It’s 1980 in the Tower District of Fresno, and what kids do in this neighborhood is get into gang fights, smoke cigarettes, and skip school. What I used to do was listen to the radio and hands write my own newspapers. Like many of you, I developed a taste for pop music early in life, and songs became personal sign posts as I navigated through life. Where were you when you heard “Billie Jean is not my lover?”
When I hear Adiss Harmandian, I think of my Dad taking me to Adiss’ record store in Bourj Hammoud to buy vinyl 45’s. Back then, lyrics didn’t get any better than “Char lezooneri havadatz eem yareh, artzoonknerov letzvets sev sev achere.”
Now when I hear “Summer lovin’ had me a blast, Summer lovin’, happened so fast,” I remember my friend, the late Mary Sahatjian, who gave me a copy of the “Grease” motion picture soundtrack on a cassette tape in 1976. I spent months playing the album on the shoebox-sized cassette-recorder that my aunt Sirvart had bought me so I could interview people.
Mary’s younger sister Marjorie was usually my guest interviewee, as was my most special guest one summer, my Dad’s aunt Elmas Chaderjian. Elmas had survived the genocide, escaped to Chicago, and married my Dad’s paternal uncle.
When I hear “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” I think of Fort Miller Middle School. Evita was the first and perhaps only musical I took a liking to, but it taught me how songs could tell great stories. When I heard Evita on the 1979 Tony Awards, I took the bus to Tower Records to buy the Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin recording.
Then I discovered Streisand in high school. Yentl was a masterpiece for me as were its lyrics and music. But I forgot Yentl when I discovered “The Cure” and “Depeche Mode” (Depress Mode) in college. “Oh I miss the kiss of treachery, the shameless kiss of vanity, the soft and the black and the velvety up tight against the side of me.”
Then came Nune Yesayan. Nune marked the return of my interest in Armenian music when Horizon TV executive producer Garbis Titizian brought from Armenia a video of Nune singing “Kele Lao” a capella.
On the TV screen on the second floor of the old Asbarez building in Glendale was this woman standing in front of a microphone, beckoning me and my community of displaced Armenians to return to the homeland.
The year was 1990, and Horizon TV producer Ara Madzounian coupled Nune’s performance with the haunting black-and-white images from Artavazd Peleshyan’s film “The Seasons,” and the music and images mesmerized me and still do.
Nune’s performance of “Kele Lao” paved the way for an eventual meeting and interview with her in 1998, and a life-long awe of her voice singing Armenian lyrics. To this day, Nune’s voice is my only answer to anyone’s question about where home is for me. Home is not the homeland, not Los Angeles or Fresno, and not my native Beirut. Home to me is Nune Yesayan’s voice. “Kele yertank mer yergir” in notes and with the duduk is far more mythical than was my actual return to the homeland.
When I was in the homeland in 2006, working as a news anchor and talk show host for Armenia TV, I curiously reported on the selection process for Armenia’s first entry into the Eurovision Song Contest. I loved our music and wanted us to share it with the world.
The artist chosen by H1 State Television to represent Armenia in some 160 million homes around Europe was Andre Hovnanyan, a singer who had grown up in front of the cameras as a solo with an Artsakh (Karabagh) choir.
Andre’s music video “Mi Boud Choor” (Drop of Water) was very popular at the time, as was his first album. The video on all the Armenian channels was made of images with Andre in the role of Komitas. Dressed in a white hospital gown, our legendary chronicler of Armenian music was losing his mind, having just seen corpses in the burning orchards of Western Armenia.
Andre scored big during Armenia’s debut on Eurovision and garnered a top-10 spot by having enough viewers vote for him in their respective countries. It was an exciting moment for Armenia, for Armenian artists, and for this Anteliatsi-Sepastatsi-Erzurumtsi-Fresnotsi news anchor from New York watching all this on live television in Yerevan.
The following years brought Haiko, Inga and Anush, and Sirusho Harutyunyan to world audiences. All three were popular, established talents in the homeland and in our diaspora. All were big winners, all in the top-10. Sirusho’s “Qele Qele” was my favorite Armenian entry to Eurovision. She was hot. The music was hot thanks to the Canadian repatriate producer Der Hova. The beat was fun. I was giddy.
