Beyond Preservation: Element Band Creates Bridge to Our Past, Bridge to the Future, Bridge to the World

I spent a recent afternoon at the Armenian Home in Flushing, N.Y., interviewing three Armenian Genocide survivors. In the four years that I have been doing these yearly interviews, the number of survivors in the home has dropped from nine to three. This trend is inevitable, but as I see one less face each year, the same questions continue to trouble me. Will our quest for acknowledgement and justice be as effective when there are no survivors left? Did these survivors teach their children about their Armenian identity and culture? Will future generations be able to carry on with the struggles of maintaining our heritage?

With each passing year and the loss of another genocide survivor, we drift further away from Anatolia, and further away from our culture, our history, and our roots. As a Diasporan Armenian, one of my biggest fears for the future of our community in the United States and abroad is the loss of our Armenian sense of self. I worry that our 3,000-year-old history will not be carried forward to future generations and that our remarkable songs, language, and cultural traditions will slowly dissipate and eventually become untraceable. But from time to time my concerns are assuaged, and after attending a recent performance of the L.A.- based world music group Element Band, I realized that if anything, our music will certainly survive in years to come.

Having listened to Element Band’s music—best described as a fusion of Armenian folk, Mediterranean, and Latin music, with a hint of Flamenco, Tango, and Rembetika sounds—over the past couple of years, I finally had the opportunity to see them perform live last month in Englewood, N.J. This performance marked their first East Coast tour, which included stops in Boston and Washington, D.C., for a cultural event organized by Hamazkayin Eastern USA to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the independence of the Republic of Armenia.

Founded in 2005 by musical director and composer Ara Dabandjian, the group has made waves on the world music scene during its brief history. The nine versatile musicians, each talented in their own right, include Ara Dabandjian (accordion, guitar, oud); Shant Mahserejian (violin, mandolin); Soseh Keshishyan (vocals, guitar); Heibert Sarian (vocals, piano); Karni Hadidian (vocals, piano); Krikor Sarafian (guitar); Roman Samokish (bass); and Armen Meshefejian (drums/percussion). The band has certainly made a name for itself, having performed in such high-profile venues as Los Angeles’s Ford Amphitheatre and the Skirball Cultural Center, as part of their acclaimed Sunset Concerts series. Their multilingual repertoire ranges from Spanish and French to Arabic, Persian, Portuguese, English, and Armenian.

Element Band’s masterful navigation between cultures and musical styles has made it possible for them to bring Armenian music to a global audience, and to inspire young Armenians to explore their musical heritage. In just a few short years, Element Band has resurrected and modernized traditional Armenian songs for the next generation of Armenians.

“The idea was to take all Armenian songs and make it palatable to non-Armenians and the young generation of Armenians,” Dabandjian told me in an interview after the band’s performance in Englewood. “And I’m happy to say it’s worked so far.”

When I first heard the group’s inaugural album, “Yev O Phe,” released in 2006, feelings of nostalgia washed over me. Many of the songs, including “Anush Hayreniq” and “Sareri Hovin Mernem,” were ones I would sing as a child in Armenian School on Saturday afternoons. Another one that held meaning to me personally was “Nubar, Nubar,” a song I had not heard for over 20 years, and one that my grandmother, a genocide survivor, would sing to me as a little girl. It is safe to say that had Element Band not recorded these songs, I very well may have never heard them again. Living in a country that prides itself on assimilation, the Armenian identity is just as—if not more—vulnerable to succumbing to a mass culture, and Element Band has indeed ensured the survival of Armenian music in the diaspora.

“We did not want to take the Armenian soul out [of the songs], but to add a twist that makes it more modernized,” said Dabandjian.

The band also provides young people with a sense of cultural responsibility. The fact that the members of Element Band, motivated solely by their connection and dedication to their Armenian roots, took the time to learn these Armenian folk songs and put their own unique stamp on it, awakens us to do our own part in preserving our rich heritage.

But to say that Element Band has succeeded only in preserving traditional Armenian music would be selling them short and missing the point of the broader context of the group’s existence. While their first album featured only traditional Armenian music, their second, “Oo” (2009), incorporated international hits as well, including the famous Persian love song “Soltane Ghalba”(King of Hearts), the traditional Spanish Christmas carol “Los Peces” (The Fishes in the River), and the Greek folk song “Oso Varoon” (As the Iron Bars Clash). Opening themselves up to the rest of the world helped expose Armenian culture to a wider audience.

