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.