But one thing all our entries lacked was sophisticated lyric-writing. Even simple pedestrian poetry was missing. Their lyrics were, in some cases, worse than the poetry my fellow seventh graders wrote in Mrs. Dias’ poetry workshops.
“Instead of watching me, you should be reaching me,” were the words to “Qele Qele.” All the lines in the Sirusho song seemed to end with the word “me.”
Sirusho reminded me of Tina Karol, and she belted out the song like the best of them. She could have taken first place if she was given better words than what sounded like an AT&T long distance commercial.
Meanwhile Inga and Anush’s “Jan Jan” got my personal medal for worst lyrics to date with, “How can I stay, when you are away? What can I say, if you gonna tell me nothing? How can I be without me? Without me, we cannot be.”
We in Armenia obviously understand the English language, but don’t understand song-writing in English. Here’s a thought, why don’t we reach out to the likes of Charles Aznavour? Why not invite Armenian Michel Legrand and his writing buddies Allan and Marilynn Bergman (remember Yentl?).
But alas, we have arrived. Eurovison, my homeland’s showcase of talent and culture on millions of European TV screens. It’s a huge opportunity for us as a fairly unknown and small nation of artists. We’ve done good for a people who were once known as embattled Christians, then starving Armenians, then terrorists, and now oligarchs of corruption, criminals, and thugs.
Now the world can see us at our best and not ignore us like our people who ignore their ethnicity. When I was growing up in Fresno, the so-called “Armenian Town,” hardly anyone of the kids I went to school with knew what Armenians were or where they came from.
Sure, my teachers knew Saroyan, but nothing else. A fellow Armenian student who was in my English class said, “So what,” when I exclaimed with joy that she was Armenian.
Red Riding Hood
Imagine my near heart attack at that response from this random Armenian-surnamed classmate in Fresno. My chest hurt as much when I read an entry on Groong a few weeks ago; a newspaper in Finland reported that a non-Armenian married to an Armenian in California had won the bid to represent Armenia in Eurovision with a song about Red Riding Hood.
The idea was so gross and absurd in so many ways that I quickly wrote to my friends at H1, the Armenian Public Television, to verify the report.
My anger subsided when my friends in Yerevan reported they had never heard of this nobody Finnish-Californian who had the audacity to claim she was representing my culture. I’m sure she’s a talented and lovely lady, but she had never lived in Armenia, the song had nothing to do with Armenia or “Armenianness,” and it was a straight forward rock song with not even the requisite Armenian instruments.
Conspiracy theorists, maybe the news item from Finland was a test. Maybe those behind the scenes, in the dark shadows, wanted to see how angry Armenians would be if the ruling elite sent a non-Armenian with a non-Armenian song to Eurovision.
Some strict rules must be made over who is allowed to sing on behalf of my homeland and whose music should be the soundtrack of important events like the somber commemoration of the 90th—and any—anniversary of the genocide.
Let’s not try to change our national anthem again, please?
Deck the Halls with Disney
Were you there on April 24, 2005, when the music broadcasting from the speakers at Dzidzernagapert for dozens of hours was this god-awful, humiliating, Lifetime Movies or Disney musical score with its wah-wah organ pedals and fake keyboard instruments, and the most sophomoric lyrics and melody heard in history?
The non-Armenian performer was presented to the Armenian media as a great American star and somehow managed to finagle and hijack away from Komitas, Khatchadourian, Lucine Zakarian, and Armenian symphonies and philharmonics their cultural birthrights to externalize our internal heartbreak as millions of us made a pilgrimage to the Genocide Memorial.
Local news stations in Yerevan told us, very subjectively, that we were supposed to be in awe of this man, who supposedly had no connections to our people and had come all the way to Yerevan to sing about our losses. But it turned out it was all a big PR scam, and he was married to an Armenian. She had been his in.
How many times did my stomach turn on that April 24 when I heard these lyrics: “Keepers of the sword, marched in one accord, Striking down the weak, without a single word.” And even the melody was so simplistic, like something my fifth grade class at Ridgeway Elementary played on our recorders (internal duct flutes). The melody of “Three Blind Mice” was more sophisticated than our newly discovered national treasure called “Adana.”
