Special for the Armenian Weekly
At 11 years old, I couldn’t have been more proud to know the alphabet. Not my ABCs, but my “ayp, pen, kims.” It was Armenian class. Finally, I could string together letters to form words, and it felt like my recent progression from notes to scales on my saxophone. People listen to music though, not scales. Spontaneously composing scales into melodies—jazz’s famed “improv”—takes something extra: inspiration.
I thought I might find that inspiration in Armenia when I traveled there last summer with the Fuller Center for Housing. I had pored over my new dictionary in preparation, but when faced with the chorus of Armenian at the hotel, I found a flashback instead of inspiration: 7th grade, my first day at jazz camp. Offered my first improvised solo, I gulped for fear of wrong notes and shirked the opportunity. Now in Armenia I feared wrong words, so back to the dictionary I went.
At the village of our first work site, I joined the rest of the English-speakers and let the translator handle communication. An hour into the work, a young village boy jumped in line next to me. With the translator nowhere in sight, I timidly employed my stock conversation-starters and broke the silence. He told me he was Merujan, a 12-year-old from down the road. I probed him further, and soon we fell into the rhythm of conversation. As I transitioned from stock phrases to my own improvised melodies, I sensed my latent vocabulary burgeoning into fluency. Suddenly our harmonies grew dissonant as Merujan, countenance contorted in discomfiture, eeked out a distressed voch. I’d only asked him his favorite food, yet it shocked him into silence. I pressed the question, but the music had ceased.
When I told my story to the translator, I learned I had been tormenting poor Merujan with inquiries not about his favorite food, but about his lover’s food! As on that first day at jazz camp, my first impulse was to go back to studying my scales, but I stopped myself. I would never call Merujan my friend—eem ungeruh—by waiting for the words to compose themselves. As I had discovered at jazz camp, eventually you have to take a solo if you want to jam with the band, even if you get lost in the changes and land on a tritone (ouch!).
I resolved to apologize to Merujan and start afresh the next day but, to my relief, he seemed to have forgotten my embarrassing malapropism. Rather, he eagerly ran over to work on the house with me, and we passed the entire day chatting as we laid bricks. I still made mistakes, but Merujan saw my inexperience and helped teach me, though stifling chuckles. At the end of the week, Merujan gave me his address and asked that I keep in touch. When we said goodbye afterwards, we did so as friends of the same tongue. By putting down the books and improvising my own melodies of Armenian, I will forever remember Merujan as eem ungeruh.
Andrew Ylitalo is a freshman at Stanford University, where he will (most likely) study physics and chemical engineering. He hails from Minnesota, where he spent a lot of time in math competitions, science fairs, and jazz band rehearsals. He was also involved in the small Armenian community at St. Sahag Church in St. Paul, through which he learned Armenian, became a subdeacon, and traveled to Armenia. He is currently a member of the Armenian Students’ Association at Stanford and a subdeacon at St. Andrew’s Armenian Church in Cupertino. He hopes to one day become a professor and combine his two passions—physics and education.