“My goal has always been to serve Armenian music to non-Armenians,” said Dabandjian. He added that the group didn’t start with world music but felt that “with our second album, it was time for me to introduce non-Armenian songs we always wanted to do.” In fact, Dabandjian plans to go even “more world” with his band, fulfilling his vision. “I think the world needs to hear our music.”

World music stations in L.A. already play Element Band’s tracks on the air and the group has acquired a significant non-Armenian following, some of whom were in the audience during the group’s East Coast concerts. “We have to open our eyes and minds and to look toward the future and be proud that non-Armenians appreciate Armenian culture and our music,” said Dabandjian.

On an unlikely warm evening in March, I sat alongside a sold-out audience and listened intently to Element Band’s energetic, raw, and emotional performance of 20 back-to-back songs. From “Noune” to “Guantanamera” to “Bingyol,” I watched the performers, in awe of their musical talents and proud that these musicians on stage were like me, Diasporan Armenians. Most importantly, they weren’t only Armenian by name. They emanated their Armenian-ness with an energy as contagious as the beat in “Sari Siroun Yar.”

And while I sat in the living room of the Armenian Home last Sunday, worried about what would happen when we lost our genocide survivors, I thought back to Element Band’s performance and my subsequent conversation with Dabandjian, and realized that there is hope after all.

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Taleen Babayan

Taleen Babayan earned her masters in journalism from Columbia University in 2008 and her bachelors degree in history and international relations from Tufts University in 2006. Her work has been published widely in both Armenian and non-Armenian media. She can be contacted at [email protected]

18 Comments

  1. I too worry about the complete loss of the Survivors.  Many of us heard the stories, the grief, and the sorrow of our parents and grandparents who survived those dark days.  But soon, even we who heard their stories in our EARS, will pass from this Earth as well, and I wonder if the cycle of Genocide Denial will have been completed. 

  2. And I see the glass as half full… we are as the 2nd, the 3rd, and the 4th generations who are still 
    aware and in pursuit of justice for the Turkish Genocide of the Armenian nation. I see it as amazing that nearly 100 years later-Hai Tahd is alive and well.  And, Turks show themselves for what they are.
    Nice ‘talking’ with you via the internet… 2nd, 3rd, 4thers…. Manooshag

  3. Element Band provides every community with cultural preservation, above and beyond healthy entertainment. They deserve institutional support in order to expand this service to not just Armenians, but all of humanity. I highly commend Ara Dabandjian and his brilliant band members in this endeavour. R. Tachdjian

  4. What worries me more is that we are chasing a dream. one that isn’t even ours!

    I am a first generation American. My parents were first generation children from Egypt and Turkey. How far back do I have to go to find relatives living in “Armenia”.

    Well it depends. Which Armenia are we talking about? Armenia, SSR or Eastern Anatolia? Because if it’s the latter, that was “Armenia” only by proxy.

    After so many centuries of Ottoman rule, how much of our culture is truly our own? how can two people co-exist (albeit in an unfair and one-sided system) and not intermingle their cultures.

    What does it mean to be armenian in the 21st century?

    The only answer I can come up with is to, “Look towards the Jews”, but that just gets me into a conversation with peers that inevitably leads to an anti-semitic discussion.

    What defines “armenian-ness”? Religion? Please, there are billions of christians around the world. Our contribution to christianity is a historical foot note. What have you done for me lately?

    Culture? We don’t even have a firm grasp of what Armenian culture is? perhaps it is more fair to say that we should be constantly re-inventing what it means to be an armenian rather than forcing old views and ideas on the new generations.

    Language? Yes. But since when has language been the singular pedestal or foundation upon which you can build a cultural identity.

    What then? What have armenians done for the world lately? And don’t take out the genocide violin and tell me about the odds against us.

    Maybe I have an inferiority complex? Perhaps I’m deluded? If so, help me understand.