There should be public hearings to determine what gets played for the masses in future commemorations, so that grand faux pas don’t happen to us again while we come together as one global people to observe the genocide.
Makes you think, does anyone in the Armenian government or Cultural Ministry have a sense of art or pop culture, any taste? How does a virtually unknown person from the U.S. and now Finland and Rostov-on-Don hijack a significant moment in our history, so that they can go back to their careers elsewhere with more notches on their bedposts?
We are “odar-a-mol” my Dad used to say; we are addicted to non-Armenian things and cherish foreigners more that what we do what’s ours.
And what happened to the three million artists living in the homeland? We can’t find a song from our own people to play during genocide commemorations or to represent us at Eurovision? And if we couldn’t and wanted to invite the diaspora, why weren’t Armenia-natives Mihran and Emmy chosen to represent us at Eurovision? It was their time, and it was their birthright.
But even before considering diasporans, we should have and still should send Nune Yesayan and Shushan Petrosyan to Eurovision. They’re still young and they’re talented.
From our diasporan pool, we have the likes of Parik Nazarian, Eve Beglarian, or the Armenian Navy Band. We have people like Serj Tankian for God’s sake.
At least we’ll know these sons and daughters of our culture live and breathe the Armenian experience, keep their Armenian names, speak their language, and deserve the opportunity to represent us more than a Finnish-American with an Armenia surname-through-marriage and a non-Armenian rock song about Little Red Riding Hood.
That was then, and this is now when suddenly out of nowhere, an unknown but tall and beautiful half-Armenian named Eva Rivas from Russia gets to represent you and our culture throughout some 155 million homes, singing another sophomoric set of lyrics.
When I first heard of this year’s entry to Eurovision, the song was one of a handful of nominees. I was rooting for Mihran and Emmy, but I did notice that Eva looks like Angelina Jolie.
At first I thought she was singing “apricots don’t” and was confused until I Googled the lyrics and found out she was saying “apricot stones.” Par for the course, our Eurovision entrants really need to address their pronunciation and diction. We should be able to understand someone saying “stone,” and not hear “don’t.”
“Apricot Stone”—which apparently is about the apricot pit—is a catchy song, but you can’t call it an Armenian song. It’s Flamenco, it’s Gypsy, it’s Arabic and Turkish and maybe even Greek.
The use of a zurna, dhol, and duduk in a song doesn’t automatically mean the song is Armenian. Didn’t Komitas and Sayat Nova teach us anything about our unique musical styles, tones, and chords? Didn’t our Cultural Ministry or the gate-keepers at H1 take music classes in school or at university?
On the plus side, the song has an interesting Armenian (or should we say universal?) intellectual theme about returning to one’s roots. I guess that’s not specifically Armenian, though it fits our mindset.
But with lyrics like “when I was going to lose my fun and I began to cry a lot,” who in the world can take our art and culture seriously? Especially when the likes of Celine Dion (1988), Tina Karol and Mihai Traistario (2006), and ABBA (1974) have been previous contestants. Google Traistario’s “Tornero” or Karol’s “Show Me Your Love” to see Romania’s and Ukraine’s mesmerizing entries during Armenia’s debut year.
Yes, Eva is very easy on the eyes. Her long, flowing hair reminds me of our ancient princesses and queens. She reminds me of that legendary Armenian heroine who used her long hair as a sling to throw stones while fighting off the enemy. She’ll play the part well, but whose part is she playing?
Whether our Eurovision 2010 song is an Armenian song or not, it’s our national entry; and if you listen to “Apricot Stone” twice, it grows on you. You want to hear it again. You want to hit the repeat key.
Perhaps H1 has found a first-place winner this year. But someone please explain to me the meaning of “But I was too scared to lose my fun, I began to cry a lot, And she gave me apricots. And I’ve got an avatar, Of my love to keep me warm, Now I’m not afraid of violent winds.”
Now all we can do is wait until May and see how active our Euro-Armenian activists can be with their cell phones and how many votes our “Armenian” entry wins.
What we don’t have in lyric-writing talent, we can make up for by our passion for all things Armenian.
That ought to land Eva in the top-10 again, and why not at number 1? It’s a popularity contest after all, and we have millions of Euro-Armenians who can call-in and vote.
Just remember what they say about eating too many apricots…