to work together within this circle to prevent politics from being used only for individual gain. Everything is connected. Aristotle and Alexander wanted to spread Hellenistic culture throughout the world because they considered it to be the pinnacle of human civilization at that time. However, you can not spread good ideas in bad ways just as you can never prevent war by waging other wars or build peace through conflict.

These are simple concepts that everybody understands and because I care about the world as well as about my own nation, I can do something although I think I will never be able to do anything about the Americans.

Instead, maybe what we can do here in Armenia is to set an example for the Americans and for the English to follow. This is our vision. The Armenian nation was created by God and even though we have experienced a terrible history we still continue to exist in order to fulfill our purpose. It was only when Armenians accepted Christianity that we started to develop as a nation. The Armenian alphabet was created, for example, and before then, Armenia had always been under the influence of other cultures whether that be Persian or Hellenistic.

Being Armenian is in our blood and in our souls. We think differently from other nations and this is also connected to the adoption of Christianity. This land was where civilization started and the history of the Aryans and the Semites is closely connected to that of Armenia and Ararat. We could connect with Christianity easily because there is a mental and cultural connection to it. The main priority now is to realize Armenia again rather than be concerned with all this talk of integration with Europe or being close to Russia .

All we need to do is to realize our purpose in life. We need to build a genuine Christian society although not a theocracy. The Church must be a school for coming generations. There should be no control because you can never achieve anything by force. We should be free to choose and to understand that all of our problems can be solved through Christ.