  5. Dear  Taleen,
    Quite  an insightful post,that  of yours. Fact  is, you have touched on a few  important issues that ought to be considered  very seriously by the Armenian public at large.
    Indeed as well as our intellectuals/politicians  alike. i shall name  these.-
    1.To preserve-after our genocide survivors are gone,THEIR LEGACY, a must indeed.
    2.How? not just by recordings of their narrations or our historians´publishing books.
    3.Music does also play an important role-especially -the type above described.
    All three components are complementary of each other.However,I would like to stress.-
    ASIDE FROM FORGING AHEAD  WITH OUR QUEST FOR JUSTICE-HAY TAHD-WE SHOULD ALSO MAINTAIN VERY CLOSE  TIES  , I REPEAT  VERY CLOSE TIES WITH OUR PRESENT DAY REPUBLIC  OF ARMENIA AND ABOVE ALL  LIBERATED  ARTSAKH,AS WELL AS JAVAKHK.
    In  this connection AVC, Birthright, ARF, AGBU and possibly others take upon themselves organizing  Armenian youth pilgrimage to Republic of Armenia/Artsakh.
    Diaspora  Ministry has come forth with slogan ARI DUN,probably incognizant  of the fact  that  these organizations  HAVE BEEN DOING THAT  SINCE more a a dozen years.
    We must prepare  for A  REPATRIATION  ON BIG SCALE, in order to repopulate LANDS LIBERATED AND LANDS ABANDONED  EVEN IN ARMENIAN REPUBLIC, by job seekers and /or those  who left for good for  these shores.
    Don´t be surprised  if I tell you THIS CAN BE REALIZED. EVERYTHING DEPENDS  ON US.OR WE DO IT OR WE DON´T AND CONTINUE  THE PETRIFIED  PRESENT STATUS QUO.
    bY RE-ORGANIZING OUR DIASPORA(S) AROUND MORE  THAN A 100,000  PROFESSIONAL COLLEAGUES  ASSOCIATIONS  MEMBERS, then through  these good people  …
    A  NATIONAL  INVESTMENT TRUST FUND, GOVERNED   AND ESTABLISHED BY OUR 5/6 MAGNATES,THROUGH THEIR MONETARY EXPERTS, WE CAN INDEED REALIZE  IT.
    OTHERWISE…i DO COMMEND  WHAT  YOU YOUNG PEOPLE ARE DOING.
    fACT  IS IRERSPECTIVE OF WHAT  I JUST WROTE I HAVE INVITED A TALENTED ARMENIAN YOUNG LADY VIOLIN  AND MUSIC EXPERT TO COME TO OUR HOUSE  WITH HER FIANCEE, WHEN I SHALL SING  2 VERY OLD SONGS  THAT  MY MOTHER TAUGHT ME WHEN I WAS BED RIDDEN.SHE SANG IN TBILIS OPERA,BEFORE  MARRYING MY FATHER. SHE WAS AN ORPHAN WITH BROTHER  OF THE MASSACRES,HER PARENTS PERISHED.
    KIND RGDS

  6. To Armen
    Dear Armen.For your  and others´info, Armenians  even under the heavy yolk of the ottoman turks,their harsh treatments  of our ancestors  there ON WESTERN ARMENIA,for that was from beginning Armenian the seljukTatar Mongol turks came in much later.. 
    DID ACHIEVE  QUITE A BIT. MY FATHER FROM KARIN(€rzerum) attended the Sanasarian school, where  he learnt perfect Armenian,turkish and French, graduating with gold medal,then age 17 went to Constantinople to earn monies to send back home to 5 minor syblings and parents.Two yrs ago Prof. Richard g. hovaniassian here  in fL ata a symposium was signing away his new series  of books  on allWESTERN ARMENIAN PROVINCES.I  knew him previous Conferences, especially one  3 yrs ago when he showed slides  of his ..visiting all Armenian -nearly provinces  thereat of relics  stones  on which armenian was carved etc.,
    Myu point  is that even from those Provincial Towns  Armenians , went to Constantinople Now Istabulla adn there..git a load  of this now my friend Armenians developed  BEST  OF LINGUISTIC, HISTORY, POETRY AND YOU NAME IT CULTURE IN ALL SENSE  OF THE WORLD INCLUDING MUSIC…
    THENCE YOU CANNOT SAY  ARMENIANS LACKED-OR TO THAT EFFECT- CULTURE…
    QUITE THE CONTRARY…WESTERN ARMENIAN IS SO RICH IN ESSENCE  THAT IT CANNOT BE SURPASSED  BY ANY OTHER LANGUAGE.
    Now  then to your queries:What  does it  MEAN TO BE ARMENIAN IN 21ST CENTURY?
    it means we have accomplishsed being a soverign State/Nation amongst   others.
    What  is Armenian  ness(wrong word) even armenianism  even  worsse-unfortunately so used. We should use  ARMENITY WHICH IS LIKE SAYING ARMENIDAD(SPANISH)comunidad, and so forthe  ISM  is bad, reminds  us of  others such like Fascism Nazism, comunism etc,
    We can and we should continue our quest  for  much  more to have all the components  of a small but well advanced(which it partially quite  partially is) in that  ambient of turco azeris…so take pride, please, and say to your non Armenians friends we do have a small patria.Country  of our ancestors  we  cherish and wish it to progress and achieve.

  7. Armen:
    re: “Maybe I have an inferiority complex? Perhaps I’m deluded? If so, help me understand.

    Mr. Palandjian has some excellent input for you: please make an effort to read and contemplate.
    (his prose is a little hard to read, but you have to  ‘cut him some slack’: he’s 80 years young.)
    (has a lot of wisdom to impart to the young’ns, if you can extract it from his posts)
     
     
    My input is this: no one can help you understand – other than yourself.
    You have to take the time and make an effort to read Armenian history – from proto-Armenians 4-5 thousand years ago to present.
    Read it all: the good, the bad, the ugly – and then the beautiful, the heroic, the magnificent.
    Compare Armenians to other nations: but be careful – you have to compare the two in similar environments, circumstances.
     
    Then decide for yourself if Armenians are truly the magnificent people that I absolutely believe  we are.
     
    NOTEs:
    ‘Eastern Anatolia’ is a Turkish propaganda term: it’s Western Armenia and Armenian Highlands.
    You are right that, unfortunately, Armenians have picked up lots of Asiatic/Ottoman customs.
    Some of the disgusting ռաբիզ music being blasted from beemers cruising around Glendale is clearly Asiatic/Turkic – not  remotely Armenian. (you want beautiful, modern Armenian music ? – Element band)
    The ubiquitous shish-kebab is clearly nomadic – as in, what is easier than slaughtering a sheep in the middle of the  steppes, building a fire, and skewering chunks of meat on an arrow ?
    And, even more galling, thousand year old Turkic nomadic tribes have adopted/co-opted/stolen our refined genes and culture of 4-5 thousand years and are presenting it to the world as ‘Turkish’.
    So we all have a lot of work to do – to culturally cleanse ourselves, and reclaim what is ours.
     


  8. @Armen:  What then? What have armenians done for the world lately? And don’t take out the genocide violin and tell me about the odds against us.

    Just google it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Russian_Armenians 
    Artem Mikoyan, designer of MiG aircraft. Mikoyan’s fighters showed 55 world records. The Mikoyan MiG-19 was the first supersonic Soviet jet fighter
    Viktor Ambartsumian, one of the founders of theoretical astrophysics
    Sergei Adian – one of the most prominent soviet mathematicians[1]
    Abraham Alikhanov, Soviet physicist, one of the founders of nuclear physics in USSR, founder of the first nuclear reactor of USSR
    Tateos Agekian, astrophysicist, one of the pioneers of Stellar Dynamics
    Gurgen Askaryan, physicist, inventor of light self focusing
    Boris Babaian, the father of supercomputing in the former Soviet Union and Russia. Second European to hold the Intel Fellow title
    Mikhail Chailakhyan, founder of hormonal theory of plant development
    Andronik Iosifyan, a great scientist and inventor, the father of electromechanics in USSR, designer of the first meteorological satellites of Earth and one of the founders of missilery. Iosifyan was one of the most outstanding figures in the field of military and rocket production. Being the founder and first director of the USSR’s largest scientific research institute of electro-mechanics, Iosifyan for about thirty years was the USSR’s “classified” Chief Constructor of electrical equipment of ballistic rockets, nuclear submarines and spacecrafts. One of his most important inventions, noncontact synchronized transmissions, considered a revolution in technology[2][3][4][5][6]
    Semyon Kirlian, founder of Kirlian Photography, discovered that living matter is emitting energy fields.
    Ivan Knuniants, chemist, Major General, four times an awardee of the USSR State Award. In chemical science he introduced historical changes and significantly contributed to the advancement of Soviet Chemistry. Founder of Soviet school of fluorocarbon’s chemistry, one of major developers of Soviet chemical weapons program
    Alexander Merzhanov, acknowledged leader in the scientific field of combustion and explosion, inventor of the Self-propagating high temperature synthesis (SHS)[7] 
    You can read the rest of the article, and do some research about our contributions in other countries—just google it, it only takes  few seconds.

  9. Dear Avery  and …Armen,
    No one has so courteously hinted at my careless writing-prose.I admit I write badly and many in my circles  have criticized me to that respect. I shall from now  on-my wife,daughter son in law,granddaughter all tell me  that I should compose and write w/care.
    I promise to do so.But  be it known that most  of my real time(writing re Armenian affairs) is on ¨words¨ ,i.e. I write to weeklies, such as  this, Armenian weekly and others for publication.Not always do they publish,since I am not partisan,do not pertain to any Armenian Political party.I respect them all and always prompt my compatriots/friends to do so and tolerate each others´ viewpoints, ideologies too.Since if we aspire to be a civilized people, we ought to do that.Which is THE MOST important key to Progress.
    These  days are important for us.We are once again nearing April 24,our Martyrs Day 96th Anniversary. We must gear up,wherever we are in Diaspora,go unite with all other Armenians in memorializing our dear martyrs. Alongside these events,whether at church,at Monuments depicting the Genocide and/or at Symposiums/Conferences we MUST PARTICIPATE, BE PRESENT TO SHOW THE WORLD  THAT THEY OWE JUSTICE TO OUR PEOPLE.  Otherwise, with few participation we cannot convey to the world what transpired  in  Ottoman Turkey, Kemalist  and or Republic  of Turkey.How they tried to totally annihilate  us from ancestral lands,loot ,confiscate our ancestors riches  and land,properties , ruined  our more a than a thousand monasteries and  churches.
    We shall forge ahead regardless  their machinations for taking  us in.
    I ask you all  on this Forum,please contemplate  on my theses  of A New approach to solving our Cause/Case, by re-organizing the Diaspora(s) through PCA´s and establishment of a  NATIONAL INVESTMENT TRUST  FUND IN GENEVA ,CH.As without massive participation of our heretofore-left untapped- Human resources Prof. Colleagues Associ. members  100,000 strong and their efforts for Nat´l Invest Trust Fund, not much can be achieved. Much due respect to our heretofore and future political parties their offshoots and all of our  compatriotic, benevolent etc., establishmetns.However,this one means  GROUPING  OUR HUGE COLLECTIVITIES  OF HUMAN RESOURCES-WELL ADVANCED IN THEIR RESPECTIVE PROF. AND THROUGH THEM  T  H  E        F  U  N  D.
    For without these two ,frankly, we cannot achieve  much.
    Hama Haigagani SIRO,

  10. Beautiful article Taleen!…it’s great to see a young band such as Element bring back the doubt of loosing a beautiful part of our culture.

  11. Thank  you Hovo for furnishing  us with such a long List  of Armenian artits, writers,performers actors/actresses. Film makers  and a host  of others in the sciences,medicines etc..etc. ONLY SHORT OF OUR MILITARY generals marshals admirals etc.
    We are there all over the world and especially in the topmost areas,above mentioned.
    However, I feel a pain when reading  all about them….
    You know why?
    Simple, while I admire their having served humanity universally, I feel pain  because   we have not (they have  not done what  they achieved,most  of them within a FREE,Independent United  Armenia.
    Hope we can achieve  that  one too

  12. Armen, you asked:

    “What does it mean to be armenian in the 21st century?”

    IMO, it means what it meant in the 20th century, except now there is a more panicked feeling to it all.

    It means a singular and narrow preoccupation that, taken to a particular extreme, becomes dysfunctional and self-defeating.  Just ask all those high school seniors who go for college interviews and talk about nothing but Armenia and Armenian-ness, and end up getting rejection letters because they are not able to show that they have the capacity to self-reflect, think critically, or express passion about anything that’s not connected to their ethnic background. Ask all the graduates from Armenian schools who emerge without a strong command of any language, not Armenian, nor English, nor whatever language is the dominant one.  Ask all those young people who cannot function in social or professional circles that aren’t somehow related to their ethnicity.  We as a people are imploding in on ourselves, and we have no idea it’s happening.   

    We’re at a point where we are no longer able to be impartial in our judgment of others or of ourselves.  This is a very dangerous state of affairs.  It’s like carbon monoxide poisoning.  You don’t know it’s happening until it’s already too late.

    Many will be angered by this post.  That, too, is a function of a collective lack of reality-testing.

  13. ImalEnim I don’t relate to your comments.  Are you describing a common situation in LA/Glendale perhaps?  It certainly isn’t something I have observed east of the Rockies.  In fact, I see young Armenians who are well assimilated into American society and who excel in school and in their careers, who are well informed about their heritage and active in the community.  Balance is possible.

  14. @Boyajian, I don’t think it’s something that exists only West of the Rockies.  I think it exists, perhaps to varying degrees, everywhere.  Community institutions have been extensions of the traditional family structure for a very long time, and in my experience, have tended to discourage external involvement or commitment (similar to not wanting to marry daughters out to non-Armenians).  How would they continue to exist and project themselves into the future if they did otherwise?  An important part of an institution’s functioning has to be self-preservation and propagation of all its parts, especially its hierarchical aspects.  What institutions do to benefit their members are, unfortunately, secondary effects.

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